Jewelry has been made and worn in the Southwest since prehistoric times. Native Americans were introduced to metal by the Spanish. For years they acquired metal ornaments through trade, and it was not until the middle of the 19th century that Navajo and Zuni artisans learned metalwork from Mexican blacksmiths and silversmiths. Their early silver jewelry creations were very plain and decorated with simple designs. Turquoise was first used in silver around 1880. The Navajo and Zuni styles diverged in the early 20th century. The Navajo became known for their use of silver, emphasizing silver-heavy designs with only a few gemstones, while the Zuni focused on stone work, featuring finely cut clusters of gems in complex patterns known as “cluster work”.
Cluster work is a jewelry style that is unique to the Zuni people. Although early Zuni jewelry resembled Navajo silverwork, in the 1920s and 1930s Zuni artisans developed a signature style that involved setting large groups of hand cut gemstones into extremely intricate settings. The finely cut gems were often arranged in beautiful patterns that resembled flowers, snowflakes or wagon wheels. Zuni cluster work is most closely associated with turquoise, although jet and coral, and other gemstones may be used. Petit point and needlepoint are two types of Zuni cluster work and can be distinguished by the shape and size of the gemstones. Petit point refers to gems cut into round, oval, rectangle, pear or square shapes, while needlepoint refers to gems that have been cut into a thin sliver or needle shape. Cluster work is an extremely time-consuming process and fewer and fewer artists are taking the time to hand cut their gemstones. A true piece of Zuni cluster jewelry is an exquisite piece of wearable art that showcases the unmatched lapidary skills of Zuni artists and will be an heirloom for generations to come.
Adapted from Native American Jewelry Guide and The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center