This husband and wife team has been making jewelry for over 50 years. They first started as children, helping their parents. Mary Ann’s parents, Victor and Ramona Tenorio, were known for their jacla necklaces. Joe points to his grandfather Pat Calabaza, who made “rope” necklaces of turquoise disks with silver and shells, as an important influence. But Joe and Mary Ann are self-taught artists when it comes to the jewelry style for heishi they are best known: the super-fine heishi necklace.
After working with heavier heishi while assisting their parents, they began to try making super-fine beads. “It was difficult at first,” says Mary Ann. They had to make their own drill bits to get ones fine enough. Now, it’s not as hard because they “have the touch” and can use commercial drill bits. Even so, they sometimes revert to making their own bits since the commercially available ones are expensive and don’t last very long when working with hard materials.
They use a variety of materials, including turquoise (often Kingman), jet, and serpentine. Their pieces often include highlights of silver or gold beads. Only the highest grade turquoise finds its way into their jewelry, since they buy from suppliers they know and trust.
The process for creating one of their super-fine necklaces is time-consuming and demanding. They start with nuggets of the semi-precious stones. Joe then slices the chunks into strips. Mary Ann drills holes into the strips, and the couple’s children nip the strips into small squares and string them on music wire. Mary Ann drills her own silver or gold beads and adds them to the string. Grinding the strung beads to size is Joe’s job; then Mary Ann does the last grinding to bring the beads to their final tiny dimensions. To complete the process, the beads are polished with a sanding belt and polishing material and then re-strung on strong nylon.
The Calabazas have five children. Sons Aldon and Irvin and daughter DeAlva help with the family jewelry making. Sons Joseph F. and Joseph A. also assist their parents, when not doing their own jewelry work. Joe and Mary Ann have started to teach their thirteen grandchildren the family business, while at the same time encouraging the kids to love and excel at school. Whether at school or making jewelry, their grandparents tell them, “Be yourself; feel good about yourself and have pride in what you do.” The three oldest grandchildren, Jonathan, Tiffany, and Valerie Jade, are accomplished jewelers in their own right, while also continuing their educations.
Mary Ann says of her creations, “Pride goes into the jewelry and stays there with the new owner.” She “loves what comes out at the end of the process and wants people to know and appreciate it.” Mary Ann and Joe are proud of their work, but even more proud of their family.