Skip to Content

Home > Stories from a Trader's Life > A Brief History of the Contemporary Native American Jewelry Industry 1970-2012 by Jeffrey Lewis

< Previous

A Brief History of the Contemporary Native American Jewelry Industry 1970-2012 by Jeffrey Lewis

A Very Brief Early History (1900's -1960's)
C.G. Wallace was both and innovator as well as a major trader of Zuni and Hopi jewelry. He lived at Zuni Pueblo from 1918 to 1964, spoke Zuni, and remained involved with Zuni life until his death in 1993 at the age of 96. C. G. Wallace built the De Anza Motor Court in 1939, and it has remained a Route 66 icon in Albuquerque for over 70 years, famous for its mosaic thunderbird design in the lobby.

C.G. had a simple formula: he gave silver to the Navajo to make jewelry framework (rings, bracelets, pendants, bolos, earrings), and then gave the jewelry to the Zuni to inlay with shell and turquoise. The materials were simple and traditional: turquoise mined in the southwest, red and green abalone shell from California, fresh water white clam and pink mussel from the Mississippi River, spiny oyster shell from Baja California, black jet from Acoma. Later, he made a connection with the Mediterranean coral dealers in Torre Del Greco, Italy, near Naples, and developed a stream of imported coral.

Marketing, Supply and Demand
In those days most of the jewelry produced by Wallace was sold both at railroad stops in towns like Flagstaff and Winslow, in Arizona and Gallup and Albuquerque, in New Mexico, and at trading posts along the old Route 66, from the Grand Canyon to Kansas City.

As time went on, silver supply houses near the reservations and pueblos, began to open to supply the artisans with silver and other supplies used in their jewelry manufacture. At the same time, due to demand for jewelry, created primarily by the innovation of the Fred Harvey hotels and tours, a number of companies in Albuquerque began producing Indian jewelry? specifically to fill the demand for cheap jewelry for the Route 66 and railroad tourist trade. These companies developed shortcuts? for the manufacture of the jewelry by creating punch presses and automated stamping machines.

Today, those trading posts have become a cliche, with most of them featuring rubber tomahawks, Indian beadwork made in the Philippines, and jewelry of unknown origin made from questionable materials

Having lived and worked in the Gallup-Zuni-Hopi region for over 45 years, I have seen many changes in the world of Native American jewelry making. In the 1970's there was a boom of demand for Native American jewelry that gave rise to manufacturing facilities in Gallup (jewelry designed and marketed by others than the artist, but built by the artist). This was the beginning of a movement of jewelry production that was no longer home-based. The benefits for the jeweler was that he no longer had to worry about buying silver or raw materials...or the marketing of their finished pieces of jewelry in order to be paid.

By the mid to late 1970's, the materials used in jewelry manufacture had become more sophisticated. Both gold and black Mother of pearl from southeast Asia was added to the mix, along with lapis from Afghanistan, sugilite from the Kalahari Plain in Africa, fossil walrus ivory from the Alaskan tundra, Baltic amber, Penn shell from the Philippines, just to mention a few.

As the jewelry boom continued and Native American jewelry became an international fashion statement, outsiders began arriving, with the sole purpose of exploiting the current boom. First they purchased jewelry at a higher price than the current prices, and soon controlled the majority of the jewelry industry in Gallup (by now it was a multi million dollar industry), putting many old time traders out of business. As soon as the newcomers had a firm grip on the industry, they began pushing purchase prices fact, so low that the artist could barely replace his materials. Still, this did not satisfy the continuing need for larger profits, so many of these newcomers also began to establish manufacturing facilities of their own.

These newcomers were now firmly established in the community. Their children were being educated in the local schools and real estate was being purchased. The need for more profits continued. Soon, many dealers and manufacturers found that they could produce similar jewelry overseas at a much cheaper price, and mix it into the local production. This gave rise to entire villages in the Philippine Islands producing "Southwest style" jewelry. Soon, there were facilities in China and Indonesia, producing look-alike jewelry.

1990's to Present
The newcomers (who were no longer newcomers; but, established financial presences in the communities in which they did business) began opening their own retail shops and galleries, selling the various qualities of Native American art (from the highest end jewelry, pottery and katsinas, made by award winning artists to the most commercial levels of knickknacks). Mixed into these inventories are items produced overseas, sometimes blatant copies including the artists hallmark. These stores and galleries began to take up a larger and larger percentage of the retail space in Gallup, Scottsdale and Santa Fe. Hotel gift shop concessions throughout the US were being operated in the same way, with more and more jewelry of questionable origin and made of questionable materials, being added to the mix, without disclosure.

The US government passed laws aimed at protecting Native American art from fake and counterfeit substitutes. On several occasions, the offenders were brought to trial via due process. In almost every case, the result was a hand slap, with a token fine. Since the laws had no teeth, the offenders felt free to continue their violations.

Questionable Raw Materials
Throughout these years, various miners, importers and dealers of raw materials began to look for ways to lower the price of raw materials used to produce the jewelry. First, there was the chemical alteration of pale blue, soft turquoise into a harder and more usable dark blue material via a process of using blue dye mixed with hardening chemicals. This led to various descriptions of treated turquoise: 1) hardened and dyed (color shot), 2) just hardened and 3) fracture sealed, which is considered an acceptable process.

Throughout this period, there were always "mad chemists" at work. Soon, they found that bits and pieces of the various scrap materials could be mixed with dye and hardening chemicals and compressed under huge force, to create a compressed block of material. Thus, another cheaper shortcut came into being, which was embraced by many dealers, producers and even artists, as a less expensive way to procure raw materials and still have the look?.

The continued need for higher profits by dealers and producers did not end here. The "mad chemists" realized that they could produce the same block and not even include the bits and scraps of raw materials. This was the introduction of dyed pure plastic block. Soon, the producers of dyed plastic block learned to add texture to the block, making it undistinguishable from the genuine material, to the naked untrained eye. Over time, artists producing inexpensive jewelry for a mass market found that this plastic block allowed them to better compete with the overseas imitators. Some supply house claim that over 75% of their raw material sales are in plastic block.

Of course, after everything is said, any and all of the participants in this "industry" have the right to produce and sell any item they want, not withstanding actually copying designs created by individual artists. They also have the right to use any materials not prohibited by law or treaty (protected elephant ivory, for example). However, the seller of these items has the lawful responsibility to disclose the true nature of the origin of the item as well as the materials used, to the best of his knowledge. By not properly representing the items or, worst yet, misrepresenting the items, he has committed fraud.

The Native American art industry supports a huge number of families in the southwest. In these difficult economic times it is understandable that many artists, producers and traders would choose the path that is of the most economic benefit. That choice is there prerogative. As a consumer and supporter of Native American art, it is your choice to purchase at whatever level you are comfortable.

These issues have scared many potential collectors from the marketplace. Never be drawn in by a "going out of business" sale or an advertisement for 80% off. The best way to insure that you are purchasing what you think you are purchasing is to: 1) buy from a dealer or gallery with a longstanding reputation for quality, 2) ask the gallery owner to name the artist when possible and to describe the materials on your invoice, and 3) ask what their return policy is. When purchasing directly from an artist, ask questions, like: 1) Did you make this item, 2) Are the materials in this item natural?

A reputable dealer, gallery or artist can make a mistake. However, if they do err, you will have recourse with a reputable dealer or gallery and you will have the ability to either return or exchange the goods.

The use of bogus materials and the introduction of imitation items have only succeeded in making the real thing more desirable and valuable. These bogus materials are not going away. The production of imitation Native American arts and crafts will continue. I do not believe that this trend is reversible. As supporters of authentic Native American arts and crafts, it is our obligation to do our best to ask the right questions and use proper discretion to both protect ourselves and the arts and crafts culture as a whole.

*All rights reserved by Jeffrey Lewis
Quotes only by permission of Jeffrey Lewis

< Previous

cataloged under

^Back to Top^