Kenneth Begay (1913–1977) was called the “Father of Contemporary Navajo jewelry” for his clean, bold, modern designs. Begay began as a blacksmith, took his first course in silversmithing from Fred Peshlakai at the Fort Wingate Vocational School for the Native Americans in Fort Wingate, New Mexico in 1938. Fred Peshlakai had been taught by his father, Slender Maker of Silver, who was trained by Atsidi Chon, one of the earliest Navajo silversmiths. Begay in turn taught traditional techniques of silversmithing to his own students from 1968-1973 at Navajo Community College in Many Farms, Arizona.
In 1946, Begay started working with John Bonnell at the White Hogan shop in Flagstaff, Arizona, beginning an 18 year relationship. In collaboration with Bonnell, Begay moved Indian jewelry beyond personal adornment and into the arena of pure metalsmithing making, amongst other things, flatware sets, plates, boxes, and vessels of various kinds. Although highly unusual at this time among silversmiths, 1951-1952, he also began signing his jewelry using KB. When working for the White Hogan he additionally stamped his pieces with a small hogan.
A master metalsmith, Kenneth Begay was very creative and strongly influenced by his traditional background. In his jewelry this translated to a balance between silver, stone and bold but unpretentious designs. He created clean, elegant designs based on streamlined shapes that were repeated to form balanced and harmonious patterns, a style that has been compared to Navajo weaving. Although he used and taught the old techniques, Begay explained near the end of his life, “I like to create something new and still use the old Navajo design style.”