Chess set gives 'pawn' a new meaning

By Shondiin Silversmith
Navajo Times

GALLUP, August 29, 2013

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I t's all about strategy in the game of chess. In this handcrafted silver version, it's Navajo people vs. trading posts.

It's that inspiration that won Navajo silversmith Tonya June Rafael, 44, from Prewitt, N.M., a first-place ribbon at the 2013 SWAIA Indian Market.

The chess set is called "Let's Make a Deal." Rafael said she named it that because chess is basically a game of negotiation and war.

The chessboard theme came to Rafael when she thought of how Navajo people today will visit pawn shops selling their pieces for much less than they are worth.

Being a silversmith, Rafael said she understands what it means to visit a pawn shops, because there are times when you need to.

"In this game it's like a negotiation game," Rafael said, noting that artists go into pawn shops asking a certain price, but get much less.

"It hurts me to see this going on today with our artwork being bought at a very low price, yet it's their livelihood," Rafael said, adding that she wants people to understand that this is happening when they see her chess set. "It's sad but at the same time it's reality."

Rafael said the chessboard itself was inspired by her son Stephen Tom, 22, because when he was seven years old he was a chess player and thought it'd be cool for her to make a chess set out of silver.

The chessboard is made out of wood, but the squares are made out of silver and all the chess pieces are handcrafted out of silver, standing at least three inches tall.

The chess pieces are made up for two sides, the Navajo people and the trading post people, and each chess piece is uniquely designed for each side.




The pawns for the Navajo side are bracelets, the king is a Navajo man, the queen is a Navajo woman holding a rug, the bishops are made out to be the Ye'ii, the knights are little wagons, and the castles are hogans.

Each of the Navajo chess pieces is adorned with turquoise so players are able to tell them apart from the opposing side.

The trading post pieces are adorned with coral. The pawns are "dead pawn" - bracelets with pawn tickets, the king is the trading post owner holding a cash drawers, the queen is the trader's curly-haired wife, the bishops are churches, the knights are trucks at a gas pump and the castle is the actual trading post with "TP" on the side.

Rafael said each piece was a challenge because there were a lot of mistakes and mishaps creating them.

While making a figuring, "the head would fall off, or the arm," Rafael said, adding that her hands had cuts on them throughout the process.

The chess set took Rafael a year to complete - in fact she completed it at 5 p.m. on Aug. 15, two hours before the SWAIA submission deadline - but while she was making it, she learned how to play chess.

The piece was bought by a couple from Delaware, and Rafael said, laughing, "I told them don't checkmate too hard - it'll dent."

This was the first time Rafael created a chess set, but she grew up around silversmiths, from her late grandparents Tom and Mary Rafael. The first piece she made was a copper ring when she was 10.

Rafael is Naakai dine'é, born for Kinyaa'áanii.

The skills she learned from her grandparents when she was a child, but she didn't develop her silversmithing business until 2002, when she became known for her silver purses.

Rafael said she's made 38 cluster purses over the past seven years, and her style of jewelry is considered chunky and clustery.

"I'm named 'Queen of Clusters,'" Rafael said, because she does a lot of cluster work with multi-colored stones in her squash blooms, bracelets, purses and rings.

See Rafael's designs on her Facebook page, Tonya June Rafael Jewelry.