Frequently Asked Questions...
Where are the fakes coming from?

Copies of American Indian crafts are nothing new. Since an international interest in American Indian arts began, during the late 1800's, people have made and sold items which contain elemants of "American Indian" style. As manufacturing techniques have improved, mass-production of very closely copied items are now possible, from chemically-aged pottery and beadwork, to sterling silver jewelry and carvings. Many of these items are handmade or manufactured offshore, in Latin America or Asia. Many of the companys involved are American owned. Their owners have seen an interest (a market), and are attempting to fill the demand for authentic items with low priced, imitations. Many of these items are manufactured here, in the USA, under factory conditions. In any case, anyone buying "Indian" arts, jewelry or crafts should be prepared to ask the most important question before buying: "Is this Indian handmade?" An ethical dealer will answer truthfully, yes or no. The unethical dealer may lie, but you should examine the piece for copuntry of origin markings, or the signs of machine production. The decision to buy is yours, but it is always best to know what you are buying.

How can you tell the difference?

It can be very difficult, even for collectors and dealers with a long association in American Indian arts. There are some tell-tale indications of handmade work, just as there are indications of mass-produced work. The easiest way for the uninitiated collector, is to rely on the reputation of an ethical dealer, or trade-association such as the Indian Arts and Crafts Association. We were called on last year (9/18/96) to appear on the Fox Television network program Personal F/X, to answer some questions about jewelry authenticity, and how the average collector could tell if an item of jewelry had been handmade or not. Our segment was brief, but we covered a few key points:

  • Handmade jewelry contains toolmarks, the result of hand finishing, stamping, cutting and filing. These usually appear on the side which is not visible when worn, or along the edges. They appear as fine, irregularly spaced lines or cuts.
  • Handmade jewelry contains imperfections both in execution and design. Because the hand is not as steady as a die-stamping machine, stamped patterns will carry small variations. Hand cut edges will not be perfectly shaped, or symmetrical. Hand soldered joints may show extra solder, or "fire-scale" darkening from the torch or impurities in the metals used.
  • Pieces purported to be "old" carry the marks of wear. these occur along the insides, along the facing sides and on the edges. Typical wear marks are the diminishing of details through soft, repeated abrasion, impact compacting and denting and the like. The finish achieved by time and wear on a forty year old piece is very hard to duplicate, but it can be done -- best to trust your dealer.
  • Machine made items are usually identical with each other. Finish is even over all. Some pieces are cast duplicates from original Indian handmade work. These often exhibit mold lines along the edges, and a general diminishing of detail, particularly in "undercut", or applied detail. To remove an item from a mold, it must be shaped to allow it to fall out of the mold. It can't have any undercut within it's visible surface. Occasionally rivets are used as a cheap means of attaching elements to a surface.
  • Crafts items, such as pottery, also contain tool or hand marks. Handmade pottery, particularly, ehibits the irregularity of its coiled and scraped creation. It will not show uniform smoothness inside, or uniformly even wall thickness. It will not exhibit sags and runs inside. These are typical of slipcast, or molded pottery which is mass-produced and then decorated, often by hand. The decoration of mass-produced pottery will typically not show brushmarks, or variations. Some authentic American Indian pottery is handmade, but electric or gas kiln fired, rather than the traditional wood firing. This results in a piece which may sell for much less than a wood fired item. It is authentic, but not traditional in execution.

Why do fakes cost so much less?
We are asked a typical question, regularly: "Silver is less than $14.00 per ounce, why does your jewelry cost so much?" The annswer involves some basic business concepts and some specifics to American Indian arts.
  • The price you or I pay for an item of handmade American Indian jewelry is made up of three components. First, is the materials cost, which is typically the smallest portion. Unless an artist chooses to use very highpriced stones or karat metal, such as gold, materials cost is usually not a large component. Rough turquoise, shell and coral, for example, may be sold by the pound, while the better quality, pre-finished cabachons or tumbled, polished stones may sell by the gram or even by the karat weight, to the artist. The artist may save hours of labor, by using a pre-cut stone or stones, but he or she will have to pay substantially more for the material, because someone's labor and overhead is involved.
  • The actual hours of work involved in designing, then shaping, cutting, soldering, to create the finished item, is the largest component which makes up the price the artist sells the item for. The greater the demand for an artist's work, or the finer the quality of the work, the higher the price will be. They will have less time available in any given day to produce their work, as compared to artists who are learning, or who produce lesser quality. American Indian artists, despite rumours that often circulate to the contrary, have to pay bills, buy clothes for their children and gas for the car just like the rest of us! People who produce the fakes in other countries, or in factories in the USA, do not receive the same wages for their work as an individual artist. In Asia, they often receive pennies a day for their work, which translates to huge profits for the owners of these factories, or offshore cottage industries, not for the people who produce the merchandise.
  • The third component is the cost of marketing the art. When individual artists market their work directly, it often means a great deal of time on the road, away from their families. Crafts shows and Pow-Wows are the most common venues for this self-marketing. This involves booth fees and lodging/food expenses. The travel is so time-intensive that it leaves less time for actual production of their arts. The artist must determine the cost of this and add it to their prices, before profit. If this is not appropirate to their needs, they may choose to sell their work to galleries and traders (like Kiva), who will bear the burden of the cost of marketing, and pay less for the work than the consumer. Their marketing costs and overhead costs are different, often involving rent, real-estate taxes, insurance, payroll, advertsing (often including printing), as well as travel and shipping costs. These all eventually become part of the price paid by the consumer. While Kiva may save by seeking out the best quality artists for the money, we pay fair prices for the work we sell. These savings are often passed on to our customers.
  • One very small component of the final price is profit for the seller. This is often a very small percentage. That is why dealers who sell in great volume, generally are more successful. We would love to sell in great volume, but the handmade nature of the arts we sell prevents this. Instead, we've concentrated on providing personal, reliable service and finding the best examples of the work we can. Our profits generally go right back into new inventory so we can keep our customers happy.

What about the stones?
Are they real?

A lot has been written in the past few years about the authenticity of the stones used by American Indian artists and in "Indian style" jewelry. We'd like to clear up a few mis-conceptions.

  • Not all blue stones are turquoise. Turquoise is an aluminum-silicate mineral with some copper/organic compounds. It is considered a semi-precious gemstone. Sometimes stone suppliers, mines and lapidaries dye other stones to resemble turquoise. Some of these are variscite (usually a very light green) and onyx. Some stone are blue green, such as jade or jadeite, which is generally not used in North American Indian jewelry. This is found extensively in Mexico and Latin America and is used in their indigenous cultural jewelry.
  • Some stones are not stones at all. There are several domestic and European sources for synthetic stone substitutes. Some of these are carefully blended combinations of plastic resins, marble dust and pyrite dust, and some are just plain old blue plastic. These are often called "block" materials. These are not set in quality jewelry of any kind. Kiva is very careful not to purchase items with block content. Our artists, generally produce quality products, and would not consider using these materials to cut corners on cost, since the real thing is easy enough to obtain. In the past, trading post buyers and traders might heat a needle to check a stone to see if it melted, but since natural turquoise is very heat susceptible and might be damaged, it is not really a good idea unless you own the item.
  • "Re-constituted" stones are made from ground, lesser quality turquoise, mixed with the same resins and marble dust, etc. You can often see, in the surface of such "stones" the uniform finish reflection which is hard to obtain with a real stone.
  • "Stabilized" turquoise is real turquoise, of lesser hardness, which is fortified by pressure treating it with certain very thin resins which penetrate the stone as a binder, improving its hardness. Some American turquoise is stabilized regularly, such as the lower grades from the Kingman or Sleeping Beauty mines. Some higher quality Asian turquoise is stabilized to improve its color or working characteristics. Most inlay work and almost all Zuni clusterwork employs stabilized turquoise to allow the finer lapidary cutting and grinding. Also, most very light blue turquoise is very soft, and so to prevent it from crumbling, it is stabilized in the rough state. A form of stabilized turquoise has been used, for centuries. It was common, before European contact, to rub turquoise with grease or tallow to polish the surface and bring out the color.
  • "Dye-shot" turquoise is turquoise which is of poor color characteristics. It can be pressure dyed to improve its color. We generally shy away from such stones, as the color is not true, or attractive to our customers. Other stones such as coral are now regularly dye shot, as the better color grades of coral disappear all over he world. Jewelry made from dye-shot stones is very sensitive to sunlight and may fade quickly when exposed. Consumers can usually tell dye-shot stones, especially in multi-stone work, if there is no variation between stones set in a piece, or if within an individual stone, the color is too uniform.
  • Natural, high grade turquoise is still a relatively soft mineral. It scratches quite easily, and can be difficult to polish as a result. It also is subject to color change to green as it is exposed to body oils and food in the wearing. Turquoise may also turn green if it is subjected to too much heat, or it may actually explode. The colors of natural turquoise range from (recent find) white to bluegreen to grass green. It is an opaque mineral, but stones with a luminous quality of color and beautiful "matrix" markings (the other minerals often found in conjunction with the turquoise and seen as inclusions in a finished stone) shine almost as if they were translucent. This elusive quality is called "zat". Harder stones are especially prized, and many used to be mined here in the USA. Over the past few centuries, especially this century, much of the higher grade turquoise here has been mined out. Other parts of the world also have high quality turquoise, particularly Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, Tibet, China and Israel. Much of the better quality turquoise set today is from these countries. Sometimes the artist will buy his stones rough, or he may choose to do his own lapidary work. Either way, with a quality stone his piece is enhanced and increased in value.
  • Over the past 20 years or so, collectors have begun seeing the increased use of exotic stones, such as opal or lapis lazuli in Indian handmade jewelry. Another stone which was used more extensively in the past, is agate or jasper. Picture jasper, containing banded "landscapes" was very popular through the late 60's, but tastes change, and the artists' work must keep up to be competitive and desirable. We have also begun seeing the use of traditionally faceted gemstones along with turquoise. These settings, using citrine, amethyst or garnets can be very beautiful. Some recently used exotic stones include Charoite (Ukraine), Sugalite(South Africa, Siberia), Dinosaur Bone Fossil, Fossil Walrus or Mastadon Ivory, Gaspeite(Australia), Rhodochrosite(S. America), and Denin Lapis(Afghanistan) which is lapis which has a high volume of dissolved Calcite. If you have specific stone interests, let us know. We see new ones all the time, and they are all very beautiful when used by American Indian jewelers.

Do the Indians get any of the money?
On the surface, this might seem like a naive question, but it does come in regularly. People are concerned that the Indian people are somehow being coerced, or mislead into parting with their arts much cheaper than they really want to. The answer, of course; is YES! To understand the way the American Indian arts "business" works, you must remember a couple of important points.
  • Europeans did not invent trade or commerce. For thousands of years before the first Viking put ashore here to find a spot to winter over, American Indian Nations were conducting business with each other and with Nations from what would later become Mexico, Central America and Canada, maybe others. In New Mexico, the Pueblo people had regular visitors, "merchants" from faraway Yucatan, and the Sea of Cortez to bring in shells, parrots, dyes and cloth in exchange for pottery, turquoise jewelry, deerskins and other desirable commodities. Rates of hard exchange were standardized to effect easy trade, and to prevent any one party from beating the other's deal, too well. In other words, business thrives when everyone eats.
  • Barter is not intrinsically different from today's commerce. The operative difference is money, which is exchangeable for the goods we cannot make or provide for ourselves. 500 years ago, if an Indian person needed a pot, but was not a good potter, he or she might approach the "potter" in the community with the offer of trade for something the potter might want or need. Some bargaining might have been involved as each tried to get the best deal, or standard expectations may have ruled: 1 pot costs 2 deerskins -- take it or leave it. Some Indian Nations used forms of currency such as shell beads, copper shields, brass disks, or the like to represent the idea of a certain amount of wealth. In more recent times, Navajo people could always trade items of silver jewelry, or handwoven rugs for staples, bullets, tools and items they did not produce themselves. Getting the best value in trade has always been respected. It's the same today.
  • Traders and merchants have traditionally been respected in every culture. Because they carried news and information anout new technology, seeds, foodstuffs, etc. Their arrival was always an occasion for a big party. If a trader was dishonest in his dealings, he would not be welcome to return, or worse. At Kiva, we feel that trade in arts and cultural material is the most natural, honest exchange between people of different cultures the world over. Friendship comes after trust and respect. Business is one of the only honest ways people make contact with each other.
  • The artists have always set the price of their art. Only the artist knows how much time and creative thought went into their work. They know what bills they have to pay, and what they need to get for anything they produce. Of course, if they can get a little bit more, that's good, too. As marketers of their work, the only real options we have in dealing with the artists are to buy, or not. We don't ever take inventory away from an artist, agreeing to send payment when the items sells. That would not be good business for the artist. They would lose the opportunity to make a sale with another customer. They are much too aware of their own business to do a deal like that.
  • The last point has to do with perception of Indian people as unable to "cope", or conduct business with our much more "sophisticated" culture, thereby being reduced to victim status. This is absolute nonsense. Cultural and language differences can create misunderstandings, but every Indian artists we have become acquainted with is fully aware of the value of their work. American Indian culture is equally diverse as anything Europe could have mustered, and in some ways, is more amenable to fair trading than European tradition. One of the largest social problems we see facing Indian Nations today is the continued view by many Americans that Indian people are "living, noble artifacts", or "a vanished race". This perpetuates the myth of American Indians as inscrutable, mystical remnants of a serene, perfect Eden, here in the New World -- innocents. American Indians in reality are as hard to define as a group as are those who are called "Americans". They are people. Like the rest of us, they work to create opportunity for themselves and a future for their children. Like some of us, they have not had an easy time of it, but have managed to endure, patiently, adapting as necessary, to life around them.

What is your logo supposed to be ?
  • The brush-stroke style mark which we use with our company name as a logotype began its life as a quick rendering of the inside of a kiva. The circular shape defines the nature of life in this world, and the central opening and open pathway leading from it describe the emergence place and the path of life in this world. The color, sky blue, or turquoise (on the web) represents the "skystone" and the creative process.

How do I trace my American Indian geneology?

  • Many visitors ask us how they should begin tracing their American Indian geneology.  We recommend that you start by speaking with your relatives and gathering as many names (married and maiden for women) places and addresses of the relatives you want to trace through.  Many people of partial American Indian ancestry, in past generations, did not feel completely comfortable enrolling in a tribal enrollment, or specific Nation, for political reasons. Others, going through the US Government's sytem of Indian schools, which were designed to break down Indian heritage and language, changed their names and became mostly assimilated into the mainstream culture.   As a result, many complete bloodlines have been lost from the records.  Another problem people often find is that names and lineage are often recorded differently among diffferent Nations, as their cultures are highly varied.  Specifically, Nations may figure lineage matrilineally (from the mother's bloodline) or patrinlineally (from the father).  Most Europoean societies figure lineage through the father's bloodlines as does the official US and State government agencies.  Many American Indian Nations figure their lineages matrilineally, so maiden names become especially important.  Once you get all the pertainent names, dates, locales, etc., you can begin to narrow down potential tribal affiliations through regional connections.  The next step involves contacting the enrollment/records offices of the individual Nations you suspect, or know are connected with your ancestor.  They may be able to confirm enrollment, or family connections to enrolled individuals.  A good starting point is the NativeWeb site, linked through our favorite links page, which can link you with many different Nations' websites and contact information.  Good luck with your search!

What do the symbols in American Indian arts mean?
  • Like most artists, American Indian artists often use design elements in their work, just because they are visually pleasing, or suggest something personal to the artist.  In cases like these, the more important question would be "what does this mean to me?" American Indian artists, do, however, draw ideas and inspriation from cultural sources, just as non-Inidna artists do.  It is the cultural sources of many recognizable designs in American Indian art which accounts at least partly, for it's popularity.  We have prepared a Dictionary of American Indian Symbols with descriptive explanations on our site.  You may go there: for answers to some of your questions.

  Watch for new questions! 

If you have one, contact us. Frequently asked questions and their answers will be listed here.

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