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The Zuni Indians of the Southwest live in a village in New Mexico that is approximately thirty-five miles south of Gallup. More than half of the tribal members are involved in creating unique handmade Indian jewelry. Zuni artists use stones and shells in their designs, and their fetish necklaces are considered by collectors to be their most original design contribution. The necklaces are crafted with a variety of miniature and delicate stone carvings of birds, bears, frogs and other animals. The animals are carved from turquoise, mother-of-pearl, coral, abalone, ivory and different types of shells, and are strung on strands of heishi, which are made by Santo Domingo Indians.
Zuni artistsâ channel inlay patterns, cluster, needlepoint, and petit point designs are world-renowned. In the past, artists used stones obtained from traders, which included turquoise, pipestone, lapis lazuli, and malachite, to design intricate and very precise patterns. Many vintage pieces are adorned with Blue Gem turquoise, which is uncommon now. Zuni Indian jewelry is meticulously crafted and their ability to select unique and complimentary stones is remarkable.
Inlay involves the precise cutting of stones to fit together, most often in a mosaic pattern. This technique is a stone to stone inlay whereby the artist places stones directly against each other. It requires great precision of cutting to create the design while avoiding gaps. Channel inlay is a technique that involves setting stones into shapes or channels that are pre-molded from silver. The stone must match the border of the silver without adding filler. In the 1930âs and 1940âs, Zuni craftsman primarily worked with hand held tools; however, their inlay is anything but primitive. Their inlay work was so beautiful that itâs hard to believe it was done with simple tools.
Today, contemporary artists often use more modern powered tools, but the difficulty of their art is not diminished, and they now have a wider color range of colors to choose from. In addition to black jet, red coral, white mother of pearl, and blue turquoise, modern Zuni jewelry makers use stones like green gaspeite, orange melon shell, and purple sugilite.
Some of the more famous traditional Zuni artists include Leo Poblano, Leekya Deyuse, Mary Kallistewa, Frank Vacit, Mingos House, John Gordon Leak, Teddy Weahkee, and Dan Simplico. Today some of the most popular contemporary Zuni artists include Virgil and Shirley Benn, Rudell and Nancy Laconsello, H.L. Zuhnie, Dale Edaakie, V.M. Dishta, and Anselm Wallace.