The other day, as we were flipping through the Willie’s Picnic catalog, we paused on the page featuring an array of Zuni inlay jewelry, just in awe of it. Cheryl started casually sharing some of the history and the nuances and the stories behind the different characters (it’s truly amazing the amount of knowledge that woman has at the ready when it comes to Native American jewelry). We listened, intrigued and impressed, and decided this was information that y’all might find interesting as well. So let’s talk Zuni!
While the Zuni artisans made beautiful jewelry in a variety of categories, what we’re talking about here is what is commonly referred to as “Zuni inlay”. Perhaps most heavily present in pin form, you can also find this style of craftsmanship in rings, pendants, and especially big, beautiful bolos.
Inlay refers to the way in which the stones are arranged and set in silver to detail the spirit they’re depicting. There are two different styles of inlay: channel and flush. In channel inlay, the segments of stone are separated by thin channels of sterling silver, like an outline. Whereas, with flush inlay, the stones are arranged with the edges of the stones aligned “flush” against one another, with silver only acting as the outer border.
Most Zuni inlay is fairly easy to spot, because it’s commonly made up of the same four stones: turquoise, mother of pearl, red coral, and then a black element, either black onyx or jet.
Though it’s not always possible to identify exactly who the artist is, with Zuni inlay jewelry, pieces can be visually identified and categorized as works by the same artist. Each artisan had their own signature or combination of signatures – for instance, channel inlay plus Comanche chief design plus headdress feathers are always arranged turquoise, mother of pearl, then black, then you can recognize that that’s the signature style of so-and-so.
“Once, when we were on a trip in Santa Fe, a woman came up to us and commented on Audrey’s pin,” Cheryl said. “She told us, ‘That pin was made by my grandmother.’ And we were kind of taken aback, and she explained how she recognized it and what her grandmother’s signatures were. It was very cool.”
In addition to being recognizable for their styles and stones, Zuni inlay pieces are also usually iterations of Native American icons, spirits or gods. The list goes on an on, but here are some of the most common:
The interpretation of a Kachina can vary from tribe to tribe, but they are believed to be personifications of different things and believed to have human-like forms and behaviors, so the image of a Kachina is almost always a vague full-body depiction of a “person” in a headdress in and traditional garb. Kachinas can represent many things, but are widely considered benevolent beings with positive forces to bring things like rainfall, protection, healing, and fertility.
As in many ancient cultures, the sun (or the Sun Father) is highly revered by the Zuni people for its power and its necessity to sustain life and enable growth, in turn bringing joy and prosperity. The visual interpretation of the Sunface is a circle, divided into segments. The bottom half of the circle represents the face, usually mother of pearl with a singular dot of jet or turquoise. The top half of the circle is divided in two, one quadrant of turquoise (usually upper left) represents oneness with the spirit, and the other quadrant of red coral representing power and comfort. The dichotomy itself is intended to signify the necessary balance between sunrise and sunset. Sunfaces can be depicted with or without headdresses.
The Knifewing spirit is quite an interesting creature, half man, half eagle, whose name is derived from its razor-sharp flint-knife wings and tail. It is considered the ultimate warrior, and is often revered as the god of war. Anthropologists credit artisan Horace Lule for first depicting the Knifewing circa 1928, when he forged it in silver and turquoise. Over the next couple of decades, the Knifewing image gained in popularity among artisans of different styles and soon became a favorite figure for Zuni inlay. Those mid-century pieces (circa 1930-1960) are particularly sought after by collectors.
This little lady is a category all her own. Unlike the others, she doesn’t seem to have an origin story linked to spirits or deities, though it might be inferred that there is a loose affiliation to the reverence Zunis paid to the corn maiden. But beyond that, what makes these maiden pieces unique is that they are aesthetically consistent because they are specific not only to the Zuni but to a particular artisan, the late Theresa Waseta, and now her daughter Joyce, who is carrying on the craft. While no two maidens are exactly the same – the nature of being crafted by hand – they all follow a singular signature design pattern, with black hair, the same dress, demure downcast eyes, and hands behind her back. Found in the form of pins, pendants, necklaces, earrings, rings, and even cuff bracelets, the Waseta maidens are crafted from mother of pearl, turquoise, jet, and red coral set in a flush inlay design with sterling silver accents.
We have to admit, we’re a little partial to the Rainbow Man. Though this yei is very important to the Zuni people, a guardian spirit looked to for providing life-sustaining rain, you have to admit that his likeness is pretty whimsical-looking! Like most Zuni inlay pieces, the Rainbow Man is colorful – the typical turquoise, red coral, onyx or jet, mother of pearl, and occasional accent of shell – and that, in conjunction with his traditional curved posed with his hands in the air, just (for the lack of a better term) makes him appear fun.
Speaking of fun, there is a whole fabulous and fascinating subcategory of Zuni inlay that we’re dying to tell you about, but, per Cheryl’s instructions, we’re saving for another story another day. Imagine the shock when CHERYL, of all people, said to keep the lid on something! Well, don’t worry, she’s not feverish and her body hasn’t been taken over by aliens. Turns out there might’ve been just a teeny tiny bit of ulterior motive for that. “No, no, I definitely want to do a story on it, I just want to buy a whole bunch of it first!” Audrey’s gonna kill us.