Matthew Charley has spent his entire life around jewelry. Growing up on the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico, Matthew spent his childhood watching his jeweler father create pieces inspired by the animal life around them. “It was just very normal for me,” he says of growing up surrounded by a family of talented silversmiths.
As the family business came naturally to him, Matthew began crafting his own pieces around age 15, dealing with local traders in the nearby city of Gallup and soliciting business from customers in the restaurants and stores around town. ”That’s where I really learned how to talk to my customers and engage with them,” he says.
Starting out selling small $5 pendants around town, Matthew has spent the last decade developing and perfecting his craft as well as growing his business. Expanding from the local scene in Gallup, Matthew began exhibiting his pieces in various Santa Fe galleries and entering his designs in art shows around the state. The networking opportunities at shows like the Santa Fe Indian Market proved invaluable as he developed relationships with customers who spread the word about his craftsmanship and now contact him for commissions.
His pieces, grounded in traditional Navajo designs, are a tribute to his heritage and the Diné art of metalsmithing. Like his father, he is inspired by the natural textures found on the reservation, but for Matthew it is the stone that inspires and informs what the final piece will be. While he has dabbled successfully with gold, Matthew works primarily in silver and high-grade turquoise to create large, complex pieces such as squash blossom necklaces, Concho belts and cuffs that he intricately hand-stamps thousands and thousands of times.
The first piece he ever made with what is now his signature design—high-textured concentric stamp work—was a Concho belt for his sister for her high school graduation. “It’s a tradition to gift new graduates jewelry,” says Matthew. “When Navajo people wear jewelry it gives them confidence, protection; it’s a huge part of their identity. It’s conveying blessings. It’s culture.”
Today, Matthew’s statement pieces have been featured in numerous museums across the country, cited in several publications and awarded multiple blue ribbons at the 2018 Santa Fe Indian Market Show. Matthew attributes his success to believing in himself and remaining true to quality and tradition. “I always knew my worth. As an artist, you have to know your worth if you want to make a living in this industry,” he states.
His biggest challenge currently? Keeping up with the demand. But regardless of how popular his work continues to become, Matthew emphasizes his desire to keep his business a one-man operation. “I want to keep my work exclusively made by me.”
As business continues to grow, RioPro is helping Matthew access tools and materials he can‘t find anywhere else, and even teaching him a technique or two. “It’s like being a kid in a candy store,” he says of visiting Rio Grande and attending a class offered onsite in our Albuquerque facility. Open to learning new techniques and exploring new methods, Matthew is still very much a traditionalist, citing his ball-peen hammer as his most indispensable tool. The eight-year-old hammer is essential to creating the original hand-stamped designs that differentiate his pieces.
Seeing his work featured in publications such as Cowboys & Indians magazine and on Vogue magazine’s website have been defining moments of success for Matthew. Being a jeweler has been his one and only occupation, and he takes pride in the fact that he has always been self-employed. With national recognition and demand has come a sense of self-reliance as he is no longer dependent on anyone but himself. “To be able to express myself in physical form is a blessing and it’s all I‘ve ever really wanted,” he says, adding, “I’m doing what I love, it’s not really work for me.”
To learn more about Matthew Charley, visit matthewcharley.com