Today I’m writing about the differences in three very popular Zuni jewelry techniques which are often confused; petit point, snake eye, and needlepoint. These three stone setting techniques offer exquisite detail in a finished setting and are instantly recognizable.
The turquoise and other stones used in all three techniques are called cabochons. Cabochon is a jeweler’s word for a stone that is polished instead of faceted. A faceted stone, such as a diamond, is called a gemstone. Cabochons are small polished stones and are the basis for petit point, snake eye and needle point Zuni work.
Silver work began to be seen in Native America during the mid 1800’s. It was introduced by artists from Mexico, as well as neighboring tribes who had taught themselves and shared their skills. The tools used during this time were not capable of creating the finely intricate patterns seen in later years, so much of the Native American jewelry in the 1800’s was centered on a polished stone with silver work being forced to accommodate the natural shape of the stone.
In the mid-1900s, most likely the 1930’s or 1940’s, better hand tools, as well as electric tools began to be used by the Native American jewelers. These tools allowed for a much greater level of precision when working with stones and allowed the jewelers to make the stones fit into their designs, instead of the artists’ vision being forced to use the stones natural shape.
With the new skills and new tools, the petit point technique began to be seen in Native American jewelry. The petit point technique creates a small cabochon with one end rounded and the opposite end carved and polished to a point. It could be described as looking like a tear drop. The finely crafted cabochon is then placed in a setting, typically sterling silver. The petit point cabochons lend themselves to round designs such as the classic cluster bracelets.
The petit point technique requires finely honed stonework skills. The cabochons are very small and can easily fracture during the honing and polishing process. Each jewelry artist has created their own method of forging these small pieces and once mastered, will typically sit and create hundreds of the polished stones all at once in preparation for creating a finished piece.
The snake eye technique requires the same level of stonework skill as petit point, but creates a cabochon that resembles a sphere, or dot; thus looking like the eyes of a snake when finished. Typically an artist will create a small cylinder shape and then polish one of its ends round. The cabochon can then be cut to the necessary height. Once set in its sterling silver setting, the cabochon appears to be a small highly polished sphere.
The third technique, needle point, requires the highest level of skill to achieve success. Like petit point and snake eye, needle point has been made possible by finer tools that allow for extremely delicate stone carving. Needle point requires thinly sliced cabochons with finely polished and finely pointed ends. The very nature of the shape, as well as the number of cuts necessary to achieve the correct shape, requires a great amount of patience and skill. Artists that are new to needle point can expect to create 10% usable cabochons. The remaining 90% will be shattered and broken pieces. These small broken fragments are usually too small to be reused and are used for purposes other than jewelry (example: for turquoise fill used in pottery). Once the artist gains experience, the waste pile shrinks and the cost to create each usable cabochon shrinks as well.
Needle point cabochons are set in a vertical setting. When viewed from above, each small pointed stone appears to be a small sliver of polished work. Each stone looks to be a turquoise needle that has been placed into a sterling silver setting; and thus the name needle point has been given to this technique.
Because of the difficulty in crafting needle point cabochons, certain mines of turquoise are more popular to be used. These include sleeping beauty, lone mountain, and spider web.
Be sure to take a look at some more examples of these techniques in our store, Turquoise Canyon; http://www.turquoisecanyon.com/