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Hallmarks identify the jewelry maker. Many times they are just simple letter stamps. They are not something new, but can be traced back to the 4th Century. Famous American metal smiths used them before we became a country. Paul Revere who warned the Colonial militia “the British are coming” during the American Revolution used a hallmark on his handmade silver pieces in the 1700s.
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In the recent book Leekya: Master Carver of Zuni Puebloby Deborah Slaney, Leekya’s grandchildren don’t get much attention. Of course the book is about Old Man Leekya but the examples of work by the grandsons are not very representative of their extraordinary work.
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.
We complain all the time about so many silversmiths deliberately not signing their work well up into the Fifties and how nice it would be if everyone had marked their pieces, but that is not always correct. The signature of two letters LL has two or three takers at any moment, though the two most prominent ones are both gone.
While snakes do not qualify as a popular Zuni design they are interesting for that reason—why were they not more desirable?
Playing the name game is often as simple as figuring out who a piece actually belongs to when it is marked by initials only. Except without a last name there isn’t much to work from. By now most people have learned that LL stands for Larry Laate, not Lavonne Lalio or Navajo Larry Livingston, Linette Laiwakete perhaps or any other fanciful attribution.
There are a handful of famous Zuni jewelers who either never existed or did not make the jewelry they are famous for. How could this happen, you ask? Traders are always under pressure to put names to jewelry they are trying to sell. This also includes point of sale. Collectors can be very insistent and a familiar name is soothing. Traders also had to put names on jewelry they entered in various competitions.
For two men who were not even remotely related these two talented silversmiths have been inextricably intertwined. Several bits in their biographies may have added to the confusion. Both Navajos were born on the same part of the Reservation not far north of Zuni. Exactly where they were from is unclear because censuses list the place the material was collected. They both appear in the Southern Navajo Agency censuses.
The horse is a very popular design in Zuni jewelry but they can be confusing if they are not cleanly signed. Two types are especially difficult. Overlay inlay—once called Zuni inlay because nobody else did it—would be difficult to attribute if they are not signed.
Early in life Carl Gorman did well as a bootlegger on the Reservation. Then he was one of the few native traders. His father Nelson Gorman had a post near Chinle. Carl’s language skills were obvious—during the infamous stock reduction, he was used as a Navajo translator for the government—and he was one of the first Code Talkers taken.
During what I have dubbed the “Golden Age” in Zuni—the Forties and Fifties—there were many artists who did it all, finally picking the talent most lucrative—usually jewelry work. Even then they often still had to have a “real” job to support their families.
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