Thursday, January 29, 2015

Buying Native American jewelry? Follow these guidelines.

Many people love Native American jewelry, whether it be older, or vintage, items or contemporary work by such meteoric new artists as Colin Coonsis (Zuni).

Other contemporary favorites include Calvin Begay (Navajo),
Artie Yellowhorse (Navajo), 
Rolanda Haloo (Zuni), Michael Kirk (Isleta), Charlene Reano (Kewa), Tommy Jackson (Navajo) and Debra Gasper (Zuni).
                       

Works signed by any of the above artists are fairly sure to be authentic Native American jewelry collectibles. But other jewelry, when acquired directly from the artist or through a reputable dealer may not be signed. This does not per se make them false or fake. It just increases the risk. Solution? Be certain to get a certificate of authenticity from the seller, complete with an address and contact number in case there is a problem. This does not guarantee the piece is authentic Native American, but it does give you a place to turn if the authenticity of the piece is challenged.

Such challenges are not unusual. The Native American jewelry trade is very competitive. Some dealers will do anything to undercut a competing dealer's reputation and credibility. At the same time, there is a moderately heavy traffic in seriously fraudulent jewelry, as made by non-Indians and often as imported from other countries. There has been a reduction in the latter as a result of the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act that requires imports to be labeled as to country of origin. Nevertheless, fakers are very ingenious and there is money to be made from naive buyers. 

Years ago, there was a village in the Philippines named "Zuni". Jewelry made there by Philippine nationals, designed to sneak under the radar as Native American, would be labeled "Made in Zuni"  It just wasn't the Zuni in New Mexico, USA.

What to look for? As stated above, a signature or known hallmark is a good indicator of the artist's Native American credentials. Lacking that, ask the seller who the artist was. If the seller does not have a Certificate of Authenticity, at least have him or her write the artist's name legibly on a piece of paper. That gives you documentary evidence of what was claimed to have been sold to you.

Check the descriptions. Hand-made and hand-crafted are not the same thing. The former means made from scratch. The latter can be assembled by a Native from preformed parts. Also beware of terms such as Indian-style, Native-style and Southwestern. These a common dodges that dealers who may also sell higher-end, true Native American jewelry use to disguise that a lesser quality, lower cost item isn't actually made by a Native American.

When looking at materials be sure the silver is marked sterling or .925 unless it is an older piece with its principle value as an "antique".

One does not see much gold these days simply because of its cost. The artist must purchase the gold, requiring a substantial investment. Most Native American artists don't have that kind of money to sit on while they wait for a finished product and a sale.


One of the most commonly used gemstones is turquoise.  There a several grades of turquoise. Describing them is beyond the scope of this article, but sources of this information are available on line. Another popular material is coral, although coral is becoming rare due to the endangered reefs from which is harvested. Some Indian jewelry artists use red shell for the crimson color coral once commonly imparted. It can be a dazzling material, at a fraction of the cost of real coral. 

Other rarer, more expensive materials include lapis lazuli, often abbreviated to "lapis", sugilite, malachite, gaspeite, mother of pearl, jet and opal. Most opal these days is man-made, also known disparagingly as "fauxpal", lab opal or created opal.

Natural gem-quality opal, most of which comes from overseas, is difficult to find, hard to mine and prohibitively expensive for American Indian artists. Fauxpal opal is just as attractive and much more affordable. (For many years, however, authorities would not allow man-made opal to be offered at Native American jewelry sale events. The rules have been relaxed and now most shows only require full disclosure as to the nature of the material.)


Another material sometimes found in Native American jewelry, especially from the Northwest, is fossil ivory. This material was harvest by Pacific artists years, often generations ago. It is not elephant ivory. It comes originally from walrus tusks left over after beasts were taken for food. A problem with fossil ivory, and one reason you won't find it on websites like eBay, is that trade in elephant ivory is discouraged and marine mammal parts may not be exported. 

In summary, Native American jewelry is a fascinating subject made more so by its complexity. If you are looking for that "trophy" piece of Native American jewelry, expect to pay for it. If you find something that looks like the real thing at a bargain price, it probably is not. If you love it anyway, go ahead buy it. After all there is a big market in counterfeit Rolex watches. Just don't be deluded that you have something that is what it pretends to be.

Perhaps most important in assuring you are not cheated is to know your seller. Dealers usually have years of experience and scores of satisfied customers. Check them out online. Look for websites demonstrating English as a first language. Look over their testimonials or referrals. If considering a very expensive piece, ask the dealer if you can check with an existing customer. Any reputable dealer will be happy to help you confirm its reputation and best practices.

In the end, genuine Native American jewelry is such a pleasure to own, it is worth the effort to satisfy yourself before buying.