How to Identify Zuni Jewelry

How to Identify Zuni Jewelry

The Zuni people have been here for a very longtime, thousands of years. That history is different than the Navajo who are believed to have arrived much later. However, it is a Navajo who supposedly taught the first Zuni the art of silversmithing. It makes sense that this is the progression. After all, many Navajos lived near the forts established by the United States government. These forts would need the skills of a blacksmith to make the iron shoes for a horse. Both Fort Defiance and Fort Wingate are established in the mid 1800s, at the same time historians believe the first Navajo silversmiths begin making jewelry. It is said that a blacksmith taught the first Navajo jewelry making.

Close proximity between the Navajo and Zuni is about all they have in common. These pueblo people have a very different culture and belief system from the Navajo. You will find many of the ceremonies performed by the Zuni involve the sun and harvests and are performed by kachinas. The Navajo don’t have kachinas and their ceremonies mostly deal with healing and involve the Yei’ be Chei. So, it makes sense that once the Zuni silversmith learned his new skill that he would create a style that was Zuni. It would be a style that would come all about the stone.

Stone Work

Both Zuni and Navajo people like the stone cluster style of jewelry. It is thought of as a traditional style that is worn in ceremonies, special occasions and on a daily basis among the Navajo and Zuni. The construction of Zuni cluster work is very different than that of the Navajo. You want to learn about stones to help you better identify Zuni jewelry.

What to look for when identifying Zuni stonework:

Zuni artists are going to cut their own stones from rough turquoise, meaning a consistency in color and shape

Common shapes are needlepoint and petit point

Navajo clusters will be made with freeform cuts, commonly cut stabilized stones like Kingman and Sleeping Beauty turquoise
Most cluster work is done with a solid blue stone free of matrix, it seems that Zuni artists do not prefer the heavy matrix stones like the Navajo do


These are assumptions to begin your jewelry identification, they are not always true.

Petit point and needlepoint aren’t the only types of stone work that will help you identify Zuni jewelry. Inlay is another very common style of Zuni jewelry. Many times it is turned into Sunfaces, Thunderbirds and other cultural figures. You will also find a number of Zuni artists that recreate their kachinas in inlay style along with animals and birds. A popular technique of inlay is called channel inlay where silver separates each cut/color of stone. You will find Zuni jewelry inlaid with all different types of stones, but classic colors are black jet, turquoise, white shell and red coral or red shell. Zuni jewelry that showcases big nuggets like you see in Navajo work, think Robert & Bernice Leekya, will many times be carved.

Silver Work

You can always find exceptions to the rule. Our showroom is full of both Zuni and Navajo jewelry. Of course we have these pieces separated by showcase so our customers know they are looking at either Zuni or Navajo work. If you did a comparison of similar styles you would probably find that a comparable style is always heavier when it is Navajo made. Zuni jewelry always seems to be lighter than Navajo jewelry. Of course, the style of these Zuni handmade manta pins is that exception. When you are lucky enough to witness a Zuni dance/ceremony you will be blown away by the big pieces of turquoise, what we would call Navajo style.

 Zuni is a small pueblo and the population is under 10,000 residents. That is a stark contrast to the Navajo reservation that is over 27,000 square miles and reaches into three different states. Plus, the population of the Navajo reservation is near a quarter of a million people. When a trading post opened up in Zuni and the operator was making jewelry that could influence the whole artisan community, very different from a trader on the remote Navajo reservation. It is very well documented that C.G. Wallace made many pieces collaborating Zuni lapidary artists with Navajo silversmiths. That would result in these beautiful Zuni turquoise cluster cuts set in heavy Navajo silver. Today you see less of this collaboration, but it is a style that many Zuni people appreciate. That could be inspiration for these large manta pins, who doesn’t like a piece of big turquoise.


Specialization is a good way to describe a Zuni artist. Many Zuni artists will make the same piece over and over again. That means that they know exactly how much silver is needed for each piece, the amount of stones needed along with knowing to the penny how much that piece of jewelry costs in material. This also translates into a lot of Zuni artists having a set price for their work, every buyer pays the same price. Very different from Navajo artists who make a wide variety of styles, each piece is a different cost and selling price. Two very different approaches.

Above Image - Zuni etched hallmarks

Below Image - Navajo stamped hallmarks

Hallmark stamps can be expensive. They also take time to be made. Plus, they eventually will break meaning they need to be replaced.  A number of Zuni artists will etch their work with their name instead of using a hallmark stamp. I don’t know if it is the additional cost of a hallmark stamp or that Zuni silversmiths use a much lighter gauge of silver that a stamp might punch through. Whatever the reason this is another helpful way to identify your piece of Zuni jewelry.


Let’s face it, Zuni jewelry is really cool and some of the designs are favorites among serious collectors. So, it makes sense that you will find capable Navajo artists that become inspired by Zuni work and make re-creations of many classic Zuni designs. If you are a collector it quickly becomes apparent that it is very difficult to find those Leo Poblano, Leekya Deyuse & Dan Simplicio pieces. Not only is it nearly impossible to get your hands on originals, but you will begin to realize that you don’t have but a handful of Zuni artists that even create similar works. The value of an original from a re-creation is significant and you will want to use what resources you have to correctly identify a piece.

Quiz Yourself

The answers are below the images, see how many you get correct.