Jewellery has been worn in
the Southwest since prehistoric times. Although styles have
changed through the centuries and South-western native American
metalsmithing of iron, brass and silver has been learned
only within the past 250 years, many of the modern styles
of Indian jewellery retain elements from the earlier traditions
that preceded them.
Exactly when jewellery making became a regular
activity in the South-western cultures remains a mystery.
Drilled shell, bone, stone and turquoise beads, for example,
have been created in the Southwest for thousands of years.
More elaborate pieces-small carved figures of animals and
birds, as well as shell bracelets and turquoise mosaic work-also
have been made through many centuries.
In the past two millennia, three major pre-historic
cultures-the Hohokam, Mogollon and Anasazi-created much
early jewellery. Each of these cultures was ancestral to
some contemporary tribes living in the Southwest.
The Hohokam preceded the Pima and Papago
of southern Arizona, the Anasazi were the forerunners of
modern-day Pueblo tribes of Arizona and New Mexico, and
some Mogollon and Anasazi may have been ancestors of the
The Zuni, or A'shiwi (which means "the
flesh"), make their home today in western New Mexico.
They are the modern day descendants of several different
cultural groups including remnants of the ancient Mogollan
and Anasazi peoples. The Zuni speak a Penutian language
all their own, called Zunian, and their population presently
numbers about 6,000. Although the Zuni farm and raise livestock,
jewelry making contributes substantially to their income.
Some Zuni pottery is still made for commercial sale, but
weaving and basket making are almost forgotten arts among
the Zuni today.
The emphasis on turquoise small stone work,
which today is most strongly associated with the modern
Zuni jewelry making tradition, began to emerge in jewellery
made in the 1920's. The distinctive lapidary work developed
partly from a revival of prehistoric jewellery making styles
discovered during excavation of Hawikuh. Its popularity
also has helped to foster the technique.
Clusterwork, which groups together many
individual stones in a setting of individual silver settings,
first appeared in about 1920. This technique was followed
by pettitpoint cluster lapidary which uses round,oval or
teardrop shaped stones.
In about 1940 the needlepoint style appeared,
incorporating long, narrow stones that are very fine and
pointed at both ends. The carving of small fetish-like animals,
birds and other forms in turquoise, shell, coral, jet, mother
of pearl, and other materials to be used in jewellery also
began in the 1920's and was inspired by similar ancient
examples found at Hawikuh.
The master fetish carver Leekya Desyee was
among the workmen who discovered the prehistoric stone carvings.
Other carvers who adopted this style as early as the 1930's
include Lee Edaakie, Dishta and David and Mary Tsikewa.
Mosaic inlay and overlay was also found on some artefacts
excavated at Hawikuh, and in 1935 Zuni silversmith Teddy
Weake revived the method in his work.
An outgrowth of this style called channel
inlay, which sets the stones into individual sunken silver
frames so that they are flush with the level of the silver,
was being made by 1940. Until the 1950's, many of the silver
frames for channel work were being fashioned by Navajo silversmiths
and traded to the Zuni. Domed channel inlay, which encrusts
the silver frames with carefully rounded turquoise insets,
is a more recent variety of channel work. It has been popular
despite being quite fragile because the highly-domed turquoise
is not protected by the silver setting.
All of the techniques utilizing small worked
stones are drawn from traditional roots in the early Zuni
culture. The market economy of the 20th and 21st centuries
have nurtured the revival and development of the beautiful
lapidary work along traditional avenues. The same commercial
environment also has helped to shape contemporary jewellery
making and to open new directions, based on changing preferences
of buyers as well as on changing approaches of the Zuni
Today, the Zuni Craftsman Cooperative plays
an important role in helping to market these beautiful creations
in stone and silver and in guiding individual craftsmen
in traditional and new directions.
The following excerpt from a Zuni myth sums it up beautifully;
"As the Ant people were preparing to take their bundles
of dry earth and grass seeds to the upper world, First Woman
told them to take bits of the hard blue stone of the sky
so there would also be some hard rock in the new world.
So when the Ant People went through the sky tunnel, they
bit off pieces of the blue rock and carried them to the
surface of the muddy island. And so it is that we can still
find beautiful blue turquoise."
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