How to Buy Native American Jewelry
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It is an unfortunate fact of life that unscrupulous people make money by cheating others. They are everywhere—not lurking in the shadows, as you might think—but right out in the open, brazen as can be. These dishonest retailers lay in wait for those of us who innocent and wide-eyed with delight, gaze star-struck upon the object of our fancy from a dazzling array of gorgeous bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and rings masquerading as genuine Native American jewelry.
Our excited anticipation is a dead giveaway to the scammers! We are vulnerable to their cunning, wicked ways. They sense a deal almost like radar, and move in for the kill! Another unsuspecting collector adds a non-authentic piece of jewelry to her Native American jewelry collection. As magnificent as this jewelry may look, it’s fake, faux, counterfeit—just plain phony. It does not have to happen to you. It is important to know how to buy Native American jewelry and what to look for.
As jewelry collectors, we have a deep inborn appreciation of wearable art. We are drawn to beautiful jewelry as we are to food and water. We are enamoured of the age-old craft of jewelry-making, the romantic heritage. We are captured by the magnificence of earthy corals, lapis lazuli, shell, onyx, carnelian, and turquoise strung upon wings of gleaming silver—lavish, magical, heavenly jewelry that is distinctively Native American. The copycats are good. It is so easy to be fooled, especially if you are new to collecting Native American jewelry. However, there is a significant amount of money involved, and the integrity of your collection is at stake. Armed with some basic shopping guidelines, even a novice collector can avoid being duped. Here is a guide on how to buy Native American jewelry, the right way.
Tips on How to Buy Native American Jewelry
1. Buy from an established dealer who offers written guarantees and Authenticity Certificates—look for the Authenticity tag on the item.
2. Request a written guarantee and have the seller write the complete description of the item on the receipt including authenticity verification. Have them include, in writing, any verbal representations they made to you—getting all this in writing is of paramount importance. The receipt then validates your purchase and is certain proof should you find out your piece was a fake and decide to charge the retailer with fraud. The Certificate of Authenticity means that the item is certified by the *Department of the Interior (DOI)
3. Before buying Native American jewelry at Pow Wows, fairs, craft shows, juried competitions and other events, check for the event’s requirements and criteria for participation. You will find this information in newspaper press releases, flyers about the event, and printed programs for the event. For example, the show producers may not have a requirement for the vendors to sell wholly authentic products.
4. It is also essential to be aware that not all Indian-made jewelry is handmade. Legitimate Native American jewelry is produced in the handmade style where the individual artist has complete control over craftsmanship, design, and quality of the piece. Other jewelry may be mass-produced by a number of Indian artists, each sharing in building the final piece, rather like an assembly line. Also, keep in mind that some elements used in creating the piece may have been produced elsewhere. Indian jewelry may also be machine-made with little or no artist input whatsoever. These three methods are all utilized in the production of genuine Native American jewelry.
*Please note - Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, any item produced after 1935 that is marketed using terms such as “Indian”, “Native American”, or “Alaska Native” must be made by a member of a federally or state recognized tribe, or a certified Indian artisan. A certified Indian artisan is an individual who is certified by the governing body of an Indian tribe as a non-member Indian artisan.
The Act requires full compliance, and all Indian arts and crafts including jewelry, must be truthfully marketed. Words and connotations have weight in the Act, and ‘heritage’, ‘ancestry’, and ‘descent’ are words taken very seriously. These words and their meaning may be used in advertising only when true.
The best advice for identification is to use your intuition along with the following guidelines: When buying authentic Native American jewelry, it’s definitely ‘buyer beware’, and if your intuition tells you its fake—most likely it is. These crafty cheaters are good, but they do make mistakes.
Here are a few key things to watch out for when buying Native American jewelry:
1. Price - Although inexpensive novelty items are available from Indian craftspeople, authentic high quality Native American jewelry can be very expensive. Expect to pay a premium price for premium art.
2. Materials – Most Indian artisans use a few select materials when creating their masterpieces. Gemstones and organic materials such as turquoise, coral, and carnelian inlaid into silver, are a trademark of fine Native American jewelry. You will also see onyx, shell, lapis lazuli, spiny oyster, and opal used.
3. Appearance – If something about the jewelry piece looks ‘off’—blurry, crooked, or poorly cut—it’s likely to be counterfeit.When designs are stamped into silver they must be clear—exhibiting unwavering lines—lopsided designs just don’t pass the test. In well-crafted Native American jewelry, only high quality stones that are well-cut and uniform in size are used, and they always fit snugly into their settings. Poorly cut stones revealing metal-colored glue visible between the stone and the metal, is a sure sign of an imitation. Many Indian artists use a ‘hallmark’ stamped into their jewelry to identify their work. Look for a symbol or signature of the artist.
The three key components that determine the value of Native American jewelry are harmony of the design, quality of craftsmanship, and the materials used. It is important to know about the materials and production terms used in the jewelry you add to your collection for a number of reasons. Knowing how the stone was treated to achieve its special look enhances one’s appreciation of it. The quality of the metals used are an important indicator of the investment value of your piece. It is also fascinating for a collector to truly understand the jewelry they have in their possession. So, in addition to knowing how to buy Native American Jewelry, it is helpful to understand the components of authentic Native American jewelry when you find it.
Silver is the most common metal used in Native American jewelry. Here is an introduction to some of the many forms of silver:
1. Sterling Silver – Any item stamped ‘silver’ must be sterling. It contains 92.5 parts silver and 7.5 parts other metal.
2. Coin Silver – Metal containing 90 parts silver and 10 parts other metal. Before Indians were able to obtain commercially made sheet silver and ingots, they would melt down pre-1900 American and Mexican coins to make jewelry.
3. German Silver – Some Sioux and Southern Plains Indian metalsmiths use this metal because it is associated with their cultural heritage. It is 60 parts copper, 20 parts zinc, and 20 parts nickel. German Silver is also called Nickel Silver, however, according to guidelines set out in the FTC Jewelry Guide, no item should be called silver unless it contains at least 90 percent silver.
4. Drawn Silver – Also called ‘liquid silver’ this is sterling sheet silver rolled and pulled through a drawplate, cut into tiny segments, filed and strung into strands for necklaces. There are still a few Indian artists making hand-pulled silver, but most liquid silver is machine made.
An introduction to some of the most common stones used in Native American jewelry:
1. Carnelian (or Cornelian) – A beautiful translucent reddish-brown quartz stone.
2. Coral – Wonderful, organic coral is the hardened secretion of tiny sea animals and ranges in color from white and pale pink to deep shades of red and orange.
3. Lapis Lazuli – The deep blue colored mineral lazurite blends into metallic yellow pyrite and white calcite to produce Lapis Lazuli. The gorgeous blue stone is widely used in modern designs by contemporary Indian artists.
4. Onyx – Frequently dyed black to achieve more of a dramatic effect, onyx is a translucent quartz stone which is naturally gray or pale blue.
5. Shell – The hard outer shell of marine animals, the most commonly used in Indian jewelry are from pearl oysters and abalones. Shell is used in silver inlay work and may be shaped into disks and drilled to make heishi necklaces.
6. Turquoise – Turquoise captures the colors of the sky and the sea, and is seen in varying hues of green and blue. A copper mineral, turquoise often contains flecks and veins of gray or brown.
An introduction to some of the treatment processes used in Native American jewelry that alter the properties or appearance of natural stones:
1. Dyeing – Black is added to naturally pale blue or gray onyx, and low-grade turquoise is dyed blue to enhance the stone’s appearance.
2. Reconstitution – Fragments of coral, turquoise, or lapis lazuli are pulverized into a powder, mixed with epoxy, shaped into stones and cakes, and used like natural stones in Indian jewelry-making.
3. Stabilizing – The sophisticated process by which a clear acrylic is injected into low to medium-grade turquoise to harden the stone and enhance its coloration. High quality turquoise gemstone is only used by top artists and is quite expensive. Most turquoise used in Indian jewelry-making today is stabilized.
For more information about Native American jewelry visit your local library or museums.
Publications that focus on Native American art are:
1. Indian Trader (newspaper), P.O. Box 1421, Gallup, NM 87305 - 505-722-6694
2. Indian Trader Today (newspaper), 1920 Lombardy Drive, Rapid City, SD 57703 - 605-341-0011
3. Native Peoples (magazine), 5333 North 7th Street, Suite C-224, hoenix, AZ 85014-2804 - 602-265-4855
Article copyright © 2008 by Susan Dorling. All rights reserved.