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Buying American Indian Arts and Crafts

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Whether you’re drawn to the beauty of turquoise and silver jewelry or the earth tones of Indian pottery, learning more about American Indian arts and crafts can help you make sure you buy quality, authentic pieces.

Identifying American Indian Arts and Crafts

Any art and craftwork made after 1935 can only be marketed as “Indian,” “Native American,” or “Alaska Native,” or product of a particular Indian Tribe if it’s made by

  • a member of a Tribe that is federally recognized or officially recognized by a state, or
  • an individual who has been certified as a non-member Indian artisan by the Tribe of their direct lineal descent.

That’s the law.

For an Indian art or craft object to be an "Indian product," all work on the product must have been done by an Indian or Indians. For example, a product advertised or marketed as “Navajo Jewelry” must be made by someone who is a member, or certified Indian artisan, of the Navajo Nation.

The words “Indian” or “Native American,” or the name of a particular Indian Tribe qualified by words like “descent,” “heritage,” and “ancestry” don’t mean the artist or craftsperson is a member of an Indian Tribe or is a certified Indian artisan.

Authentic vs. Imitation Arts and Crafts

Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether arts and crafts are genuine or are imitations. An item’s price and appearance and a seller’s guarantee of authenticity are important clues. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act helps ensure that buyers of Indian arts and crafts products get what they pay for by making it illegal to misrepresent that a product is made by an Indian. Learn more about the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and related regulations at the Indian Arts and Crafts Board’s website.

  • Price. Typically, authentic, high-quality Indian arts and crafts are prized and can be expensive.
  • Appearance. Well-crafted jewelry won’t have wavering lines or lopsided designs. If a design is stamped into silver, the image should be clear. Images on imitations often are blurred. High-quality pieces use stones that are well-cut and uniform in size, and fit snugly into their settings. The stones on imitations may be poorly cut, and leave a large amount of metal-colored glue visible between the stone and the setting. Many Indian artists use a hallmark — a symbol or signature — to identify their work. Look for the artist’s hallmark stamped on their jewelry.
  • Seller’s guarantee. A reputable seller will give you a written guarantee that Indian art or craftwork was produced by tribal members or by certified Indian artisans.

Materials Used in American Indian Jewelry

American Indians may use silver, gold, turquoise, coral, lapis, nickel silver, shell and other materials to create abalone shell necklaces, silver sand cast bracelets, turquoise channel inlay rings, and a variety of other jewelry and accessories.

Silver

Silver is the most commonly used metal in American Indian jewelry.

  • Silver,” “sterling, and “sterling silver,” all mean metal that contains 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% other metal. Products made with silver sometimes may be marked 925, which means that 925 parts per thousand are pure silver.
  • Coin silver is metal that contains 90% silver and 10% other metal.
  • Drawn silver is sterling silver sheet that’s rolled and pulled through a drawplate, cut into tiny segments, filed, and strung into strands for necklaces. It’s also sometimes called “liquid silver.” The majority of liquid silver is manufactured.
  • German silver — also called nickel silver — is a metal that’s 60 parts copper, 20 parts zinc, and 20 parts nickel. Under the FTC’s Jewelry Guides, an item shouldn’t be called silver unless it contains at least 90% silver, so German silver or nickel silver doesn’t qualify as silver. Some Sioux and Southern Plains Indian metalsmiths work in this metal because it’s associated with their cultural heritage.

Stones

The stones used in American Indian jewelry include

  • Carnelian — a translucent reddish quartz stone.
  • Coral — the hardened secretion of tiny sea creatures. Its color ranges from white and pale pink to deep red and orange.
  • Lapis lazuli — a rock composed chiefly of the minerals lazurite (deep blue), pyrite (metallic yellow), and calcite (white). Contemporary Indian artists often use the blue stone in modern designs.
  • Onyx — a translucent quartz stone, which is usually gray or pale blue in its natural state. Onyx frequently is dyed black.
  • Shell — the general term for pieces of the outer hard surface of marine animals, particularly those of pearl oysters and abalones. Shell may be used in silver inlay work or shaped into flattened disks, drilled, and strung into necklaces known as heishi.
  • Turquoise — a copper mineral, often containing small brown or gray veins. It ranges in color from sky blue to greenish-blue, and varies in hardness from soft/somewhat porous to hard. In the U.S., turquoise is found in the southwestern states.

Treatments of Stones

Turquoise and other natural or mined stones used in jewelry may be treated to change their properties or appearance. Jewelry sellers should tell you if a stone has been treated and whether the treatment will change over time, creates special care requirements, or has a significant effect on the stone’s value. Stones may be treated by

  • Dyeing — for example, adding blue dye to low-grade turquoise, or adding black to gray or pale blue onyx to enhance the stone’s appearance.
  • Reconstitution — pulverizing fragments of turquoise, coral, or lapis lazuli into powder, then mixing the powder with epoxy and working it into cakes or stones, which are used like natural stones.
  • Stabilizing — injecting clear, colorless acrylics into low- to medium-grade turquoise to toughen and harden the stone and enhance its color. The majority of turquoise used today is stabilized. Natural gem-quality turquoise is usually only used by top artists and commands much higher prices than stabilized turquoise.

Buying Tips

You can buy American Indian arts and crafts online and at tourist stores, gift shops, powwows, annual fairs, juried competitions, and art galleries. Here are some ways to shop wisely:

  • Get written proof of any claims the seller makes about the authenticity or origin of the item you’re buying.
  • Get a receipt, and make sure any important information is printed on it. For example, if a salesperson says the piece of jewelry you’re buying is sterling silver and natural turquoise and was handmade by an American Indian artisan, the seller should include that information on your receipt.
  • Pay by credit card, if possible. Some artists may not accept credit cards, and if you’re able to pay that way, you’ll have more protection if something goes wrong or there’s a dispute about the authenticity of your purchase. If you can’t work it out with the seller, you can withhold payment of that amount of your credit card balance while you dispute the charge and wait for the results of an investigation.

Report Problems

If you have a problem with American Indian-made art or craftwork, try to resolve it with the seller first. If you’re not satisfied, report it to

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