July 26, 2008

How do I know if ‘Indian Jewelry’ is authentic and made by a real indian?



My sister taught school on the reservation in Pine Ridge (Porcupine) about
20 years ago. She will be 50 this year. I am looking to buy her turquoise jewelry. I’d like to know it’s authentic and made by the Indians. She would hold this as being very special. I understand that some jewelry has tribes’ names inscribed on the back. Can you give some reputable stores or web sites that I can look at and buy. I would be particularly interested in Lakota, Sioux.

~Submitted by Kathy C.


The Lakota Sioux are not generally known for making turquoise jewelry. Beadwork and quillwork are more common crafts for a person from the Lakota Sioux tribe. I am sure there must be some individuals who are silversmiths with Lakota heritage, (although I don’t personally know any), but this group of tribes in general is not known for this art form.

Most, if not all, of the popular styles of Native American turquoise jewelry originated in the American Southwest.

Navajo jewelry

navajo jewelryThe Navajo were the first commercial silversmiths in the American Southwest and produce the largest and flashiest jewelry with lots of free form natural stones and cabachons made of turquoise, coral, and other semi-precious gem stones and elaborate silver work. They are the most copied by non-native american jewelry producers.

While the Navajo have had turquoise jewelry since prehistoric times, silverwork was not a traditional Navajo craft, but became popular in the early reservation era, when Navajo artists realized they could support themselves selling this craft form to the tourist trade. Originally, silver coins or household objects such as silver candle sticks or silver teapots were often melted down for the silver used in their jewelry.

Atsidi Sani is usually credited with being the first Navajo silversmith, in 1868. A full line of silver jewelry existed throughout the Navajo reservation by the 1880s.

Very shortly after Atsidi Sani began silversmithing, the craft spread across the area. He taught his sons and they taught others. The craft appeared in Zuni around 1872. Atsidi Chon (Ugly Smith) taught silversmithing to his close Zuni friend, Lanyade. It is said that Lanyade paid Atsidi Chon one good horse for his instruction.

While on Hopi First Mesa at Sichomovi, Lanyade taught the first Hopi silversmith, Sikyatala.

Indian jewelry factories

There are a number of businesses in the U.S. southwest who employ Navajo people to mass produce “Indian” jewelry in factories. The casual buyer may not be able to tell handcrafted jewelry from machine made, or genuine turquoise from plastic.

In the last ten to twenty years, there has been a flood of imitations made in the Philippines and Taiwan that look identical to american indian-made silver jewelry. Sometimes even the experts can be fooled.

Hopi jewelryThe Navajo also do fetish carvings and make smaller fetishes into fetish necklaces.

Hopi Indian Jewelry

The Hopi tend to produce stylized work using the “overlay” process where one sheet of silver with “cut out” designs is laid over a plain sheet of identical design and shape. The recessed area is then left unpolished, or “blackened” during the finishing process.

Zuni Indian Jewelry

Zuni inlay jewelryThe Zuni are known for several styles of craftsmanship. The most common is stone and shell inlay, in which shells and slices of stone are individually cut and set in silver jewelry to fit closely together in specific patterns.

Zuni needlepoint jewelryThe Zuni are also known for needlepoint (narrow stones pointed on both ends) and petit point (any other small cut stone shape such as oval, teardrop etc.) gem work, which consists of dozens of uniformly cut stones that are set in traditional patterns, which are set on top of the silver instead of being fitted together and inlaid to form the pattern.

Zuni petit point jewelryThe Zuni are also known for their carvings of animals and birds called “fetishes.” These are available either individually as table top sized sculptures, or in strings of small carvings called “fetish necklaces.”

Santo Domingo Pueblo Jewelry

Santo Domingo heishi jewelrySanto Domingo Pueblo is one of the largest, most populous and most prosperous of the Rio Grande Pueblos, now located in the state of New Mexico. Much Santo Domingo jewelry is similar to ancestral Pueblo or Anasazi jewelry discovered by archaeologists.

Santo Domingo shell inlay jewelrySanto Domingo is also the leading domestic producer of the tiny handmade beads known as heishi, which it often markets to other tribes. (These are also mass produced in Asia.) Many Santo Domingo artists also do inlay work on shell bases.

The Santo Domingo artists are best known for strung necklaces made of heishi, often intersperced with drilled free form turquoise nuggets, coral, or bird fetishes. The Santo Domingo do not use any other animal fetishes. Only one style of bird fetish, which is sacred to them, is used in their designs.

Plains Indian Jewelry

Plains Indian bone chokerPlains Indian jewelry is usually not centered around silverwork. Chokers made from buffalo horn and bone hairpipe beads, multi-strand wampum necklaces (such as the one worn by Chief Joseph in many photographs), conch shell and abalone necklaces and earrings, Sioux peyote stitch chokerintricate quillwork using dyed or natural porcupine quills to form the pattern, and intricate beadwork patterns using tiny seed beads are more traditional for Plains tribe artisans.

imported bead patch necklaceBeadwork rosettes, and jewelry containing traditional indian beadwork patterns are frequently imported from Taiwan and China, and bone chokers are frequently imported from India and China.

In the old days, the Plains Indians made hairpipe beads from bird bones and the small leg bones of animals such as the coyote. They were time consuming to make, and costly to trade for, so the number of rows in a hairpipe decoration represented the status or wealth of the wearer.

Today, virtually all bone and horn hairpipe beads are made from water buffalo bones and horns, and are imported from India and China. Both native and non-native artists use the same hairpipe beads in their work.

How to spot Asian, Phillippine, Chinese and US made imitation/fake Native American jewelry

Jewelry Appearance

Is the jewelry well crafted? Are images clear, lines unwavering? Are stones well-cut, uniform in size and secure in their settings? If the design is stamped, is the design clear and even? Stamped designs which show on the inside of the jewelry are frequently mechanically stamped.

Is the artist’s ‘hallmark’ stamped on the jewelry? Both Indian and non-indian artists use a hallmark to identify their work. The hallmark stamp belongs to the individual artist, not a particular tribe. This may be a full name, initials, or a symbol. Not all artists sign their work, and many artists only sign their exceptionally good quality work, while not signing less perfect pieces.

Hallmarks are a way of identifying the artist, time period, metal content or other related information. Hallmarks alone do not provide positive proof that you have a highly sought after designer’s work, represented by the hallmark. These marks can be copied and duplicated just like a signature, and can represent multiple people when just initials are used.

Having a certain hallmark doesn’t guarantee authenticity or that it is definitely handmade by any one person. Hallmarks are but one way of identifying an item and who designed it. But keep in mind that they can be forged. For a small fee, anyone can have a stamp made with whatever symbol they want.

The only way you can really know for certain is if you watch the artist actually make the piece. In practicality, about the only thing you can do is to know your seller or buy from a reputable dealer who has been recommended from multiple sources.

Jewelry Materials

If jewelry is made of silver, is it marked Sterling? In the US, the law requires a piece of jewelry made from precious metals weighing more than 2 grams to have this mark.

Sterling Silver, or .925 Silver is the standard used in the jewelry industry. Since pure silver is too soft for standard jewelry work, copper is added to the silver alloy to generate the required mechanical strength. Sterling Silver alloy contains 92.5% Silver and 7.5% Copper.

.999 Silver, or fine Silver, is pure silver or more accurately 99.9% silver, because no metal is ever completely pure. It is a very soft silver metal used generally in wire jewelry and stone wrapping, because it bends very easily.

Look for a .925 stamp on new items that are small. Native American silversmiths usually stamp their Sterling Silver jewelry with a stamp that says Sterling, IF the item is large enough to have room for the full word. If it is stamped .925 or SS, it is less likely to be Native American made because the traditional stamps say “Sterling.” However, on small items, such as rings, where there is little room to stamp anything, the shorter .925 or SS stamp may be used by both native and non-native artists. So, as you can see, this test gets very confusing.

Finding pieces stamped .925 or SS instead of Sterling isn’t proof that they came from outside the US, or are not Native American made. But, if you have other reasons to feel suspicious, this might be another indicator.

Older, genuine vintage Native American jewelry will often have no hallmark or stamp of any kind, and sometimes newer silver jewelry doesn’t, either, but this is not the norm. Because it is a strong selling point, most modern artists will stamp their silver jewelry.

When ‘silver’ doesn’t really mean silver

Items marketed as “German silver,” “Mexican silver,” “Alpaca Silver,” “Nickel Silver,” or “Tibetan silver” contain little or no real silver metal. Except for Tibetan silver, these are all terms for compounds of nickel and/or copper and/or zinc type alloys. However, these alloys are often stronger than sterling silver so they wear well for daily use, and require less polishing to retain their shininess, and look very similar to sterling silver. They won’t rust or turn your finger green, like some “plated” jewelry can on some people. “Plaited” silver is usually a thin layer of a rhodium alloy over a core of brass.

Many “Tibetan silver” items have an extremely high lead content, as much as 90%. That’s enough lead that it can actually make you sick if you wear the jewelry often or weigh under 90 pounds. Tibetan silver jewelry should NEVER be worn by children.

Except for plaited silver, which is classed as costume or fashion jewelry, and Tibetan silver, which I don’t recommend due to the danger of lead poisoning, these alloys may be an acceptable, safe, less expensive, and more durable alternative to sterling silver. You just shouldn’t be paying sterling silver prices for them.

Real sterling silver requires frequent polishing, or it will tarnish. Keeping your sterling silver in a sealed ziplock bag and out of sunlight when you aren’t wearing it will slow the buildup of tarnish. Because sterling silver is a softer metal, the oils from your skin can also damage sterling silver if it is not polished frequently. If you let the tarnish build up too thick for too long, it will cause permanent pitting of the silver metal.

Clean your turquoise and silver jewelry with a jewelry polishing cloth (the one in the red box for about $5.00 in the jewelry section at Walmart works great!) rather than the liquid cleaners that you immerse jewelry in, because those kinds of cleaners can damage your turquoise stone, especially if it is stabilized turquoise.

Stones marketed as ‘turquoise’

If turquoise or other opaque stones are used, is the stone natural or has it been altered to change the color or hardness of the stone? Terms that indicate the stones were altered include “block,” or “chip,” or “stabilized.”

navajo chip inlay jewelryA Navajo named Tommy Singer developed the chip inlay process, which utilizes left-over chips of turquoise, red agate and coral, mixed with plastic resin and set into an overlay design. The stones are real, but they are scraps from other projects. This process is also sometimes called mosaic.

block turquoiseBlock turquoise is basically turquoise dust left over from cutting stones, or crushed turquoise that was too soft to cut without crumbling and too poor quality to stabilize, which is mixed with plastic resin to give it a turquoise color, and is then cut into “blocks” to make fetishes or cabachons for jewelry. The resulting “stone” is mostly plastic.

stabilized turquoiseTurquoise is “stabalized” when it contains cracks and imperfections that would normally cause it to break apart when cut into jewelry stones. It is hardened or “stabalized” by injecting polyresin into the stone under high pressure. Often color enhancers are also injected into stabilized turquoise to make the colors appear brighter.

Possibly 80 to 90% of the turquoise used in indian jewelry has been stabilized. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In this process, a solid piece of turquoise is used, and it is only enhanced with resin where there are nearly invisible tiny cracks. This process strengthens the turquoise, and means if you accidentally bump your turquoise ring on the coffee table, or drop your turquoise necklace on pavement, the stones aren’t likely to break.

stabilized turquoise“White Buffalo” turquoise isn’t rare, and in fact, it isn’t turquoise at all. It is a cheap white stone called howlite. Howlite is also often dyed a light blue and marketed as turquoise.

Heishi strung shell or stone beads should be regular in cut and smooth to the touch. Fine Santo Domingo heishi feels like liquid when run through the fingers. Imported heishi will often have rough edges, or not be uniform in size.

The above two sections are more indicators of quality rather than ethnicity of the artist. Some native american artists use low quality or imported materials, too.

Jewelry prices

Today, it is estimated up to 70% of the jewelry marketed in the US as “authentic handcrafted indian jewelry” is actually foreign or factory made. There is often very little difference in craftsmanship or quality, but there is a big difference in price.

Genuine handmade Indian jewelry is often expensive. Mechanically produced or imported products made with lower labor costs may cost considerably less. If it is important to you that the piece is handcrafted by an american indian, and the price seems too good to be true – it probably is!!

Imported or mass produced silver jewelry will usually cost about 1/3 to 1/2 of what a comparable piece that is handmade by a tribal member will cost.

Native American or Indian Made

By law, any item sold as Indian or Native American-made, must be the creation of an individual who is a member of a state or federally recognized indian tribe or tribally certified as an Indian artisan. Ask the seller to certify that the item was Indian made with a Certificate of Authenticity. It is a felony to forge this certificate.

Jewelry dealers

Buy from an established dealer who will provide a guarantee of authenticity and who will be available later to respond to any questions or complaints you may have about your purchase.

Obtain a receipt that includes all pertinent information about the origin and value of your purchase.

Indicators the artist is really native american

It is very easy for people to misrepresent themselves on the Web, and “playing Indian” is unfortunately common.

If the web site or individual artist self-identifies as Indian, is tribal affiliation identified? Is the word used to identify the tribe accurate? Is it spelled correctly?

For example, a person who identifies only as “Native American” or “American Indian” leaves much open to question since most Native peoples identify themselves in connection to a particular tribe rather than under general terminology.

Tribal identification is often very specific. For example, rather than identifying simply under the “catch-all” name of Sioux, people who have this tribal affiliation often are more specific about which Sioux identity, such as Rosebud Sioux or Oglala Sioux, or self-identify as being Dakota, Lakota, or Nakota, and usually even more specifically within each of these tribal groups.

Language, post-contact history, and culture are similar but not identical for these tribes, and although they identify closely with each other, each Sioux tribe is a unique entity. <br.

The term “Sioux” is not a traditional name for these tribes and not what they called themselves. Sioux was derived from a word used by one of their enemies to identify them, meaning snakes, which was given to the French in colonial times. Later the French word for snakes was shortened to Sioux and adopted by the US Government.

Members of any Sioux tribe will most likely be specific when identifying their tribal affiliation. Navajo artists will often even give their clan relationships.

Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, it is illegal to sell jewelry as “Indian jewelry” or “Indian made” when it is not. If an item is described as indian “style” or native american “design,” or similar phrases, it is probably not made by a recognized member of a federally or state recognized indian tribe.

Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA)

For more than twenty years, the Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA) has promoted authentic Native American arts. This non-profit Association was formed in 1974 by a group of dealers who knew that cheap imitations and imports were undermining America’s only indigenous art form. Headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, IACA now has more than 700 member artists, wholesale and retail dealers, museums and collectors throughout the United States and in five foreign countries.

IACA maintains a Buyer’s Guide to help buyers locate artists and dealers of authentic arts and crafts.


Hopi silver jewelry is a modern craft

Common Indian Symbols used in Indian jewelry and their generally accepted meaning

Native American Jewelry Art

Turquoise, the fallen Sky stone

The differences between Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and Santo Domingo jewelry styles

What is sterling silver, anyway?


Indian Arts and Crafts Association

The History of American Indian Jewelry

How the Quality of Turquoise Affects Its Use in Jewelry

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990

Prairie Edge Art Gallery

A reputable art gallery in Rapid City, South Dakota, that has a lot of high quality beadwork made by Lakota Sioux tribal members.

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