For the Zuni tribe, turquoise has deep cultural and artistic importance.
The mineral’s vibrant hues of blue, green, and aqua are used in ceremonies and to make stunning jewelry known around the world.
Dan Simplicio Jr., a Zuni artist and archaeologist who works for Crow Canyon, shared some of the backstory of the turquoise tradition during a presentation put on by the Hisatsinom Chapter last week.
“Turquoise comes from the cooking of various elements of Mother Earth,” he said, a process that is also a foundation of the Zuni way of life.
“Our mindset is we are a raw-essence, and as we move through life we also become cooked,” he said. “Turquoise is a powerful element that stabilizes our lives.”
Turquoise stones placed before a building is constructed are seen as roots for the structure. Simplicio adds that Zuni-style construction does not use scaffolding or levels, rather brick layers straddle the wall, moving backwards as they add hewed stones by eye.
The Zuni have ancestral ties to the Puebloan people who thrived in the Four Corners a millennia ago. At the Dillard site being excavated by Crow Canyon at Indian Camp Ranch, turquoise has been found.
“It was probably used for ritual ceremonies because of the way it was shaped,” Simplicio said. “It is a very good find for the Basketmaker site there.”
Simplicio is an accomplished jeweler specializing in turquoise set in silver. He learned the trade from his dad, Dan Simplicio Sr., a world renown turquoise and silversmithing artist who has passed on in 1970.
“We only have four of his pieces,” he said. “One is valued at $60,000.”
The Zuni are pioneers in making turquoise and silver jewelry, and 65 percent of the tribe continues the trade today.
“Dad was a master, and created an army of jewelers in the 1960s,” Simplicio said. “Before butane tanks, kids would collect charcoal to melt the silver. My father and Great uncle used a hand-crank grinding stone.”
The presence of iron creates the deep blue turquoise, preferred by artists. The less iron, the more green the hue. Seashells, and coral from Italy and the Mediterranean are also incorporated into the artwork.
Access to quality turquoise for the Zuni tribe is becoming more difficult. Simplicio said China has been buying it up from the Southwest, increasing the price.
“We’re seeing a drastic shortage,” he said. “The prices are so high that it is not available to the Zuni people, so we hope that changes.”
A big question facing the tribe is whether large turquoise artwork should be recycled to make smaller pieces. Prehistoric turquoise has special significance to the tribe.
“We believe it brings the spirits from the past to the present,” Simplicio said. “It is given to religious leaders as part of the ceremonial continuum they follow.”
Turquoise is mined in Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada, where the famous spider-web variety comes from.