ZUNI JEWELRY | The Intricate History

Zuni Indian jewelry

Zuni elders say turquoise guarantees its wearers a long life. Zuni Indian turquoise jewelry is some of the more intricate Native American jewelry made. Their jewelry trademarks, most of them containing turquoise, are needlepoint and petit point -two types of Zuni clusterwork - mosaic, channelwork and inlay. History shows that the Zunis, although skilled lapidaries since prehistoric times, didn't begin setting silverwork with turquoise until after the Navajos, around 1890. So, Navajo copycats at first, with practice and time, their jewelry became their own. “Predating the first Europeans in the Southwest,” Skystone and Silver authors say, in time, Zuni jewelry took on less of the Navajo flair of “large, simply shaped stones,” replacing them with stones that were “smaller and more exquisitley
ground and polished.” The massiveness of Navajo silverwork was also abandoned “in favor of light frameworks which were no more than platforms upon which large quantities of delicately cut stones were mounted, in clusters of varying designs, in geometric patterns.” One historian has compared the Zuni' jewelry-making style to that of Mozart, the Navajo's, to Beethoven. Zunis are famous for inlayed
turquoise jewelry where stones are set into the silver. Much of their turquoise jewelry is made with little or no matrix (brown – and sometimes other colored - marks in turquoise that appear in the stone from minerals in the ground when the turquoise is mined). Channelwork, or channel inlay, is where turquoise or other stones, shells, or coral are set into a “compartmentalized” silver framework. The definition in Skystone and Silver states that this type of jewelry is often a cooperative effort between the Zuni's stone cutting and setting and the Navajo's
silversmithing. Helen Wells, Arizona Indian art specialist, says when choosing Zuni collectables' “design is important – the way the materials are combined...the way...they fit together.” She thinks most of the tribe's “nicest work” was created during the 1920s where “the stones flush to one another with) really good silverwork, and fantastic designs.” Zunis are also known for their mosaic work which came down from the prehistoric Hohokam indians of South-central Arizona. Mosaic differs from inlay in that it is not bordered by silver outlines “or rules separating the pieces of stone, sometimes turquoise, shell or other set
materials. They are masters of creating “bits and pieces” jewelry.

Zunis also make jewelry containing carved fetishes, or, objects “with zoomorphic
properties believed to possess preternatural powers.” Within much Indian lore can be found meanings for most of the different fetishes made as wearable jewelry. For instance, the Zuni blue coyote of the West fetish, representing its survival instinct, has turquoise eyes. The Zuni bear, historians say, represents the “original guardian of the West.” A Zuni frog symbolizes rain. Material used in making
fetishes varies. Some include turquoise, mother-of-pearl, serpentine, shell, coral, abalone and jade.

Skystone and Silver authors show that fetishes date back to prehistoric Indians. They say that “sometimes these were merely stones or other natural objects whose shapes suggested those of animals or men.” The Indians then took the art further with stone grinding and carving to create “more lifelike and realistic forms.” They can be found not only in turquoise but also “inlaid with jet,” made of
“basalt or other stones with turquoise inlays representing eyes or hearts.” Turquoise and fetishes were commonplace in kivas, or homes, and in ceremonies back then and now. Said to have “magical properties helping to ward off bad luck or ill health,” the significance of turqouise - and other native gemstones – as a part of the Native American's everyday life “transcends mere prettiness,” the authors conclude.The Needlepoint jewelry style was developed by Zuni artists about 1950 and is characterized by small, elongated stones, usually turquoise, that come to a point at eaither end and are set in multiple rows and delicate patterns. Helen Pinion Wells, archaeologist and curator, says, the Zunis “use small
slivers of turquoise...requir(ing) a great deal of labor.” The art uses the “very fine chips of turquoise” that may otherwise not have a use. Both needlepoint and petit point are made up of long, narrow stones, mainly turquoise but not always. Needlepoint stones are pointed on both ends; the ends of petit point's stones are rounded.

Zuni art work, characteristic of intense focus and precise handiwork, might be likened to quilt-making, tapestry and stained glass art. Zuni hard work produces jewelry that is all about living things made from living things. Metals and stones mined from the earth, plants and animals, and earth patterns - a honeycomb, a spider's web, a cob with corn – are inherent in Zuni jewelry style. In fact, they are the very things Indian history shows that Native Americans have appreciated and

At Lantern Dancer Gallery we appreciate this and showcase the very best vintage ruin jewelry as well as contemporary work by many artist.

written by: Susie Jones (freelance journalist)