Zuni Jewelry History

The Zuni tribe, now located in northwestern New Mexico, was the second Native American group to learn Mexican silversmithing techniques. Navajo artist Atsidi Chon initially taught the art to a member of the Zuni tribe. Their artisans refined the Navajo cluster work technique, characterized by a series of shaped stones glued into bezel settings. Cluster work later evolved into the more intricate petit point and needlepoint styles.

Though bezel-set cluster necklaces and bracelets can still be found, most modern Zuni jewelry is characterized by stone inlays, animal shapes and a bold use of color. Inlaid pieces are extremely popular due to their beauty and classic lines.

Zuni craftspeople are renowned for their skill with inlay, a technique in which multiple stones are pieced together to form a single image. Colorful stones are cemented into channels created by soldering pieces of silver to a backing plate. The stones are then polished flat, resulting in a gorgeous multicolored figure with veins of silver running through it.

Turquoise and coral are among the stones frequently used in Zuni jewelry. Nineteenth and early twentieth century jewelry makers also made use of locally sourced materials such as lapis lazuli, malachite, spiny oyster shell and deer antler. Contemporary Zuni craftspeople have expanded their range to include exotic stones, though the tribe’s love of jewel tones still dominates.

The jewelry item most commonly associated with the Zuni tribe is the fetish, a small animal carving traditionally worn for ceremonial or religious purposes. When a person wears a Zuni fetish, it is said that he or she is imbued with the characteristics of the animal. For example, a wolf fetish might provide strength and unity, while the eagle encourages keen hunting skills and a sharp eye for detail.

According to Zuni legend, the world is divided into six regions, each of which is associated with a particular color and animal. These six beasts are assigned spiritual significance and often appear in Zuni jewelry.

  1. North: Yellow mountain lion
  2. South: Red badger
  3. East: White wolf
  4. West: Blue bear
  5. Upper: Brown/multicolor eagle
  6. Lower: Black mole

Because most retail consumers are non-Indian, contemporary Zuni craftsman are no longer limited to religious totems. Today, you’ll find fetishes representing everything from insects and hummingbirds to dragons and dinosaurs. Single fetishes may appear as inlaid silver pendants, while the traditional fetish necklace is strung on heishe, a coarse cord made from ground shells.

Zuni jewelry is a work of art and an expression of interconnectedness. Brightly colored stones speak to the wondrous beauty of the world around us. Fetishes are rarely signed by the artist, because traditional jewelry is believed to belong to the entire community. Purchasing a Zuni bracelet or necklace is one way to capture this spirit of joy and preserve a connection to a talented people that will last for posterity.

Zuni Jewelry