Santo Domingo Pubelo, and, therefore, many of its current artists, are inescapably linked to what is known as “heishi,” the literal meaning of which is “shell” and which specifically refers to pieces of shell which have been drilled and ground into beads and strung into necklaces. It is safe to say that this is the oldest form of jewelry in New Mexico, and perhaps even in North America, pre-dating the introduction of metals. Jeanette Calabaza, this month’s featured artist, is a Santo Domingo jeweler proficient in the art of heishi.
Jeanette Calabaza was born to Reyes and Regorio Calabaza on June 1, 1955. She watched her parents make jewelry every day until she was able to help them, which, she tells us, was after school at the age of 15. Initially, Jeanette helped her parents by making turquoise chokers, soon branching out into longer and more complicated pieces, using multiple stones.
Known for her use of olive shell in her heishi necklace and bracelet designs, Jeanette tells us she always uses every stone, no matter how small, to make her jewelry. Before she begins, she envisions each piece in her mind, seeing the stones, their shape and color. She never uses what is known as “block” turquoise, which is cheaper and of less quality, and instead chooses to only use natural stones in her work. Her favorite designs, she says, are those that use a mixture of spiny oyster colors, because they are vibrant and eye-catching.