Daisy Hooee Nampeyo is a name you may know if you enjoy Native American jewelry. She grew up in the pueblo country of the southwest but, through a quirk of fate, was able to study art in Europe. She specialized in coiled pottery but collaborated with her silversmith husband on some beautiful and highly-sought-after jewelry. Other Native Americans work at wooden tables in their own pueblos to make the jewelry they sell in marketplaces and retail establishments. Both the well-known and the poor artisans work at their craft and many depend upon it to support themselves. They can do that because we non-native Americans love southwestern jewelry. We enjoy it so much that criminals have found ways to mass-produce it and sell it in souvenir and gift shops, and even on eBay.
In fact, the problem of fake native jewelry is so large that eBay has an informational page to warn buyers against the low-quality stuff that inevitably ends up there. The page lists several ways to tell if something is genuine or not. The fake stuff deprives the native craftsmen of their livelihood and steals the cultural hallmarks of the American Indian. So, if you are shopping for a nice piece of native jewelry, what should you look for?
First, eBay says one thing to look for is repetition. If you see exactly the same thing selling week after week, it is probably a fake. Real artists cannot duplicate jewelry exactly; there is always some deviation. Another way to spot native jewelry is through the hallmark. Indian artists do not always sign their pieces, but they will proudly point out their hallmark if you ask. People selling knock-offs are apt to distract you from the question of a hallmark or signature. Another thing to look for is the origin of the piece. Zuni and Navajo jewelry are especially prized right now, but if a dealer lists something as Zuni-style, or talks around the subject of where the jewelry originated, it is probably not authentic.
Workmanship is another sign of genuine Native American jewelry. If the stones are off-color or odd-colored; if the glass or beads are glued in haphazardly and glue globs are peeking through, it is not real. When you are strolling the streets of Old Town Albuquerque and see the same piece at several shops, you should be suspicious. If you do see something you like, expect to pay a reasonable price for it.
That “reasonable price” is what supports many Native American families. The tribes have formed an organization that is tasked with protecting the work of those artists. According to “Indian Country,” The Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association has a website that lists the ways you can protect yourself from buying knock-off native jewelry that is often made overseas with cheap labor. Many of the things they mention are the same keys identified by eBay. The organization suggests that if you are thinking about investing in an expensive piece, you get a written document describing the piece and attesting to its authenticity. There is as listing on the ATADA site of recent thefts of high-end Native American art, including jewelry. You might want to check that out before buying, too.
The southwest “feels romantic and it speaks about our American images. Americans who collect southwestern jewelry do so passionately. Still, there is little that is romantic about unknowingly spending a fortune for a knock-off or paying a pittance for a fake and robbing the artists of the livelihood they deserve.