The Market Blooms for American Indian Jewelry Collectors (see more guides on this topic at the bottom of this article)
By Paula Baxter
Paula A. Baxter is Curator of New York Public Library's Art & Architecture Collection. She is author of the Encyclopedia of Native American Jewelry (2000) and has published numerous encyclopedic and magazine articles on design history and Native American jewelry.
Examining the first century of Navajo and Pueblo metal jewelry-making in the American Southwest. Beginning in the late 1860s, the region's native peoples learned metalworking and became accomplished silversmiths. Their work was united with a long-standing native tradition of beads and ornaments made from turquoise and other natural materials. The cross-cultural appeal of this jewelry continued into the mid-1900s, despite competition from tourist jewelry and mass-produced imitations. By the 1950s and 1960s, masters such as innovators Kenneth Begay and Charles Loloma created a legacy of fine art jewelry that is prized today. This development is discussed in the context of social changes and adaptations over the century. A values reference guide is also provided. " a must for jewelry collectors."
--Antique & Collectibles Trader
The American Indian jewelry collectible market, comprised of both an antiques and a contemporary marketplace, flourishes as a successful collaboration between artists, dealers, and mainly non-Indian consumers and collectors. Consumers-many of whom become dedicated collectors-play a strong role in shaping market demand. A key factor in this development is the fact that Indian jewelry, old and new, remains available in a wide variety of price ranges that complement consumer incomes. While Southwestern native-made jewelry continues to be the largest market, Inuit, Northwest Coast, and northeastern Woodlands jewelers also contribute popular work, while a growing number of Plains artists have captured collector interest over the last decade.
The high quality of Indian jewelry designs and materials, along with fine craftsmanship, attracts a devoted following. Many collectors who start by buying antique or vintage Indian jewelry become interested in contemporary work. The artistry of today's leading native jewelers can also spark fascination with older designs and craftsmanship. Lenore Weber, a New York City psychotherapist, typifies the attitude of many new collectors. "I attended my first Santa Fe Indian Market in 2003, and found myself excited by the diversity and creativity of the artists' lapidary and silverwork techniques and designs. More recently, I've become interested in learning about the history of native shell artistry." Weber enjoys purchasing jewelry from native artists as well as knowledgeable dealers, and has grown adept at ferreting out unusual and choice items from flea markets, thrift shops, and auctions.
Those who follow the marketplace have noticed an emerging trend over the last five to seven years. Native artists are executing works that show a delightful split between traditional materials and designs and creative work with modern accents that echo mainstream costume jewelry trends. Their pieces reflect an inherent awareness of popular culture, while still paying tribute to their cultural roots. The fashion element also plays a role, especially in the recurring appeal of turquoise. Pop icons Ralph Lauren and Oprah Winfrey are committed advocates for Indian jewelry.
As is the case for many ethnic arts, however, misrepresentation remains the most serious problem facing the creation, sale, and collection of American Indian jewelry. Consumer trust-already a delicate balance-can be quickly lost when people are sold non-authentic goods; ripped-off consumers quickly lose any incentive to become collectors. Therefore, the established Indian arts fairs where jewelry can be bought directly from the artists, along with antiques shows run by reputable dealers, serve as important starting points. The antique Indian jewelry market has always been problematic because the genuine article (pre-1940s pieces) is in limited supply.
Indian arts, especially antiques and vintage items, are increasingly considered prime Americana. The role of ATADA (Antique Tribal Arts Dealers Association), established in 1988, has drawn more and more serious collectors to consult dealer members, reassured by their pledge that they will receive older jewelry that is authentic and possesses a legal provenance.
For contemporary work, makers and sellers can turn to the Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA). The IACA was established in 1974 as a nonprofit organization committed to "support the effective protection and ethical promotion of authentic Native American arts and material culture." Steve Delzio, owner of The Mexican Shack, Somers, New York, sells high quality Indian jewelry and is an IACA member. He attends IACA's two annual wholesale shows for retailers whenever possible, where he can meet and build relationships with native jewelers and have the confidence of buying authentic Indian arts.
The traditional venues of antique shows and sales continue in the Southwest, with major shows offered in Santa Fe during the week that preceedes its Indian Market. Southern California and Arizona also play host to established antiquarian sales shows. During the 1980s and into the next decade, some successful antiques shows were set up on the East Coast, but they faded away before the end of the 1990s. New York still serves as a center of auction activity, and collectors can find dealers at the city's Triple Pier and occasional antique tribal arts shows.
August remains a "blockbuster" month for Indian arts fairs. The venerable Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial, which has been trying to reinvent itself after flagging attendance in the 1990s, is held around the middle of the month. The biggest event, however, comes on the third weekend: the annual Santa Fe Indian Market held on the city's central plaza and adjoining streets.
Other major venues that feature the sale of contemporary native jewelers' works include the annual Heard Museum Indian Market and Guild Fair in Phoenix, the Eiteljorg Museum Indian Market in Indianapolis, Red Earth's American Cultural Festival in Oklahoma City, and the Northern Plains Indian Art Market in Sioux Falls.
The Internet has had a noticeable effect on drawing collector access to Indian jewelry sources. Within at least the last seven years, savvy dealers and artists have started websites, and work to keep them interesting and viable. As a result, attractive sites like that for the Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Utah, have brought in good sales from those not able to travel to the store. Sometimes the virtual location of a website also helps the dealer's regional context. Cheri Van Hoover, at www .milkywayjewels.com, an online dealer in vintage jewelry, finds that her American Indian pieces appeal to collectors. Based in the Pacific Northwest, she sells both Southwestern and local native-made items. "The jewelry of the Northwest Coast native peoples is already ardently collected by those who understand it," she says. "Because the region is becoming an increasingly popular destination for tourism, retirement, and high tech employment, interest in the artistry of its native peoples is growing."
Collectors and dealers have succumbed to eBay's appeal, although just how successful their experiences have been is still not quantifiable. Inherent pitfalls, such as poor quality images and incomplete descriptions for items, have led to the creation of user guides and advisories. An eBay guide that is particularly helpful (found at http://reviews.ebay.com) is "How to Evaluate and Buy Navajo and Zuni Jewelry on eBay."
Looking at the contemporary collectible market, the influence of mainstream costume jewelry is apparent, particularly in the incorporation of non-traditional materials such as onyx, amber, seed pearls, and newer semi-precious stones in vivid colors. The greatest demand remains for high-end jewelry with high-quality turquoise stones. With many American mines played out, Chinese turquoise has become the material of choice, along with Carico Lake. Jewelers frequently reset older turquoise stones into new silver settings. Coral continues to be desirable, including the lighter pink and apple coral shades. Spiny oyster shell, in orange, blush and purple tones, is another favored material. The bright colors of charolite, sugilite, damali, and gaspeite have worked their way into the jewelers' repertoire.
The antique Indian jewelry marketplace has been so active over the last twenty years that much pre-1930s jewelry has disappeared into bank vaults and private collections. With less older pieces in circulation, estate collections have become most dealers' and collectors' best hope for new finds. One outcome of this decrease in available older jewelry has been a new emphasis on vintage works, with pieces from the 1950s through 1970s receiving more scrutiny. Dealers, including Van Hoover, are finding that tourist-era Fred Harvey jewelry has become more collectible. Even 1970s native-made jewelry is breaking loose from its previously dubious reputation; known as a decade of calculated, but eclectic, experimentation, pieces from this period now look less kitschy and New Age and more worthy of reappraisal.
With genuine Navajo and Pueblo silver and stone bracelets made before 1950 virtually under lock and key, contemporary native jewelers have turned to producing a revival of sorts. Their inspiration, among others, has been the work of Navajo silversmith Harry Morgan, whose classic designs helped lead to this resurgence. In recent years, an outpouring of jewelry design, based on work done from the 1940s through 1960s, has permitted collectors a means of enjoying these older styles.
As a consequence, the term "Old Style" has also recently sprung into determined usage on the part of native artists as a means of describing contemporary pieces meant to deliberately reproduce pre-1970s style jewelry. This grassroots movement is being taken up by the media, and will provide a level of satisfaction for everyone in the collectibles market. In a decorative art field sensitive to misrepresentation, the "Old Style" label will please consumers (and collectors) unable to locate or afford the genuine article, and it allows native artists to celebrate the classic designs of their elders.
Consumers will be able to distinguish a truly quality "Old Style" piece by several characteristics. The silverwork will be "clean," unmarked by fire-scaling, sloppy solder lines, or other disfigurements of the surface. Well polished, high quality stones will have simple settings that highlight the stones but do not distract from the overall nature of the silverwork. The silver itself may have a satin finish versus a high polish. The artist will also likely sign his name or hallmark on the back of the piece. Some of the styles, particularly for bracelets, will be on the heavy side, yet retain a sweeping, classic aesthetic. Decorative forms utilizing twisted wire, metal raindrops, and sandcasting pay tribute to the period, and heighten the "retro" feel.
Southwestern jewelers who have been particularly featured in recent Indian arts fairs include Mike Bird-Romero, Edison Cummings, Christina Eustace, Allison Lee, and Norbert Peshlakai. Among those working in innovative modes are Cody Sanderson, whose pieces possess a very modern sculptural quality, Aaron Brokeshoulder (Chippewa/Santo Domingo), Carlton Jamon, and Dina Huntinghorse. Two artists particularly adept at rendering new "Old Style" jewelry, especially bracelets, are Ernest Lister and Orville Tsinnie. Many established jewelers and smiths have introduced a younger generation to the field; talented designers include David Gaussoin, Melanie Kirk-Lente, and Dylan and Jovanna Poblano. Works by Plains artists Kenneth Johnson, Kevin Pourier, and Nelda Schrupp have garnered increased attention. While the number of Northwest Coast jewelry-makers is considerably smaller, enthusiasm is growing for the works of Gene Chilton and Al Joe, among others.
One of the best signs for the future of American Indian jewelry is the steady improvement of collector literature and the creation of significant exhibitions that give native artists historical context and importance. The move away from lightweight collector publications reflects renewed scholarly developments. Consumer education has become a serious consideration for traders and dealers, who recognize that collector wishes include a desire for works that concentrate on artistic, rather than ethnological, traditions. While price guides and pictorial catalogues will always be in demand, particularly with new collectors, writing on American Indian artistry is beginning to catch up with mainstream decorative art literature. A landmark survey history by Lois Dubin, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment (1999), and a first-time reference book, The Encyclopedia of Native American Jewelry (2000) mark the beginnings of this re-energized investigation.
Jewelers whose works are mainly for high-end collectors, including such diverse artists as Jesse Monongya, Denise Wallace, and the team of Gail Bird and Yazzie Johnson, have been the subject of recent exhibitions and accompanying catalogues. Two major exhibitions, Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation (2002 and 2005) and Totems To Turquoise (2004) have validated more serious scholarship on native artistry. Their exhibition catalogues document American Indian jewelry-makers and their practices in a wider context than the previously ubiquitous anthropological approach. While the American Indian jewelry collectible market clearly occupies a well-defined niche, its continued attractiveness demonstrates a growing artist and collector sophistication. Native jewelry-makers have benefited from the well-established popularity of American crafts, and the affinities between their creations and contemporary costume jewelry, helped along by the intriguing split between traditional forms and materials and a more avant-garde approach to design. For those collectors looking for older adornment, the discovery of pre-1930s pieces has become more challenging than ever, and many are taking a closer look at vintage and new native-made jewelry. The cross-cultural bond between Indian jewelers, dealers, and consumers is maintained by trust, adaptability, and keen enjoyment while keeping an eye on the future.
Also see my Ebay Guide of Fakes and Frauds on Ebay which includes several guidelines in buying Indian Jewlery and to be careful from the fakes.