Each August, Gallup, N.M., located in the heart of Native American lands, hosts the annual Inter-Tribal Ceremonial. Native Americans gather from far and wide for festive parades, traditional pow-wows, and of course, socializing. Men in cowboy hats and jeans, women in traditional Little-House-on-the-Prairie dress spill out excitedly from the back of pickup trucks. Tourists from the world round sample local fry bread and blue corn tortillas. Then they fan out through the town, scouting its old style trading posts, shops, and galleries for authentic Native American arts and crafts.
Some are drawn to Kachina dolls, others to exciting arrays of rugs, fetishes, basketry, or pottery. Many linger over silver bolo ties, belt buckles, and bracelets, much of it bold Navaho and Hopi design. Others prefer exquisite silver inlay work, a specialty of the nearby Zuni Pueblo.
Zunis, who are located just outside Gallup, farm and raise livestock. Today, most are also silver craftsmen. Zuni inlay is a relatively new art. True, the Zunis had long carried bits of shells and locally mined turquoise, which they believe offers healing and protective powers, as amulets in their medicine pouches. True, they had also created repetitive patterns and symbols from cut and polished stones and shells, they pasted them onto wooden or shell backings. But when their neighbors, the Navajos, shared their silver smithing skills in the 1880’s, the Zuni combined the two crafts into one.
With their new-found techniques, they replaced their traditional backings with silver. Now by inlaying stones and shells in silver necklaces, rings, or bracelets, they could actually wear their charms. Zuni inlay emphasizes not the silver then, but the tribe’s intricate lapidary skills.
The earliest inlay pieces, prized by collectors for their age and history, were fashioned with simple tools. In time, more advanced tools like emery wheels and fine pliers allowed designs that are more intricate. Today, Zunis create a variety of inlays.
Cluster inlays feature repeating rows of matching, polished stones, though their basic cuts and patterns may vary. Some, for example, display rounded turquoise “seeds” fashioned into delicate circular patterns. Others feature straight rows of unfaceted, convex-shaped cabochons usually adorn rings or bracelets. Still others, called needlepoint or petit point, feature patterns of long narrow oval shaped stones pointed at both ends like the eyes of a needle. Petit point pieces, because of their delicate detail, are time consuming to create. So of course, they command high prices.
Channel silver work, a second type of inlay, is known for its smoothness and luster. The artisan, using a silver base, first creates raised silver channels, also called bezels, to divide his chosen pattern into tiny compartments. Then taking into account his compartment shapes and bezel depth, he painstakingly shapes a variety of colorful stones or shells into a perfect fit. After fixing them in place, he follows with a final polishing. In channel inlay, silver bezels, then, are an intricate part of the pattern.
Zuni channel work sometimes features multiple or single color geometric patterns, often decorating brooches and belt buckles. Others feature traditional Zuni figures. Sun Face, for example, is a benevolently smiling mother-of-pearl sunburst, often embellished with bits of turquoise, red coral, and black jet. Sun Face symbolizes all that is good, warmth, growth, indeed, life itself.
Mosaics, the third type of Zuni inlay, are also fashioned from tiny pieces of stone, and shells. Known also as stone to stone inlay, they feature colorful components that fit together on silver backings directly, without silver channels between them, however. These pieces, naturally, require the most exacting craftsmanship of all.
Since the Zunis believe that animate and inanimate objects alike have spirits, their mosaics, like some of their channel work, often depict traditional animals or objects. Creatures indigenous to the Southwestern desert, like spritely roadrunners, geckos, and snakes, routinely adorn pendants and earrings. Dragonflies, harbingers of springtime, flit engagingly on brooches. Turtles and bears sometimes grace men’s bolos and belt buckles. And owls, which the Zuni believe are spirits of the departed, are popular motifs.
Beloved Knife Wing, hero of hundreds of folklore tales, also appears repeatedly in Zuni art. Half man, half eagle, adorned with traditional knife-shaped feathered wings and a characteristically terraced hat, Knife Wing symbolizes warrior protection. Indeed, before some Zuni Pueblos went off to war, they used to tattoo Knife Wing figures on their bodies, to assure wisdom, courage, and strength in battle.
Rainbow Man, often portrayed on traditional Zuni war shields, is also a symbol of warrior protection. Yet rainbows, because of their direct connection with life-giving rain across the arid American Southwest, hold special agricultural significance too. On many mosaic inlays, Rainbow Man raises his arms up dramatically, supporting a rainbow. In Zuni folklore, he also symbolizes harmony.
Powerful, wrathful Thunderbird, another popular Zuni inlay motif, is the antithesis of tranquil Rainbow Man. Some believe that this motif originated ages ago, when Native Americans supposedly encountered huge, frightening, fabulous birds. Others, more realistic perhaps, note that Thunderbird’s arrival in the Southwest coincided with the arrival of Plains Indians’ pre-stamped jewelry items. In either case, Thunderbird has come to stay.
Traditional Zuni inlay jewelry is available today not only in the American Southwest, but across America. Collectors can find stunning pieces at Native American craft shows, malls, museum stores, department stores, estate sales, and through private dealers. But let the buyer beware. Cheap imitations abound.
Whether collector or aficionado, perhaps the best advice is to purchase Native American pieces from reputable dealers. Members of the IACA, the Indian Arts and Crafts Association, for instance, markets only handmade, authentic pieces of Native American jewelry. Zuni inlay can command hundreds of dollars, especially if the pieces are old stock or created by well known artists. Their value, obviously, is measured not only in silver and handfuls of gemstones. The true value of Zuni inlay lies in its intricate craftsmanship, in the transformation of silver, stone, and shells into works of art.