Seeking Authentic Native American Wares in Santa Fe
Story and photos by Kim D. McHugh
I am leaning over a long, glass topped display case admiring four similar Native American bracelets. To my untrained eyes they look virtually identical, each appearing to be made using silver and turquoise. But to my surprise, I’m told by the proprietor of Tin-Nee-Ann, a decades-old Santa Fe, New Mexico trading post, that only two of the pieces are crafted with sterling silver and Natural Gem Turquoise. The other two? They are made with a silver-esque metal and block turquoise, a “gemstone” engineered typically from mixing powdered turquoise and epoxy resin.
“There’s a metal called ‘jeweler’s metal’ that’s silver-colored and it looks genuine, but people have been stamping it as sterling silver and it was all fake,” says Jo Christen, proprietor of the family-owned trading post. “Just because it’s been stamped sterling silver doesn’t mean it is. Any reputable seller has a testing kit. If someone gives you any guff about taking a test, walk out of the store.”
What Christen is eluding to is an acid test where a seller or jeweler looks to see if an item passes the sterling silver purity test.
“When you put a drop of acid on the piece, sterling silver has no reaction,” adds Christen. “But if you put acid on nickel silver it turns lime green and sizzles. It’s a really effective test.”
For the uninitiated, here are guidelines on silver purity. Ingot or bar silver is 99.9% silver. It isn’t shiny, but rather a dull gray or dark patina. Dating to the pre-1930s, antique jewelry pounded from it you may come across on occasion. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. Coin silver typically contains 90% or less silver, and nickel silver (also known as German silver, alpacca and Mailechort) is an alloy comprised of nickel, zinc and copper. There isn’t any silver in any of these.
Some pieces you’ll come across are made using silver plating. How do you distinguish a silver-plated item from something crafted with sterling silver? Ask the seller or artist to do a magnet test. A magnet sticks to silver-plated items, but won’t affix to a piece made with sterling silver. And if you’re thinking of buying Native American silver jewelry online, caveat emptor—Latin for “let the buyer beware”.
“There are people selling stuff on eBay made with Navajo silver,” explains Christen. “They have an excellent rating, but there is no such thing as Navajo silver. When you read the fine print, it’s called nickel silver. Navajo silver is just made up and it really upsets me that eBay doesn’t do a better job of monitoring these claims.
While there is no such thing as Navajo silver (it is more of a colloquial term) there are Navajo silversmiths, as well as silversmiths from Zuni, Hopi and other tribes. In New Mexico alone there are 19 pueblos, each of which have talented artists that are potters, rug weavers, carvers of kachinas and jewelry makers. In the case of jewelry, other ways to determine if a piece is crafted by a Native American is to look for the artist’s hallmark. Often it is literally a signature in cursive using an engraving pen. Other times it appears as initials, a mark or symbol, single letter or letters indicating first and last name, all hand stamped by hammer.
However, know that not all artists—especially on pre-1950s items—marked their jewelry, though most pieces crafted since the 1970s are likely to have a hallmark. Another way to substantiate if an item is Native American crafted is by a certificate of authenticity. That said, it is easy for unscrupulous sellers to forge these certificates, so if you get a bad vibe, walk away.
“Touching provides incredible knowledge and your hands will tell you a lot,” says Christen. “If something feels like plastic it probably is plastic. You can better identify what’s authentic by handling the real (item) and handling the fake (item). You also should go to people you trust. If there is an immediate rapport between you and the seller, and you enjoy their company, that’s good. If the hair comes up on your arms, trust your instincts and leave.”
Christen, who was raised in Santa Fe, has been buying from New Mexico and Arizona Native American artists for decades, a tradition learned from her parents and one she’s taught her daughter.
Proving her point about the value of a tactile experience, she hands me two “heshe” (pronounced HEE-shee) necklaces, pieces comprised of strands of rice-sized cylindrical beads. Like the bracelets she showed me earlier, the two necklaces side-by-side had similarities. Both appeared to be crafted from turquoise, but while one used Natural Gem Turquoise the other was made using faux stone. The real turquoise beads were shaped so by a grinding motion that makes a repetitive sheesh, sheesh sound. The faux beads were machine made. It was easy to feel (and see) the difference.
The lesson for anyone considering the purchase of authentic Native American jewelry or other handcrafted goods is do a little homework, ask questions and heed your intuition. Generally, the higher the quality, the higher the price. If you sense any deception, tread with caution.
“It is our job to educate customers and then turn them loose hoping that they go out the door with some beautiful, wonderful treasure to adore the rest of their lives,” Christen comments. “I think any respectable trader would have the same attitude.”
Do’s and Don’ts When You Shop:
Do ask a shop or trading post to see a book or books on Native American artisans. The well-established shops usually have a small library.
Do comparison shop. Santa Fe easily has north of 20 places to buy Native American produced items. Compare, then make your choice.
Do interact with the Native American artists under the portal at the Palace of the Governors. Not only do you meet the artists, you’re buying direct.
Do visit during Indian Market (97th Annual, Aug. 18 – 19 . Town is more crowded than usual, but the opportunity to interact with the artists is unsurpassed.
Don’t be surprised to learn facsimile or replica pieces come from Mexico, India and China. Just don’t be fooled by sellers passing them off as genuine.
Don’t shy away from a replica piece you find appealing. If it’s made using faux gems or metal, but you LOVE it, buy it. Conversely, if you don’t flinch at a high price for an authentic handcrafted piece, get it.
Don’t ever negotiate on price with a Native American artist. It isn’t only poor manners, it is highly insulting and disrespectful.
If You Visit Santa Fe:
Tin-Nee-Ann Trading Co., established in 1973. (505) 988-1630
Nambe Trading Post, established 75 years ago. (505) 455-2819
The Original Trading Post, established in 1603. (505) 984-0759
Shiprock Santa Fe, established over 30 years ago. (505) 982-8478
Wind River Trading Post, established over 40 years ago. (505) 989-7062
Rio Bravo Trading Co., established nearly 25 years ago. (505) 982-0230
Other Places in New Mexico:
Richardson’s Trading Co., established in 1897. (505) 722-4762
Perry Null Trading Co. (formerly Tobe Turpen’s Indian Trading), established in the 1920s. (505) 863-5249
Toadlena Trading Post, established in 1897. (505) 789-3267
Wright’s Indian Art, established in 1907. (505) 266-0120
Kim D. McHugh has written about travel, snow sports, hotels, local restaurants and chefs, architecture and interesting people since 1986. A former associate editor at Rocky Mountain Golf magazine, the Lowell Thomas award-winning freelance writer is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America. Based in Colorado, he enjoys sharing those “I-didn’t-know-that” revelations with readers in articles that have appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, the Denver Post, SKI, Hemispheres, 5280, Luxury Golf & Travel, Colorado Expression, Tastes of Italia, Vail/Beaver Creek and Colorado AvidGolfer.