The earliest Zuni maker of jewelry who can be identified with certainty is Juan De Dios, who taught his nephew Dan Simplicio Sr. and several other Zunis. Juan remains mysterious but Lee Weebothe remembers him well and has told me some great stories. There are two Juan De Dioses in the 1885 census, both born in 1876. De Dios manages to avoid being listed in most of the later censuses.
Nobody seems to know the origin of his Spanish name in Zuni—De Dios is not actually a surname, but part of his given name, “John of God”, like John the Baptist. It was usually pronounced and sometimes spelled Didios.
His apprentices include Dan Simplicio, Frank Calavaza, Leslie Shebola, and Wilbur Weebothee among others. Wilbur’s son Lee would take the family horses to Juan’s well for water and he would talk to the old man. Lee says Juan was an excellent herbalist and medicine man.
It is generally accepted that Juan De Dios was doing tufa casting very early in the last century. The often repeated story about Juan learning the casting process from a Navajo, but not noticing the step where the mold release was applied doesn’t have much credibility—either part of the story.
When John Adair recounts the tale (1944:150) it leads into explaining that Juan prefers to use kerosene or machine oil as a mold release so the silver doesn’t stick to the stone. Every silver caster had his own favorite. Many Navajos prefer smoke from pinon pitch. Some use lampblack, charcoal, or most any carbon substance. Horace Iule claimed to prefer smoke from peach pits.
The literature has several references to De Dios casting “in the round” using two tufa molds, one for each half, then casting them as a single piece. Apparently most of these were small animals that resembled fetishes. Adair says, “There is one smith in the pueblo, Juan Deleosa, who makes these fetish animal forms in silver. These are small in size, one figure being no more than one-half inches long, and delicately molded.” (1944:149) Again, Lee Weebothee verifies these castings. Juan helped him cast a silver mouse but, sadly, Lee didn’t know what became of the little critter.
The most spectacular piece is the famous crucifix. Adair writes that Deleosa’s first crucifix was fabricated by hand and made for the new Catholic priest, Father Arnold. He indicates this would have been about 1910. Father Arnold was sent to Zuni in 1920 to re-establish the mission there Marjery Bedinger puts the date of the first crucifix at 1908. (1973:150).
The Wallace knifewing piece in the Heard collection is dated 1929. The first pieces were fabricated from thin silver ingots using a hammer, chisel and files, a method that is work intensive. Claims are made for either Juan De Dios in 1932 (Slaney p.33) with the inlaid version in 1934, or Horace Iule as the innovator (1928) but Adair, in a footnote (1944:140), admits that Margaret E. Lewis (daughter of Margaret A.) says the Navajo Ike Wilson made the first one in 1928 at the request of Charlie Kelsey.
Margaret helped many an ethnographer in Zuni, and by 1930 was an established silversmith herself. It is likely she is correct on this. Both Horace and Juan soon switched to cast silver versions (faster to produce) and then De Dios added stone inlay to his creations. It has even been suggested that De Dios’ inlay in his knifewing was the first such work in modern times. If Juan De Dios’ version of the knifewing wasn’t first, it was very early