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Orin Eriacho - Zuni Fetish Carver

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 1:31 PM

Orin Eriacho - Zuni Fetish Carver

      Orin Eriacho grew up in the big rock house south of the Zuni river built by Henry Gasper.  The home is most associated with the Tsabetsaye family, and linked to the Walelas.  Like most Zunis, Orin was surrounded by creativity and family celebrity, but his entry into the art world came out of his own interests.

In the sixth grade he did some carvings in what is called “Hopi” style.  They are basically sticks with heads carved and important features, but no feathers or dressing.  He thinks he did a dozen or so of these figures.  In Jr. High he started carving antler.

Orin began carving rock, using scraps from the artists around him.  The fetishes were tiny, but completely dressed.  He was mentored by Bob Walela and expanded his repertoire.  From the beginning he has carved rock found on the Zuni reservation.  He refuses to buy his stone.  Dealers began to criticize the use of what is known as “Zuni Rock” or “Leekya Stone” because it wasn’t colorful enough.


One dealer at least claims the rock only comes from land owned by the Leakya family and they are the only ones using it for carving.  Neither of those statements are correct.  And though the stone is usually thought of as the soft ochre yellow, it comes in a variety of colors from white to dark brown.  Some of it shows spots and stripes.  The mineral is travertine, and a number of Zuni carvers have their own quarries, which they guard.

In the 1880s Frank Cushing looked for a fabled turquoise mine in the Zuni Mountains.  In a terrible blizzard he lost his mule and his way, but he found an ancient digging with several copper minerals—malachite and azurite.  Orin’s uncle, Felino Eriacho has a source for that colorful mineral and carves it.

Other exotic stone is also found on the Mesas that surround the village.  Orin carves purple fluorite which should satisfy any demand for color.  Some of it is nearly transparent and the viewer sees into the body of the stone.  Orin says it seems to flame while grinding.  The fire closely resembles opal.

Flourite Bear

Many carvers get a feel for their stone and look for the animal inside.  One fluorite bear Orin carved is only half there.  He says that was the animal he saw, and the carving balances on one front paw.

Eriacho gives lie to the complaint about color in Zuni rock.  He carved a mountain lion two and a half feet long, crouching with an intense stare.  The coloring of the rock, with dark stripes like lighting, is perfect for the intense lion.  He entered it in a show in Dallas and it won Best of Division.  It sold on the spot.

Orin is a hard man to catch because he lives intensely, always busy with his art and other business.  He hauls wood for quick cash, but says he just loves being in the mountains, and he sees lots of wildlife.  Nature recharges his battery.

Milford Nahohai

Tuesday, April 9, 2019 5:43 PM

Milford Nahohai

         All Zunis grow up surrounded by art, but Milford Nahohai has probably done better than most.  His family tree looks like more like a Christmas display.  Wherever the family name came from, as it is written today it is the Navajo word for rodeo [originally chicken pull] a rather exciting event.  Astonishingly, Milford’s paternal grandfather, Antone (Antonacio) Nahohai, was born in 1863 and his wife the same year.  That is a huge connection with the past. 

This is a century and a half in only three generations.  Milford heard older family members tell about the past and traditional beliefs.  His great uncle Lonkeena later recorded stories for posterity and Milford is listening to them.  I urge him to transcribe them.

Antone had two sons, Dalyupta, 1905, and Nat, 1906.  Dalyupta is one of the best kept secrets in Zuni history.  He was blind, but that didn’t keep him from doing more (and better) than most of his contemporaries.  He moved around the village without a cane, knew people by their footsteps, and was a seer in the Ancient Greek pattern.

Over the years dozens of people have told me their personal stories about this man.  It seemed he could read minds.  Blind people tend to sharpen other senses to get along, but Dalyupta could “see” things that never ceased to astonish folks.  Even if some of the stories are exaggerated, his actual accomplishments are dizzying.  He repaired furniture.  He dealt in jewelry raw materials.  One man swore Dalyupta had a still for bootleg liquor at one time.

I have seen a carved frog he made and it is very lifelike.  For silversmith Myrtle Naieshta he rebuilt a rolling mill that turns silver slugs into plate and wire.  The broken, heavy tool had been discarded.  Dalyupta’s brother was Milford’s dad, Nate.  Nate carved katsinas and fetishes.

Milford’s mother Josephine was orphaned at an early age and was raised in the Bowekaty family.  Needlepoint master Hugh was the baby of the group, but several others were jewelers.  His grandmother’s brother was Lonkeena who is given credit for taking his wife and several other ladies to the first Ceremonial and originating the so-called Olla Maidens.  He was a consummate storyteller and contributed to the Duke Oral History project in the late 60s.  Lonkeena made the old traditional “tab” turquoise necklaces.

Maternal grandma Lawatsa made pottery and was known as a weaver.  Nobody seems to know that Zunis wove blankets.  She steered Josephine away from weaving because she said she was often not paid.  Milford recalls Grandma Lawatsa didn’t make as much pottery as some of the ladies, but it was a skill she passed down.

Josephine was first married to another important silversmith, Jerry Shebala and together they produced jewelry legend Dixon Shebala who in turn was married to a Hustito.  Josephine, never associated with silverwork, won a blue ribbon at the first New Mexico State Fair where Native artists were allowed to enter their own work.  She traded a squash-blossom necklace for the land the Nahohai house stands on.

Milford told me that both he and brother Randy first learned to make jewelry.  Josephine switched them all to ceramics because the clay and other materials were free in nature.  Silver and turquoise were becoming too dear.

Over the years she won many awards for her pottery eventually being honored as a living legend.  Both Milford and Randy have also been stars in the world of Zuni pottery and a few years ago, not long before Randy’s sudden passing, the two brothers and their family were given extensive coverage in Ceramics in America 15, a hardcover annual devoted to the pottery arts.

Randy was married for years to Rowena Him, whose parents were both important jewelers.  Their son JC, who sometimes works parties as a DJ, is now taking over the mantle and winning awards at the big Indian art shows. He also spent time in Japan, studying Japanese pottery The family has pushed the boundaries of Zuni pottery into the 21st Century while keeping it grounded in tradition.

Milford got a big dose of Zuni art when he joined the Zuni Arts and Crafts enterprise, eventually managing the business.  This took Milford all over the country from folk gatherings in DC to their two shops on the West Coast; San Francisco and Venice.  There was talk at one time about opening a store in Paris, France.

Thanks largely to grants, the Zuni Tribe created their own book imprint in the early Nineties and produced several volumes.  I have known Milford and his late brother for many years but it was the book Zuni: A Village of Silversmiths, 1996, that I particularly quizzed him about.  I hoped he could explain why there were so many errors in a book, issued in the name of the Zuni Tribe. 

Even though he is listed as co-author with James Ostler and Marian Rodee he says his involvement was primarily with the interviews, one between Ostler and him, the other a perceptive interview he conducted with the late Charles Hustito.

His interview with older ladies is the best discussion of Zuni aesthetics I have ever read, but he told me he never saw the rest of the text.  “They just copied stuff from books, like everyone does.”  That was a really unfortunate missed  opportunity.

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Master Jeweler Eldred Martinez: Pushing Tradition

Friday, March 1, 2019 11:18 AM

Master Jeweler Eldred Martinez: Pushing Tradition

Eldred Martinez is well-connected in the traditional world of Zuni jewelry making, even in the village of silversmiths.  His mother Abbey Martinez had Eldred about the time his maternal grandfather, Leo Poblano, lost his life in California.  His father Joseph and his uncle Juan were both jewelers.  Like most Zunis, he and his brother Mark picked up the basics of silver work helping their parents.

He started making his own jewelry at about age twelve and says he got hooked on the art when he started selling rings to Mickey Vanderwagon on the way to school, keeping him in spending money.   He was soon doing so well he turned to silversmithing full time.  When the jewelry business slipped he worked in construction, doing both until 2005 when he went back to silver full time.

His maternal grandmother was Cynthia Iule, which ties him to two of the most prominent early families in the business.   Eldred recalls Dale Edaaki in particular as an early influence.  He was fascinated by Dale’s masterfully inlaid animal figures.

Yelmo Natachu was an uncle and he and his wife Betty were creating Rainbow Man figures which influenced and inspired him as a youngster.  “I would see these things all around me,” he says.  “I wanted to do work like that.”  Porfilio Sheyka, another maternal uncle,  was also one of his teachers.  Sheyka was known for his eagle dancers and animals. “I wondered,” says Eldred, “if I could make things like they did.”


Even though he was making a living with his inlay, it was the birth of a very sick grandson that pushed him to go further because the family needed money.  It was at that point he started to develop a unique style of his own.  At first he created his well-known corn and butterfly maidens, which he still makes.   He got the shape of his butterfly maidens and a male version from a painting by his daughter Kelly.  Several children and grandchildren are rising artists. 

Martinez says that some of his buyers pushed him to try more ambitious items, katsinas and other figural pieces, and he turned out to be very good at it.  Once he discovered he could create his own designs his work got more and more ambitious.  Even when he does traditional pieces like the Sunface he puts his own stamp on them.

Eldred Martinez’s works are a combination of four traditional techniques:  channel inlay, where bands of silver separate the parts; mosaic inlay, where pieces of stone are fitted together seamlessly to make a component; stone carving, where details are cut into the turquoise and shell; and overlay, where stones of different types are stacked to create a bas-relief, three dimensional effect.

When I visited Eldred last he was putting the final touches to a new design he hopes will be as popular as his huge (6x3 in) flying eagle.  He got the idea from one of his horses who had a bad habit of rearing up and waving his forelegs.  The design on his rearing horse was suggested by a large piece of pottery he came across in the hills.


Eldred’s grandfather once had a large herd of horses and that animal has always been a big part of his life.  He enjoys the time he spends on their care every day.  He got his first horse on a trade with his wife Jobyna’s uncle, Patrick Phillips.  The pony cost him bolo/bracelet set depicting rain dancers.

At this point Martinez has done two complete Shalako/Council of the Gods sets, many individual Kokos, and he is especially fond of the Sayatasha, a ceremonial whipper figure that appears in several annual dance cycles.  Several of his high-end collectors want an example of every new design he creates.

While drawing on tradition, Eldred has found power in following his own muse, and feels now that he could make almost anything in stone and silver.

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Claudia Peina

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 4:22 PM

Claudia Peina

               Claudia Peina comes from an illustrious family; both jewelry and especially fetishes.  The earlier generation concentrated mainly on stringing fetishes.   Kempsy Kushana, George Haloo, and Miguel and Rami Haloo who carved standing bears.  Early on she learned to carve frogs from her aunt Rosalia Quam.

               The late Colvin Peina, her older brother, was the inspiration for Claudia and her brother Troy.  Troy was first to carve the dancing bears, but the two of them refined the idea together to create the art they are famous for.  Claudia was about seventeen when she took up carving.  It was hard not to carve when most of the family members were doing it.

As good artists will do, she kept experimenting; Smiling bears, Laughing bears, Singing bears; but always bears expressing joy.  Claudia has tried stone carving, but is most comfortable and creative with elk antler which she buys at Joe Milo’s.  Today she carves a number of different figures, like the ones she calls Care-takers.


As she grows she has become more bold with materials and designs.  Lately she has been “dressing” her pieces.  She has them holding spears and shields, ornamentation in coral and turquoise set into the figures.  There is always something new out there.  Her latest idea is to take the butts of elk antler, called rosettes or burrs, and turn them into relief carvings; a carved concho belt.  She has accumulated a box of these rosettes discarded in favor of the antler itself.  She has some large ones that would make fine conchos.

She is constantly refining her angels and butterfly maidens. At first she created wings out of shell, then she tried silver plate, and today she dresses them in marvelous filigree.  For a time her husband Kall Kalestewa did her silver work, but when they separated she had to teach herself the skill.  One of her filigree-winged butterflies fills the eye-catching cover of Mark Bahti’s book Spirit in the Stone.

We talked a lot about the various outlets for Native art today, much better than for her grandfather and his brother.  She has a pile of ribbons, but that doesn’t dull the thrill of doing it over again.  She has been successful in, and prominent at shows like the Heard Museum, Flagstaff Museum, Ceremonial and Indian Market, with new venues appearing all the time. WARRIOR_MAIDENS._THE_ONES_WITH_THEIR_HAIR_ONLY_HALF_DONE_REPRESENT_THE_WARRIOR_WOMAN_OF_ZUNI_LORE.

        Like most true artists she doesn’t like doing the same piece over and over again, the only thing lesser talents are forced to do.  All the same, one of her fetishes was included in the Southwest Indian Foundation’s catalog.  The strangest request came through one of her buyers who asked her to make bears for some “Bear Club.” It has become an annual thing for her, carving around fifty new bears every year.

In recent years she has been a buyer for Harold Finkelstein who wrote the pamphlet Zuni Fetish Carvings.  By doing that she is becoming familiar with the whole spectrum of Zuni art.  It doesn’t hurt that so many great artists are her close relatives.  Her only expense is time and money and she loves the search.  These days she’s contemplating a Zuni store of her own in the near future.

Lewis Malie

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 4:14 PM

Lewis Malie

LEWIS_MALIE_CARVING_OUTSIDE_OF_HIS_CABIN_KEEPING_DOWN_THE_DUST       Lewis (Mertz) Malie is a nephew of Maxx and Pernell Laate and as he grew up he watched them work, picking up techniques and inspiration. Though Lewis Malie grew up in a family of carvers, he has developed a work style different than any fetish maker I know of.

He has never used a grinder as others do to rough out his pieces and do the basic shaping.  He carves his amazing fetishes using only a Dremel and at that uses only three bits. That minimalism of tools certainly doesn’t handicap him and undoubtedly enhances his super fine detail.THIS_IGUANA_WAS_CARVED_FROM_COW_BONE_A_MEDIA_SELDOM_USED_BY_ZUNI_CARVERS

Though his work is similar to his uncle Maxx and his cousin Esteban Najera his subjects and his style are his own.  Though they all carve stunning eagles, each of them manages to make their birds uniquely their own.  One eagle carving shows an eagle on the ground, wings outspread in a protective pose, but there is a large rattlesnake in the bird’s beak, revealed like a surprise.

Mertz also carves a lot of bats.  They are challenging because they don’t have the detailed feathers of birds. In an effort to keep interest among buyers and collectors, most Zuni fetish artists have ventured into a Noah’s Ark of animals.  One of Lewis’s most interesting pieces is an iguana climbing a branch.  The slitted eyes are inlayed with black stone.  That and the shape of the mouth make the lizard look somewhat sinister.

He once carved twenty eagles on a single piece. One of his signature pieces is a two-part antler pendant: an eagle head backed by a detailed feather. The two parts move separately.  Each one he does is a little different.


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