The Real Thing: How to Spot Bona Fide Native Jewelry Amid the Fakes

The Real Thing: How to Spot Bona Fide Native Jewelry Amid the Fakes

ICTMN Staff
8/12/12

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but when it comes to Native jewelry, that can breed contempt. The market for authentic jewelry from Southwestern tribes has long been a hot one, and whenever there is a prized product to sell, there are bound to be knockoffs and forgeries.

The Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association (ATADA) was established in 1988 to combat the unethical behavior of those who would misrepresent nongenuine art, crafts and jewelry. Members of the ATADA pledge “to guarantee authenticity and to provide the buying public with the available information on the age, source, integrity and collection history of the objects that they sell.” The organization’s website, ATADA.org, maintains a list of member dealers. It also keeps a record of jewelry and craft thefts. If you’re considering a big-ticket item, you might want to check the site to make sure that it is legitimate.

It should be remembered that buying fakes or reproductions doesn’t just hurt the consumer. It also “hurts the Native American artists who produce the real thing,” says Stephanie Porter of the Turquoise Raven gallery in Conifer, Colorado, an ATADA member and author of a well-regarded eBay guide to buying Native jewelry. “By buying inexpensive jewelry made overseas using cheap labor and materials, you drive the prices of the real Indian jewelry down. Think about it, why would someone pay $200 for a Clayton Tom, Navajo, micro-inlaid pendant when you can get something similar for $50?”

Here are some guidelines that can help defeat the rip-off artists:

WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE

While it is illegal to sell items that are forgeries, the language involved can be tricky. Replicas are not inherently illegal; indeed, ATADA.org says that selling replicas of existing pieces “is fully ethical and legal in the USA as long as the piece is represented as what it is, a replica, marked with country of origin.” But beware of such words as style. Something presented as “Hopi style,” for instance, was most likely not produced by a Hopi artisan. The difference between a Hopi necklace and a Hopi style necklace can mean vast differences in value. Also, the ATADA recommends being wary of missing “country of origin” tags. If the tag has been “lost,” the item is most likely a fake.

BEWARE REPETITION

Porter warns buyers to be on the lookout for “the same thing sold week in and week out by the same seller.” Indian jewelry is simply not mass-produced, so if you’re seeing a piece again and again, with the same hallmark, it is probably not authentic.

FEAR OF COMMITMENT

Porter also urges customers to pay attention to sellers who are vague about what tribe the item comes from. A seller who says he or she “doesn’t know” whether an item is Navajo or Zuni may be trying to avoid saying a piece is authentically Indian. “When the items are obviously new,” Porter writes, “the seller should know the origin.”

A NOTE ABOUT TURQUOISE

Turquoise is a crumbly material, notoriously difficult to work with. A guide written by Mark Bahti for ArizonaGuide.com warns that convincing fake turquoise can be made using a plastic material known as “block,” and that even completely legitimate artisans may “stabilize” the turquoise they’re using by applying a resin.

GET IT IN WRITING

Bahti advises that when contemplating turquoise jewelry (or any kind, for that matter), you should get a written document from the seller that describes the item in detail. “If you’re buying a piece because it uses natural, untreated turquoise, ask for verification in writing,” Bahti says. Dishonest vendors usually know the law—if they won’t back up their claims with a written guarantee or authenticity certificate, they’re not to be trusted.

THE EYE TEST

It’s hard to fake fine workmanship. “When designs are stamped into silver they must be clear—exhibiting unwavering lines—lopsided designs just don’t pass the test,” says Susan Dorling, a freelance writer who specializes in jewelry. “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.”

Oneida Sky, An oasis of authenticity on the East Coast:

The Oneida Indian Nation’s Turning Stone Resort in Verona, New York has a fine collection of authentic Native jewelry for sale at their retail gallery, Oneida Sky, which features fine art, crafts and jewelry from nationally recognized artists. Two Navajo jewelers whose work you can find (and buy) at Oneida Sky are Calvin Begay and Ray Tracey. Begay, from Gallup, New Mexico, is an award-winning master craftsman who works in gold and silver. Tracey, raised in Arizona on the Navajo reservation, works in lapis, corals and turquoise, to name a few. Check out their work and that of many other artists at TurningStone
.com/shop.

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Like you wrote, this is more than a billion dollar a year industry. If you look carefully at the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association (ATADA), while their members do sell many legit stuff, they are mostly all Caucasian men and Caucasian women. A small % of the proceeds from ATADA dealers do go to Native artisans - a small percentage. Then you also have to contend with the fact that artisans who sell to ATADA dealers tend to be Caucasian-looking Indians. Do you want billions of dollars going to whites with a negligible % going to Caucasian-looking Indians? If not, realize that conventional Indians don't sell to ATADA dealers or businesses for the most part. Every piece conventional Indians make is sold in one of three ways: (1) They already have a committed buyer they know and make a piece for them. Or (2) They make art pieces and they or their family members or friends go from powwow to powwow selling them. Sometimes they go to tribal offices or other events. At other times they sell such pieces through their own tribal stores. (3) They make an art piece and the word goes around, sometimes by Facebook (mainly younger artists) or other such personal sources, but in most cases by pure word-of-mouth. Then buyers contact them. My aunt makes rugs on the Navajo reservation. By the time she is done making the rug, she already has a buyer for it. If you want something Indian, go down to a reservation and identify the artist. Then buy from him and her directly. Make sure you cut the middle man out. This is a billion dollar a year industry and such billions ALWAYS attract whites. And the whites are right there as ATADA dealers.
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