Arizona-born and Hollywood-tested, this Navajo jewelry artist plies his trade all the way to Tokyo.
Making jewelry isn’t just a form of financial support for world-renowned artist Ray Tracey. It’s a form of ceremony. Every element in his designs symbolizes a spiritual connection or belief. Every piece has been a centering outlet for his creativity during trying times.
Born on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Tracey learned to make jewelry one summer when he was 9 years old. After he complained to his mother one day that he was bored, she took him to the reservation school in Ganado, Arizona. He walked into the arts and crafts room and saw the silversmithing table in the corner and was hooked. It took him a week to make his first ring, which he gave to his mom. When his mother passed away five years ago, he was going through her belongings, and hidden behind the headboard of her bed he found the ring in a box. His mother had kept that treasure for more than 50 years.
In spite of stories his grandfather Asa had told about how much he hated working the goat bellows to fuel the fire in the forge that would melt silver in a small cast-iron crucible, Tracey was set on his career path after his summer school experience. He told his father that he wanted to make jewelry for the rest of his life.
That’s proven to be the case. Decades later, Tracey continues to make jewelry. But along the way, there was the matter of a little detour in Hollywood. Making jewelry at night while studying chemistry and physics by day at Brigham Young University, as a young man Tracey would travel to Gallup, New Mexico, on the weekends to sell his work. It was at BYU that he got the acting bug that took him to Hollywood.
“I miss L.A. I’m really a city Indian,” says Tracey, who now lives in Window Rock, Arizona, about a half-hour northwest of Gallup. “I was an actor down there for about 10 years. That was back in 1976 to ’86. I got quite a few roles.” He did a lot of TV series and the occasional movie: Hart to Hart (“that was one of my favorite roles”), Private Benjamin, Bret Maverick, How the West Was Won, Centennial, House Calls, Seems Like Old Times. “Hollywood was fun, but I got tired of staying fit and trim. My jewelry was making me more money than acting was.”
That being the case, it made sense to move back to the Southwest, first to Gallup then to Albuquerque. When his mother had a heart attack, Tracey headed home to Arizona to care for her. “And then I got old and didn’t want to make another move,” he says, laughing heartily.
At the height of his jewelry business, he employed 110 people and had two galleries in Santa Fe, one in Scottsdale, Arizona, and one in Atlanta. Then tragedy struck: Tracey’s oldest son, Kody, committed suicide. He was 19.
“I didn’t even want to live anymore,” Tracey says. “The whole story was really hard to take. Nothing mattered to me anymore. You really feel like a failure.”
He stopped making jewelry and focused on his six remaining children. He and his wife, Caroline, separated and divorced. Within three years he had liquidated or sold everything.
But he persevered and eventually returned to jewelry making. “The body heals, your mind heals, your soul heals,” he says. “It just takes time.”
In 2005, he partnered with Piazza Trading & Co., Ltd., an import-export company, to license his name and sell his jewelry, which he farms out to three artisans, specifically to the Japanese market. He has a gallery in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, next to a three-story Ralph Lauren boutique. Tracey laughs about the fact that he’s only got about 100 square feet, “but I tell people I’m right next door to Ralph Lauren.”
These days, his eyes aren’t as young as they used to be, so he’s doing less exacting inlay work and more cabochons. He teaches some acting and jewelry classes, and he’s busy with his version of a Fred Harvey collection, named for the entrepreneur who had a chain of restaurants, hotels, and other businesses alongside the railroads in the West. “A lot of Navajo silversmiths worked with Harvey to make jewelry for the tourist trade. His most popular design was the thunderbird,” Tracey says. “I’ve done a lot of thunderbirds in remembrance of that tourist trade in the early 1900s.”
At 62, he’s still doing plenty of work. “I get up every day and design and make jewelry,” he says. “I love designing. I get inspiration from songs, people, stories, legends, L.A., the Southwest.” Everywhere he goes, he says, there’s something that sparks his creative juices — even fights with his ex. “When I was still married, my ex-wife would rant and rave about my ‘split personality.’ She was right: I do have a split personality. That’s how I came up with my double-sided pendant — right then, an inspiration. That’s what I really like about what I have done and what I do: It’s a creative process.”
That creative process has been a lifeline and a through line — in acting, where he was creating characters; in jewelry making, where he is creating art; in teaching, where he’s helping to create the next generation of practitioners.
“Everybody has a creative side. It’s all about creativity,” Tracey says. “We are what we think. I’m no guru, but Buddha said that. I just love the creative process of anything in life. It’s so gratifying to find something that you can do that creates.”
From the October 2015 issue.