Les Baker was a well-known southwest jewelry artist who designed and also made jewelry himself. Although he was Anglo he employed many Native American silversmiths throughout the years, most notably Fritson Toledo, the great Navajo artist.
Les had a great deal to do with the success of the Stagecoach. We have sold more Les Baker jewelry throughout the years than any other jewelry artist. But beyond that, Les was a great mentor and friend to Susan and Gary, here at the Stagecoach. Back in the late 1970’s Gary called Les about selling his jewelry. Gary and his father, Jim, met Les in Denver and have sold his jewelry ever since. In the early 1980’s, Gary spent a week in Albuquerque while one of Les’ Navajo silversmiths taught Gary the craft. This was one of the turning points at the Stagecoach. We could now size our own sterling silver and gold rings and eventually make our own jewelry right here at the Stagecoach. This was and is a huge advantage in selling jewelry as our knowledge of the craft went up exponentially. And for all this, Les asked nothing in return.
Les was born in 1935 and when he was older joined the Navy. He told me once that he lied about his age to get into the Navy and became one of the youngest Navy pilots ever. After the Korean War he headed back to New Mexico and became interested in American Indian jewelry. His wife at the time (ex-wife now) wanted a Navajo squash blossom necklace but Les couldn’t afford it. He was always resourceful and since Les didn’t have the money to purchase the squash blossom he figured he would try making one himself. It turned out so nice that when Les’ wife was at a party with Edith Maisel, the “Queen of Indian Jewelry” was so impressed that she offered Les a job. Maisel helped popularize “Indian Jewelry” and though it wasn’t actually handmade, Maisels’ offered many Native Americans a job and increased the awareness of this art form. This was Les’ big break and he later also learned from the great Native American artist Carl Louthy.
Eventually Les opened his own shop and was at the right time and the right place when the great “Indian Jewelry” boom in the 1970’s hit. Everybody wanted this turquoise Indian jewelry, from celebrities to the common man and woman. Les teamed up for a while with Bing Crosby (not the singer but the Indian Trader) and at one time had around 50 Native Americans working for him.
Les developed his signature look, the swirling free flowing scroll work with leaves and flowers which he used throughout his life. He was one of the first to incorporate gold and diamonds into “Indian Jewelry”. Even though he had his own signature “look”, he was an expert at many different styles and techniques. He was always our go-to-guy for custom work.
It was from Les Baker that I learned to pay attention to the quality of the work. Les paid great attention to the little details of the work, used heavy ring shanks when many others tried to cheap out and always used wonderful turquoise stones. Whenever I needed a turquoise stone that a customer wanted I was sure that Les could find it for me, even the rare ones.
Les Baker passed away February 13, 2014 and left behind his lovely wife Shirley and his children. Les will be greatly missed for his craftsmanship and especially his friendship. We still have a nice selection of Les Baker turquoise jewelry that can be found here.