With meticulously cut and inlaid stones and precisely constructed silver masterpieces, jeweler Danny Stewart brings precious metals and stones to life in exquisite works of art. A master of his medium with 50 years in the practice, Danny is widely recognized for his signature style of Southwest-inspired, luxurious silver and inlaid turquoise jewelry. “There’s no way to get more money for jewelry than to sell it as art,” says the New Mexico based jeweler, and that is precisely what he has done.
From humble beginnings, learning his craft from a Cherokee historian in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Danny has spent a lifetime and the entirety of his career perfecting the art of inlay. When asked when his interest in inlay began, he says, “When I first started that’s what got my attention. I saw the King Tut exhibit when it was in San Francisco, and I liked that style of inlay so much I started doing it. Everybody I talked to told me it was too hard. They said you can’t really do that for a living. So of course that made me want to do it even more. Since I’ve been in New Mexico, I’ve been selling my designs faster than I can make them, so things have gone really well for the last 30 years. I live a very quiet life. I work a lot. I pretty much have been living hand to mouth with my jewelry from the beginning, just selling it as soon as I make it.”
The breathtaking Argentium® Silver and turquoise necklace to the right is one of Danny’s most recently completed pieces. Consisting of roughly 890 pieces of silver, 1,600 natural hand-cut turquoise pieces, and 3,000 solder joints, the necklace took him more than 2,000 hours to complete over six years.
“When it came into my mind, the design came in fully formed, like a little picture of it,” he says. “And from that instance until it was finished, there was no compromise to be made; the design had to be followed exactly as it came into my head. It all had to be tremendously disciplined to come out looking right in the end, and it did.”
The piece was recently sold by Malouf on the Plaza, a high-end jewelry boutique in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to a private collector. “When I decided to make this necklace, I wanted to make the biggest, best, most over-the-top piece of Southwest jewelry in silver and turquoise that anyone’s ever done,” Danny says. “And I think I did it.”
Creating a piece this complex in Argentium required skill and an intimate knowledge of the material.
“It’s like dating the devil’s meanest sister,” Danny says. “You have to work it in a more disciplined way. You know, a lot of guys will pick up a torch with one hand and a stick of solder in the other hand and just kind of sling the piece together. You can’t do that with Argentium. Each piece has to be laid out and soldered carefully, brought up to temperature slowly. But when you’re done, you’ve got something that is very resistant to tarnish. When you heat treat it, it’s twice as hard as sterling. So it will really last. It’s a much superior piece when you get done. I flatter myself that people will still be looking at my jewelry in a thousand years.”
Invented in 1996 by Peter Johns of Middlesex University in England, Argentium has quickly caught the attention of jewelers and metalsmiths due to its many appealing qualities. Purer than traditional sterling silver, Argentium® Silver is tarnish resistant, brighter in color, firescale free, and can be heat treated to be harder than sterling. Argentium silver differs from traditional sterling silver in that it includes germanium in the alloy. The germanium forms a transparent oxide on the surface of the Argentium silver, which protects the surface from both firescale and tarnish. Other qualities many jewelers find appealing about the alloy is that it fuses beautifully, welds easily, is more malleable than traditional sterling, and has antibacterial and hypoallergenic properties. Danny chose Argentium for his necklace because, in his words: “You can imagine if those beads were to tarnish black, which they would do in a couple of years. It had to be Argentium. It would have been self-destructing any other way.”
After devoting the last 10 years or so to working with and exploring the properties of Argentium, Danny has indeed become a master of the material. He fabricates intricate structures using hundreds of pieces of Argentium to create the cells that contain his stone inlay. Truly, his jewelry pieces are evidence of his mastery as a silversmith.
While Danny’s silverwork is flawlessly crafted, he confides that 90 percent of what he does is actually cutting stone. He came to New Mexico in 1986, when Native American jewelry was in high demand and his work sold quickly. “I took every penny I made and sunk it into uncut stone,” he says. “And I have probably one of the very best collections of uncut stone to work with that any jeweler has around because I’ve been saving it for 30 years.” Cutting the stone however, is labor intensive and solitary work. “You’ve got this spinning diamond wheel in front of you, and you can imagine the sound that it makes as you’re grinding stones,” he says. “You’ve got to have your face right down in it because the cuts have to be perfect. So all day long I’ve got this screaming machine right in my face. It kind of has an odd effect on you after 20 years. It’s hard for me to listen to anything that’s small, quiet, doesn’t make much noise, because I’m used to hearing such loud noise all the time. I have terrible tinnitus of course. What I do is so difficult and so tedious. It’s also incredibly destructive, since the stone has to be a specific size and shape; whatever else is on the stone has to go. I end up grinding away a lot of stone.” But out of the destruction come works of incredible beauty and permanence, laboriously crafted by a master of metal and stone.
When asked what he plans to work on next, Danny admits his only problem is production. He can’t work fast enough to meet the demand for his work, which is essentially every jeweler’s dream. He can’t hire assistants because by the time they’re skilled enough to do his work, they’re ready for their own business. He does have dreams of making a necklace similar to the one he created in Argentium and turquoise in 18-karat gold and coral. “That would be the belle of the ball!” he exclaims, and confides that, “I have found that the bigger I make the piece and the more expensive it is, the faster it sells. I don’t know what I can make that’s bigger than this though.”