Back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, when there was an explosion of interest in Southwest Indian jewelry, the Pueblo of Zuni was a very busy place. Silver and lapidary artists made jewelry as fast as they could and still couldn’t satisfy the market.
A lot of great jewelry—and some not so great--came on the market. Unfortunately, many people paid a lot of money for less than the best quality.
During this period a group of dealers, collectors and artists founded the Indian Arts and Crafts Association to lobby for the protection of authentic Native arts and to promote it to the buying public.
The Water Bird design, which was a Plains Indian motif celebrating the rain that gave life, the rivers that carried the water, and the process of renewal, has been associated with the Native American Church since the early 1900s.
Some people have the idea that chewing Peyote buds is a lot of fun. Well, it really isn’t. The Peyote Ceremonies of the Native American Church are serious and after eating the buds during ceremonies, people have “visions” and become violently ill. This is not something that you do for fun.
What is interesting is that in the ‘60s the Water Bird of Plains Indian origin became popular with certain Zuni artists who created beautiful inlaid jewelry using the design. Many artists used it. One of the best was a woman named Vera Luna (1930-1982) who made pins, bracelets, rings and stylized “squash blossom” necklaces.
In these creations, she used small handmade beads and exacting silverware that was inlaid with coral, turquoise, shell and jet to create matching birds on both sides of the necklace. Her inlay work was ground smoothly and precisely.
Other people copied her work and embellished it. Some of the results were wonderful. We have a necklace made in the 1990s that was probably not made by a Zuni, but rather by Taos silversmith Bobby Lujan (1922-2012). The signature on the piece matches his hallmark on different kinds of jewelry and he was known for making inlaid Kachina (Katsina) dancer bolos, so I feel confident it is his work. I could be wrong, but it doesn’t matter.
It is the evolution of the same design that is interesting. The birds look the same, but instead of being ground flat, they are rounded and raised, creating a different reflection of light. The beads are handmade but larger that Vera’s and the artist used more turquoise in the piece giving it a brighter look than Vera’s.
Nothing stands still, and to see the difference in execution of the same design, twenty some years later, illustrates that. Both are beautiful. One has a classic old look, and one is very contemporary. Both have their charms. And things do change.