Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a huge boom in interest in Southwestern Native American art, but mostly in Indian jewelry.
Turquoise and silver were the rage and, while much of the jewelry sold at that time was mediocre, and a lot of it was never touched by an actual Native American, there was a lot of great jewelry made and sold.
The first boom in Native jewelry came when tourism began to make its presence known in the Southwest in the early 20th century. The railroad, with people stopping along the way in Fred Harvey Hotels with their gift shops featuring Indian jewelry and other arts, helped to spread the interest.
Route 66, America’s Highway, brought thousands of tourists through “Indian Country.”
During the early ‘70s, I used to travel the road selling Navajo rugs for my dad’s business. And while I was doing ok, I noticed that all the people selling turquoise and silver jewelry were doing a lot better than I was.
So I went to visit my Dad’s banker, to borrow some money to buy jewelry to sell. There were long distances between places that bought and sold rugs, but every filling station in the West was selling jewelry. I have some great stories about a few of those trips, but that’s for another day. The banker loaned me some money and I bought jewelry to sell.
One of the places that had quality jewelry was in Zuni, New Mexico. It was called Vanderwagon’s and was run by Richard Vanderwagon. His sons were also involved, as well as their buyer, Kay Tinnin.
In 1973, my buddy Buzz and I were making a trip to Houston to do a rug show at a department store called Sakowitz. Today I think they just sell furs. We stopped in Gallup and bought some concho belts from Harry Morgan then we headed to Zuni.
Zuni is the largest Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico, about the size of Rhode Island, and now has about 10,000 inhabitants. A lot of them became jewelers when a trader named C.G. Wallace set up shop in the village back in the early 20th century.
The first Zuni to work silver was a man named Lanyada who learned from a traveling Navajo smith named Atsidi Chon in 1872. The first Zuni to use turquoise with silver was Kineshde in the late 1890s.
Wallace made a huge contribution, hiring artists, giving them stones and guiding them in designs. And, of course, as the artists continued to work, they began to develop designs unique to themselves and their families.
There are four types of silver and turquoise jewelry unique to the Zuni at the time Buzz and I were buying jewelry at Vanderwagon’s. Cluster jewelry has larger shaped stone set in patterns, usually circular. Petit point jewelry has stones that are set in the same patterns but are smaller, round or in tear drop shapes. Needlepointjewelry uses turquoise or other stones shaped to have sharp points at both ends of a long stone. The other type is inlay jewelry, where the stones are set in silver to form patterns.
Vanderwagon’s was a unique place. Several traders were hanging around playing pool, people were marking jewelry and putting it in paper bags for customers like us to go through and artists were bringing jewelry in to sell, one after another. I’d never seen that much jewelry!
The Vanderwagon family had a great reputation, and you knew what you got was real. Then, like now, reputation is important.
Today, the Zuni artists are still considered, as a tribe, the biggest producers of quality jewelry. They are agricultural people and many of them work jewelry as a sideline, but it has been a good source of income for the people. Many of the artists have gained fame and are collected by people all over the world.
The Zuni have lived in their current village for over 1,300 years. Their first meeting with a European was in 1540, about eight years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. They have kept their language, which is entirely different from all the other Pueblos and their Kachina religion. Unlike many other tribes, most Zunis still live in the Pueblo which is has abundant water and fertile ground.
It’s easy to see why Zuni jewelry remains popular today!