Inlay jewelry is arguably the most popular made by Native Americans. Seeing a piece of Native American inlay jewelry, with turquoise and multi-colored gemstones, has always been most enjoyable for me. The precision of the intricate inlay work is usually quite amazing!
The Zuni Tribe, masters of lapidary, began doing inlay work when they were introduced to silversmithing by the Spanish. Their lapidary skills were easily applied to silver, and later gold. Though they were the first of the Native Americans to do inlay work, it was done as far back as the Egyptians. King Tut's famous gold sarcophagus was inlaid with beautiful gemstones, including turquoise.
The making of inlay jewelry is different from the usual ways of making jewelry. A silver and/or goldsmith first makes the metal creation with channels to hold a stone or group of stones. The stones are then cut to fit into a channel or void/recess. They are glued with epoxy, ground, sanded and then polished. Quality Native American inlay jewelry is made so the channels have a locking groove or angle in the channel to keep the gemstone from falling out. This technique was developed over time by Native American workers in inlay.
There are three common types of inlay work that are seen. Mosaic inlay is where each stone is inlaid alongside the next stone. Channel inlay is a style where a silver, or gold, spacer is between each inlaid stone. Then there is cobbled inlay. It is a type of mosaic inlay where the stones are alongside each other. However, in this case, the stones are raised and uneven.
In the 1800's, when silversmithing was first introduced to Southwestern Native Americans, the Navajo were the first to make jewelry. The Zuni followed and then began making the inlay. Today we will see some shops having Navajo jewelers make silver rings and bracelets. Then Zunis inlay the piece with turquoise and/or different gemstones. The Zunis are really the ones most known for inlay.
The Zuni have made Indian jewelry since the early 1900's. Their antique inlay (1900-1930) and vintage inlay (1940-1960) is very collectable. The vintage inlay became very popular worldwide due primarily to international tourism from the Grand Canyon. This led to low quality copying of Native American inlay encouraged by the fashion industry. However quality Native American inlay jewelry is incomparable. Its beauty and durability is due to the sense of care of centuries of Native American life. The best way to appreciate genuine Native American inlay though, is to have some of your own. A person can then let the beauty speak for itself!