Introduction to Native American jewelry

Native American jewelry is synonymous with visuals of the country’s Indigenous people. Rings, concho belts and the squash blossom necklace. Silver, turquoise and corals.

Much of what is commonly thought of as Native American jewelry comes out of the Southwest – Arizona and New Mexico, the Pueblos and Navajo Nation. Spanish colonizers brought metalsmithing to these areas and with readily available silver and turquoise deposits, plus an abundant population of artistically inclined Indigenous people to craft the pieces, Native American jewelry has largely come to mean Southwestern Native American jewelry.

Tourism and market forces also played a role in this marginalization. As more and more tourists started visiting the Southwest – Santa Fe, the Grand Canyon – a market for souvenirs developed. That market steadily increased since the turn of the 20th century. Consider this, Zuni is the largest of New Mexico’s 19 remaining pueblos with roughly 80% of households there earning a primary living off the production of artwork of all kinds, artwork supported by tourism.

This is also why when most people think of Native American pottery, what largely comes to mind is Pueblo pottery from New Mexico, just like when most people think of Native American jewelry, they think of jewelry produced in the Southwest.

All Native American nations and tribes produced jewelry, and still do, but what is most popular has its origins in the Southwest.

Native American Jewelry Artists

Slender Maker of Silver (Navajo) Squash blossom necklace, ca. 19885-1890. Handwrought and tufa-cast silver, turquoise. Photo by Addison Doty. From the collection of the Wheelwright Museum.
Slender Maker of Silver (Navajo) Squash blossom necklace, ca. 19885-1890. Handwrought and tufa-cast silver, turquoise. Photo by Addison Doty. From the collection of the Wheelwright Museum.

Slendermaker – or Slender Maker of Silver (Diné/Navajo) – is a good place to begin a conversation about Native American jewelry artists, particularly since this introduction focuses on the most popular styles of Southwestern Native American jewelry. He is often the first Native American artist credited with learning metalsmithing from the Spanish and creating the squash blossoms necklace in the late 1800s.

“What we always have a discussion about is who’s really the first group that learned the technology, learned the skill to work with silver,” Ben Calabaza (Kewa – Santo Domingo Pueblo), Public Relations Manager at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, which has the finest selection of Native American jewelry from the Southwest anywhere, told me when I visited. “(Our Slender Maker) display is acknowledging that on the Navajo side, he is the first one of the Navajo people who was an apprentice and learned the craft. We’re not saying that he was the first one of anyone in New Mexico, any tribes, we’re just saying of the Navajo people, he was the first.”

As with most Native American art production, familial connections are pervasive. Slender Maker’s son Fred Peshlakai was a prominent jewelry maker. Kenneth Begay, sometimes called ‘the father of Navajo jewelry,’ was a contemporary of Peshalkai and another prominent Diné silversmith who learned from Slender Maker.

Among contemporary artists, Liz Wallace is as good as you’ll find with work in museum collections. Her mother, Kathryn Morsea (Diné), and father, Alan Wallace (Washo and Maidu), were both accomplished jewelers. Tony Abetya (Diné) is best known for his painting, but produces jewelry as well. He comes from a rich tradition of familial artisans. Brothers Lee and Raymond Yazzie and sister Mary Marie (Diné) are at the top of the Native American jewelry field.

The most important Native American jewelry artist to know, however, remains Charles Loloma (Hopi; 1921-1991). Loloma’s artistic expressions in silver, turquoise, lapis and corals are no less singular and recognizable to a trained eye than the brushwork of any painter. He is the rare jewelry maker known by name, a figure essential to the story of Native American art, regardless of medium.

“Loloma was born in the most conservative part of the Pueblos,” Jean Higgins, then-interim director of the Wheelwright Museum, told me when I visited in 2022. “Hopi is on a mesa in sections in the middle of the Navajo reservation now. Isolated. They’re the most traditional of the Pueblos in terms of holding their culture close and not having visitors take away from what they’re focused on.”

This initially created problems for Loloma’s whose revolutionary designs were unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, in or out of Hopi.

“He really diverged from traditional jewelry styles and of course he got push back,” Higgins explained.

Traveling widely – New York, California, Scottsdale, AZ – he acquired uncommon stones to place in his jewelry and was exposed to contemporary ideas which hadn’t permeated Hopi. He brought all of this together in creating an entirely new level of Native American jewelry.

“He would work for four hours in the morning and then take a break and go back and work for another four or six hours in the evening, every day, just meticulously creating these pieces,” Higgins said. “His work is absolutely of the highest order and commands the highest prices, two of the cuff bracelets that (we have on display) were $35,000 or $40,000.”

Is this Native American Jewelry Authentic?

Left, Charles Loloma (Hopi), Bracelet, ca. 1985. Gold, coral, lapis, turquoise. Right, Charles Loloma (Hopi), Bracelet with badger paw, ca. 1985. Tufa-cast gold, lapis lazuli, coral, turquoise Bottom, Charles Loloma (Hopi), Bracelet, ca. 1980. Gold, PHOTO BY ADDISON DOTY
Left, Charles Loloma (Hopi), Bracelet, ca. 1985. Gold, coral, lapis, turquoise. Right, Charles Loloma (Hopi), Bracelet with badger paw, ca. 1985. Tufa-cast gold, lapis lazuli, coral, turquoise Bottom, Charles Loloma (Hopi), Bracelet, ca. 1980. Gold, PHOTO BY ADDISON DOTY

The best way to determine if a piece of Native American jewelry is authentic is to buy it directly from the artist. This can be done at the top Indian markets and powwows around the country.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act (Act) of 1990 was passed in an attempt to clean up the Native American art market – essentially – a market that had become overrun with fakes. The Act is a truth-in-advertising law prohibiting misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian art and craft products within the United States.

The Act makes it illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell, any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian/Native American produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States.

While the Act has helped consumers and Native American artists by reducing the number of phony items on the marketplace, they still exist. Some Native Americans will even buy mass produced crap and sell it as “Native” art, using their heritage to deepen the scam.

How else can buyers verify their Native American jewelry is authentic?

Similar to buying direct from an artist, if you buy artwork on an Indian Reservation, chances are it’s the real thing. Artisans on the reservation don’t want their products undercut by forgeries or pieces misrepresenting their making as “Indian” or “Native.”

If you buy from a market or powwow, is that event “juried?” What that means is, do artists have to apply to the event organizers in order to sell their items there? If so, the event will provide the authentication for you because it doesn’t want its reputation damaged by selling fakes.

If you buy Native American jewelry from an art gallery, how long has the gallery been in business? Do they have a website? Business cards? Is there an owner or gallerist you can contact directly, someone willing to attach her or his name to the authenticity of this product? Do they have a brick-and-mortar store?

If someone’s operating a business where you can actually find them in person, they’re less likely to try passing off fakes as real and risk someone returning to complain in person or seek damages. Ask the gallery where it purchases the artwork from.

Online purchases are tricky, particularly if not made through a reputable auction or gallery with a long history of operation and a stellar reputation. I personally wouldn’t buy Native American jewelry from an ebay, Craigslist, blind seller type site; not when so much great work is available for purchase direct from the artist.

Museum gift shops are a good place to buy authentic Native American jewelry. Again, they have experts who acquire pieces for sale directly from artists, assuring its authenticity, and they’re not going to risk their reputations with suspect material.

As with all art purchases, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

Finally, don’t feel obligated to go right out and buy something just because you have an itch. Give yourself time – at least a few gallery, market or museum visits – before buying a significant piece. The more you look, the more you shop, the more information and experience you acquire, the more easily you’ll be able to determine if this Native American jewelry is authentic.

Is it OK to buy Native American jewelry?

Fred Peshlakai (Navajo), Bracelet, ca. 1955, Silver, Lone Mountain Turquoise. From the collection of the Wheelwright Museum.
Fred Peshlakai (Navajo), Bracelet, ca. 1955, Silver, Lone Mountain Turquoise. From the collection of the Wheelwright Museum.

Perhaps I should back up a step since this is an introduction. Is it OK to buy Native American jewelry?

ABSOLUTELY!

Indigenous ceremonial and burial objects should never be purchased, but Native American jewelry for 100 years has increasingly been produced in order to be sold to support an ever-growing marketplace and provide a living the artists who make it.

As mentioned previously, a staggering percentage of Native American homes nationwide support themselves all or in part from the sale of artwork. When you buy Native American art, be that jewelry, pots, baskets, beadwork, paintings, sculpture, clothes, whatever, particularly when you buy direct from the artists, you are doing more than just supporting an artist or gallery, you are supporting a culture, a history and a way of life.

Native American Jewelry for Sale

If you’re looking for Native American jewelry for sale, I’ve put together this list of the top, juried, long-running and 100% legit Native American markets around the country. There are many others, but these are the biggest; Santa Fe Indian Market is the biggest of the biggest, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2022, the longest running, largest, most prestigious Indigenous arts market in the world.

If you can’t make it to a market, Western and Native American museums around the country generally have excellent collections of Native American jewelry for sale in their museum stores. The Case Trading Post at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, the longtime museum store there, has exceptional pieces. So does the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. The First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. The Heard Museum in Phoenix.

Santa Fe has more galleries with Native American jewelry for sale than anywhere else. If a gallery has a storefront in Santa Fe and a track record longer than a couple of years, you don’t have to worry is this Native American jewelry authentic. It is.

Keshi Gallery in Santa Fe specializes in Zuni fetishes. It works directly with the artisans who are regularly seen bringing new work into the store. The helpful staff is always happy to talk to entry level buyers to educate them on the field. It’s one of my favorite places to stop on any visit to Santa Fe.

King Galleries in Santa Fe and Scottsdale and Native American owned Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe both have exceptional reputations.

The leading gallery in the nation when it comes to selling both traditional and contemporary Native American art, jewelry included, is Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, AZ. Medicine Man Gallery, owned and operated by Mark Sublette, has a vast assortment of bracelets, rings, necklaces – including squash blossom necklaces – belt buckles, turquoise and sliver jewelry and acquires more every day from artists and estates.

Medicine Man Gallery has been in business in Tucson since 1992 and was an early adopter of ecommerce for the sale of Native American jewelry. You can be sure what you buy from Medicine Man Gallery in person or online is authentic. Through the Medicine Man Gallery website is one of the only places I’d consider buying Native American art online.

Squash Blossom Necklace or Squash Blossoms Necklace

Slender Maker of Silver (Navajo) Squash blossom necklace, ca. 19885-1890. Handwrought and tufa-cast silver, turquoise. Photo by Addison Doty.
Slender Maker of Silver (Navajo) Squash blossom necklace, ca. 19885-1890. Handwrought and tufa-cast silver, turquoise. Photo by Addison Doty.

One of the most intriguing, striking, and in-demand styles of Native American jewelry is the squash blossom necklace or the squash blossoms necklace. As the name indicates, these are necklaces with miniature metallic squash blossom replicas attached to the chain.

Production of squash blossom necklaces began among the Southwestern tribes in the 1870s with the chain and blossoms typically being silver and the ornamental decoration now often being turquoise.

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