Today I’d like to share some information about the Zuni Sunface, its symbolism and importance to the Zuni people, and all people who find themselves staring at it’s fine craftsmanship.
The Sunface can be seen in many different Zuni art styles from pottery to rugs, and of course in jewelry. Because of its great importance the Sunface has been used in almost every type of jewelry that can be crafted.
The Zuni, like most Native American people, were centered in an agricultural life style. This required them to have a keenly sharpened understanding of the relationship between the seasons and their crops. The Sun plays the penultimate role in this relationship, and is therefore considered one of the most important beings to the Zuni culture. The Sun is the bringer of life, stability, and continuity. The Sun brings prosperity and joy to families, and playfulness to children. The Sun affords the Zuni good luck and fortune. To the Zuni, giving respect and prayers to the Sun is as natural as breathing. As such, their jewelry incorporates the Sun and represents the Sun as Sunface.
From a craftsmanship perspective, the Sunface is one of the pinnacles of Zuni inlay artistry. It requires exacting cuts and an extremely high level of skill to appropriately create the fine inlay used in the Sunface. Most typically the Sunface is crafted in a full circular motif. The center inlay will represent the face of the Sun. The forehead is usually split into two (sometimes three) sections. Depending on the complexity and size of the piece, the two sections can be single cabochons or can be finely inlaid works in and of themselves. The two sections represent two important concepts. The first is the pairing of oneself with the family. To the Zuni people family is as critical to life as food and water, yet they also understand that each person is unique and special. Each one requires the other, and as such, both become represented as a main component of the Sunface. The other meaning is to symbolize the coming and going of the sun; sunrise and sunset or the day and night. The continuity of these events gives hope and stability to the Zuni, and again, neither can exist without the other.
The remaining lower section is made up of the eyes and mouth. The eyes are most typically represented as long rectangular shapes almost always crafted in black (either jet or onyx). These “slits” are the eyes of the Sun, peering out upon all of us. The Zuni do not add detail to the eyes for reasons of respect. The eyes are “windows of the soul” and as such an artist cannot assume to know what lies within. Therefore they are represented by the black rectangles. The mouth is typically round, but can be crafted out of almost any stone. This is the same for the remaining section of the face. Mother of pearl is most common, but all stones have been used. The mouth is fashioned as a simple circle for several reasons. First, this maintains the continuity represented by the Sunface; the circle representing the cycle of life and death, day and night. Another reason often associated with the simple circle design of the mouth is that the Sun is neither good nor bad, and thus no smile or frown is associated with the Sunface. It is simply a mouth.
Beyond the center face, the overall Sunface design can take on several forms. The most common is the full circle. In this design the center face will be surrounded by a fully symmetrical design typically accented by a feather like design. These feathers will often be split and represented by two or more cabochons. This design creates several meanings. First, the most obvious is the form of the Sun itself; the central Sunface surrounded by beams of light, shining down upon the Zuni. Another interpretation is that the feather design offers the Sunface freedom to soar and glide through the sky thus enabling him to create sunrise and sunset. From this comes another interpretation - the Sunface associated with birds, and most commonly the eagle. Thus, as an eagle, the Sunface is both wise and powerful.
The second basic form for the Sunface is where the outer circular design does not complete a full circle. Instead it stops around the 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock positions. This gives the appearance of a headdress. Two feather designs, almost like earrings, are usually found in this style as well. This style is no more or less important that the full circular design. This style represents the Sunface as a decorated god, wearing a headdress and can be thought to show Sunface decorated as a god. Another interpretation is that the partial circular design represents the sky as seen above a horizon. The earring like feather design can be the clouds and rain, giving life to the earth. When worn as a ring or bracelet, the wearer’s fingers or wrist can then represent the earth.
A third basic form for the Sunface is an oblong or oval shape. The Sunface’s face remains center to the piece, but the outer design is created to give a wider setting. This is typically seen on bracelets and bolo ties. It is more rarely seen in other forms of jewelry. This image gives an even stronger symbolism to the eagle. The wider spread of the setting can represent the wings spreading wide to take flight. Another interpretation is that the wider sections represent the arms of the Sunface reaching out to embrace the world and the Zuni people.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the fantastic Sunface discussing just a few of the common designs and only several suggestions as to the importance it will have to the artist who created it and the person who wears it. Of course there are thousands, and maybe millions of different styles of Sunfaces, each as unique as its artist and it wearer.
To see some examples of these styles, click any of the above pictures, or click here to visit our sunface items: www.turquoisecanyon.com