History of Zuni Jewelry Making

The Zuni people traditionally speak the Zuni language, a language that has no known relationship to any other Native American language.  Linguists believe that the Zuni have maintained the integrity of their language for at least 7,000 years.  The Zuni have, however, borrowed a number of words from Keresan, Hopi, and Pima pertaining to religion and religious observances.  The Zuni continue to practice their traditional religion with its regular ceremonies and dances, and an independent and unique belief system.   The Zuni were and are a traditional people who live by irrigated agriculture and raising livestock.  Their success as a desert agri-economy is due to careful management and conservation of resources, as well as a complex system of community support.  Many contemporary Zuni also rely on the sale of traditional arts and crafts, and are especially gifted in the making of intricate inlaid jewelry and hand carved stone fetishes. Some Zuni still live in the old-style Pueblos, while others live in modern flat-roofed houses made from adobe and concrete block. Their location is relatively isolated, but they welcome respectful tourists.  The pueblo of Zuni is about 35 miles south of Gallup, NM.

The History of Zuni Jewelry Making

Zuni jewelry-making dates back to Ancestral Pueblo prehistory.  Early Zuni lapidaries used stone and antler tools, wooden drills with flake stone, or cactus spine drillbits, as well as abrading tools made of wood and stone, sand for smoothing, and fiber cords for stringing.   With the exception of silver jewelry, which was introduced to Zuni Pueblo in the 19th century, most of the materials commonly worked by Zuni jewelry makers in the 20th century have always been in use in the Zuni region.  These include turquoise, jet, argillite, steatite, red shale, freshwater clam shell, abalone, and spiny oyster.  Since pre-contact times, Zuni carved stone and shell fetishes, which they trade with other tribes and even non-Natives.  Fetishes are carved from turquoise, amber, shell, or onyx. Today, Zuni bird fetishes are often set with heishe beads in multi-strand necklaces.  

Lanyade became the first Zuni silversmith in 1872 . Kineshde, a Zuni smith of the late 1890s, is credited for first combining silver and turquoise in his jewelry.  Zuni jewelers soon became known for their clusterwork.  Following the Sitgreaves Expedition in 1854, Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves illustrated a Zuni forge, which was still in use as late as the early part of the 20th century.  The forge was made from adobe, with bellows handmade from animal skins.  Silver was cast in sandstone molds, and finished by tooling – as opposed to engraving. Thin sheets of silver were cut with scissors and shears.  

The establishment of the railroad, with the accompanying tourist trade and the advent of trading posts, heavily influenced Zuni and other Southwest tribes’ jewelry manufacturing techniques and materials.  In the early 20th century, trader C.G. Wallace influenced the direction of Zuni silver and lapidary work to appeal to a non-Native audience.  Wallace was aided by the proliferation of the automobile and interstate highways such as Route 66 and I-40, and promotion of tourism in the towns of Gallup and Zuni.  Wallace employed local Zuni people as clerks, jewelry makers, and miners.   He provided tools, equipment, and silversmithing supplies to the jewelers with whom he did business.  Wallace influenced Zuni art by encouraging the use of specific materials that sold well at his posts – such as coral – and discouraging others such as tortoise shell.  

Wallace provided large chunks of turquoise to Zuni artists, giving them the opportunity to carve figures in the round.  Wallace also encouraged the increased production and improvement of small-stone techniques like needlepoint and petit point in the hope that these styles would thwart the production of machine-made jewelry.  He also urged jewelers to experiment with silver construction to satisfy his customers’ preferences for lightweight jewelry. (This article was largely copied from Wikipedia)