A variety of Native jewelry, ranging from vintage to contemporary, is available in gift shops at both locations of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Visitors to New York City or Washington, D.C., can purchase heavy turquoise pendants, cuff bracelets, strands of shimmering beads or earrings featuring delicate silver feathers. But a closer look at the displays reveals another kind of Native jewelry designed by Lori Morsette, a mother, college student and entrepreneur who taps into her Suquamish and Chippewa heritage to produce items that are at once timeless and modern, elegant and fun.
Morsette, 34, is the artistic mastermind behind the Cedar Rose collection, handcrafted silver jewelry embellished with semi-precious stones that has sold at both museums for several years. Morsette calls her designs “simple, elegant and wearable” with just a hint of Native inspiration.
“Native doesn’t mean you’re dressed head to toe in Pendleton,” she said. “Tapping into the Native culture isn’t about selling something that takes a lifetime to learn. I didn’t want people to buy a part of me, a part of the culture. The way I tap into my culture is by making something a customer can connect with.”
Lori Morsette has three lines of jewelry she sells in her shop in Washington and at the National Museum of the American Indian.
That plan is working, said John Haworth, director of public programs at the New York museum. Ever since the Smithsonian Institution, which operates the museums, agreed to carry Morsette’s pieces, they have “continued to sell,” he said.
Morsette, who has developed two additional lines of jewelry, this year met another one of her personal goals when she opened a bead store in Bremerton, Washington. The store, called Chandelier, has allowed her to move her work out of a closet at home and into the public spotlight.
That’s something Morsette has wanted since she was a child. Although she’s earning a name for herself as a Native jeweler, the road to success was a long one.
As a child, Morsette split her time between the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Montana and the Port Madison Indian Reservation in Washington. Her interest in Native culture began at age 6 when she asked her mother to make her a jingle dress.
“She told me if I wanted a jingle dress, I had to make it,” Morsette said of her mother. “It was in my blood and I had to tap into it.”
Morsette learned from her grandmother, who taught her to sew, cook, bead and weave. She made her first dress at age 12.
Lori Morsette is a business owner, student and mother.
As an older teen, Morsette spent all her leisure time in front of a sewing machine, making regalia for family members or friends. Sewing was also a way to escape reality; Morsette dropped out of school in seventh grade to help raise her younger siblings.
By age 18, Morsette was a mother. She took a job at a bead store to help pay the bills and continued honing her own craft on the side. Eventually, she found a market for her jewelry and began selling it at a high-end farmer’s market where customers bought everything she made—including the pieces she was wearing.
“I couldn’t keep it in stock,” she said, “but after a while I was getting burned out. I didn’t like my jewelry. I didn’t even wear it anymore because people would buy it off me.”
When the bead shop closed in early 2009, Morsette made two drastic decisions: she went back to school for her GED and she started her own business, the Cedar Rose line.
Morsette earned her GED in January of 2010 at age 30, then immediately enrolled in classes at Olympic College, where she earned an associate degree in business management. She is now a student at Central Washington University and owner of a store where she sells her own jewelry and a variety of jewelry-making supplies.
The success is bittersweet, she said.
Jeweler Lori Morsette produces modern styles with hints of her Native background.
“I feel like I did everything backward,” she said. “I dropped out of school, had a kid, had another kid, bought a house, bought cars. Then I went to school and opened a business. Everything was backward. I spent 90 percent of my life finding out who I was.”
Even as a child, Morsette knew her passion was making jewelry. Now she’s using her store to help others tap into their creativity. Customers can take supplies into a studio in the back of the store, a space Morsette also uses to teach beginning and intermediate classes. It’s her way of giving back, she said.
“When I opened this store, I wanted it to be a place for people to get a part of what I get every day,” she said. “If you’re unhappy with your job or where you life is, come in. Even if it’s just making a pair of earrings, it takes part of the misery away.”