Z is for Zuni Necklace

Helbing Collection A-Z is a continuing feature of our blog. Each week, I will highlight an item or items from our Helbing Collection of Native American Arts and Crafts.

For our final Helbing A-Z post we are sharing our spectacular, hand-made Zuni silver necklace.

Cleora’s personal note on this piece read, “This necklace, made of silver and set with turquoise, has round silver ingots in two strands from the clasp and running about one-quarter of the way on each side from the back to front. The rest of the necklace has dainty silver flowers projecting outwards around it. This flower motif, much used by the Indians, gives the necklace its name–Squash Flower. In the center of the necklace is a horseshoe-shaped pendant. The is a very old piece of Zuni jewelry, made before the silver-smiths knew how to make beads of perfect form, all the same size. When I bought this necklace in 1940 from the Indian “Fonda Joe,” he estimated that it was at least 75 years old then.”

According to my research, one of the most characteristic of Southwest Indian jewelry designs, the squash blossom necklace was not traditional until after the arrival of Europeans, when Navajo silversmiths adopted the crescent-shaped “naja” of the Spanish into their own artwork. The earliest Navajo squash blossom necklaces were silver only; the now-familiar turquoise inlay patterns were a Zuni innovation in the 19th century. It is unknown where the name “squash blossom necklace” originally came from, since neither the Navajo, Zuni nor other Pueblo Indians use “squash blossom” in their own language. It may have been a mistranslation between English, Spanish, and one of the Southwest Indian languages, or perhaps someone thought the shape of the beads looked like squash blossoms at some point.

Necklace prior to cleaning

I had the pleasure of polishing each of the 204 hollow silver beads back in 2008 when we cleaned and re-strung the necklace. There are 24 squash blossom beads – each with a small turquoise stone and one center squash blossom pendant. Each piece was hand cleaned with a slurry of calcium carbonate, rinsed clean and buffed with a soft cloth. The change was dramatic!

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