Out West

Victoria Adams Designs Native American Jewelry

Horse story bracelet

California jewelry designer Victoria Adams finds inspiration all over the West and through horses and her Native American heritage.

Victoria Adams is widely lauded for her stunning jewelry designs featuring unique combinations of color, texture and materials. Juxtaposing precious metals, gemstones and fossils with plant, animal and human forms, she expresses her Native American heritage, experiences and values through in her jewelry designs.

Growing up in Northern California she led a creative, hands-on family life.

“I was very outgoing and always doing and fixing things. My mother and father did everything with their hands,” she says. “My father was a ‘don’t buy it, let’s build it’ kind of person. He was a cabinetmaker and a metalsmith and did all types of mechanical engineering.”

Adams’ metalsmithing background drew her to the world of fine metals and their formation. She studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts, both in San Francisco, California. She later apprenticed with goldsmith William Burke in Mill Valley, California.

Story bracelet by Victoria Adams
Victoria Adams’ ties to horses, the West and her Native American heritage are reflected in this story bracelet.
Photo courtesy of Victoria Adams

Culture and Craftsmanship Combine

The late 1970s and 1980s were a productive time for the emerging artist. As her Western roots called to her, she gained prominence with cowboy-types and collectors in the 1980s through her intricately engraved and individual—sometimes whimsical—pieces, especially her one-of-kind buckle sets. It was a time when the cowboy crafts—silversmithing, bit making, leather crafting and boot building—were being recognized by a broader audience, and Adams’ designs were quite original and unique.

“I think I was such an oddball then,” she remembers. “I was a woman engraver and I didn’t care what kind of egos the men had. I just wanted to learn. It was a great time in my life, and I was treated so well by very prominent makers like Chuck Stormes, Mark Drain, Mark Dahl and the late Dan Murray.”

Buckle set by Victoria Adams
Adams designed this buckle set in the 1980s, using the techniques she learned from master makers.
Photo courtesy of Victoria Adams

In the ’80s, she became an introspective artist as her Native American heritage became very important to her and her jewelry designs.

“I was raised with a lot of knowledge about my Cheyenne-Arapaho background, but I was not raised around the reservation. So that was my big treat to myself, starting in my 30s, to hang out with my relatives and learn more about my Native background,” she says. “I started becoming involved in really different ways. My aunts taught me how to do beadwork. I started dancing. I danced competitively at powwows and intertribal events, and created fully hand-tanned, ceremonial buckskin dresses. So when I started going to the reservation and involving myself in the traditional religion and culture, it was very releasing for me. It’s like I lost a lot of fear. And that’s when I could really feel the transition into different work.”

Adams takes her Native American heritage very seriously, as she does the craftsmanship involved in her jewelry designs and its roots in Cheyenne tribal art.

“Creating items of personal adornment from metals became a Cheyenne art form just prior to the Civil War,” she explains. “Traders venturing to the central and southern plains introduced German silver (nickel) from the northeastern states, hence the flourishing of metal arts among the peoples of the Great Plains.”

Native American necklace and earrings set by Victoria Adams
Creating pieces of wearable metal art is a Cheyenne tribal tradition Adams carries on today.
Photo courtesy of Victoria Adams

A Natural Connection

Inspiration has always come from what she sees around her in the natural world, and being outside is an intrinsic part of her jewelry design process. It’s better when she is horseback.

“My horses are a tie for me to the natural world,” she says seriously, “and honestly, my creativity can be adversely affected if I am not around them. So my horses, sightings of dear, antelope, birds, bugs and berries can set one day very much apart from another.”

These inspirations, combined with tribal traditions of telling stories and passing them down, led to her to reconsider her work in the mid-1980s.

“People seemed to really like my engraving back then,” she remembers, “and those buckle sets were pretty popular, but I felt there was more and my immersion into tribal activities opened my heart as well as my eyes, and my work started to evolve. Cheyenne culture forms were presenting themselves and I started branching out into more individual pieces. Along with that I had a line of production pieces that I was doing that was sold in various galleries. But I found it not what I wanted and focused more on my individual story pieces, pieces that held more meaning in their intent and presentation.”

Story concho belt by Victoria Adams
Each concho on this belt depicts a piece of a story.
Photo courtesy of Victoria Adams

An example would be her take on the classic concho belt, each concho became a tableau featuring some kind of image that told part of a linear story. One might carry a horse, a bird, a pickup truck or even a rocket ship. For Adams, tradition is important and grounding, but it is not static and her story pieces became more visual as evolutionary life depictions.

Hope and Horses

Like the inspiration for her work, Adams has been and lived literally all over the West—from Montana to Santa Fe—most recently settling in Northern California near the Sierra Nevada.

“I finally built the studio I had always wanted and can look out the window and see my horses as I work,” she says.

Victoria Adams makes jewelry in her Northern California shop
Adams is content working in her Northern California studio with a view of her horses and the Sierra Nevada.
Photo courtesy of Victoria Adams

 Currently, she is working in gold, moving away from sterling silver for a bit, and creating more highly detailed pieces.

“This is the first year I did not have Indian Market in Santa Fe, due to the pandemic, but it has not slowed me down as I can work directly with longtime customers, and those relationships are ones that I cherish. They seem to enjoy the pieces that feature my cultural mythology, and I have found that through the years that aspect of my work only grows in importance to me. It centers me and gives me hope, like my horses.”

Jewelry designer Victoria Adams and her horse
Horses are a highlight and centering force in Adams’ life.
Photo courtesy of Victoria Adams

For more information on Adams’ work, visit victoriaadamsjewelry.com.

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