|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
manufactured here, in the USA, under factory conditions. In any case,
buying "Indian" arts, jewelry or crafts should be prepared to ask the
most important question before buying: "Is this Indian handmade?" An
dealer will answer truthfully, yes or no. The unethical dealer may lie,
but you should examine the piece for copuntry of origin markings, or
signs of machine production. The decision to buy is yours, but it is
best to know what you are buying.
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:
do fakes cost so much less?
- 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
not be perfectly shaped, or symmetrical. Hand soldered joints may
show extra solder, or "fire-scale" darkening from the torch or
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
it to fall out of the mold. It can't have any undercut within it's
surface. Occasionally rivets are used as a cheap means of attaching
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
for much less than a wood fired item. It is authentic, but not
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
about the stones?
- 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
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
- 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,
not receive the same wages for their work as an individual artist. In
they often receive pennies a day for their work, which translates to
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
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
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.
the Indians get any of the money?
- 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
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
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
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
grass green. It is an opaque mineral, but stones with a luminous
of color and beautiful "matrix" markings (the other minerals often
in conjunction with the turquoise and seen as inclusions in a finished
stone) shine almost as if they were translucent. This elusive quality
called "zat". Harder stones are especially prized, and many used to be
mined here in the USA. Over the past few centuries, especially this
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.
On the surface, this might seem like a
naive question, but it does come in regularly. People are concerned
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.
is your logo supposed to be ?
- 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
and Canada, maybe others. In New Mexico, the Pueblo people had regular
visitors, "merchants" from faraway Yucatan, and the Sea of Cortez to
in shells, parrots, dyes and cloth in exchange for pottery, turquoise
jewelry, deerskins and other desirable commodities. Rates of hard
were standardized to effect easy trade, and to prevent any one party
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
- 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
in arts and cultural material is the most natural, honest exchange
people of different cultures the world over. Friendship comes after
and respect. Business is one of the only honest ways people make
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
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
That would not be good business for the artist. They would lose the
to make a sale with another customer. They are much too aware of their
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
called "Americans". They are people. Like the rest of us, they work to
opportunity for themselves and a future for their children. Like some
us, they have not had an easy time of it, but have managed to endure,
adapting as necessary, to life around them.
- 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.
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
you want to trace through. Many people of partial American Indian
ancestry, in past generations, did not feel completely comfortable
in a tribal enrollment, or specific Nation, for political reasons.
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
you get all the pertainent names, dates, locales, etc., you can begin
narrow down potential tribal affiliations through regional
The next step involves contacting the enrollment/records offices of the
individual Nations you suspect, or know are connected with your
They may be able to confirm enrollment, or family connections to
individuals. A good starting point is the NativeWeb site, linked
through our favorite
page, which can link you with many different Nations' websites and
information. Good luck with your search!
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:
http://www.kivatrading.com/symbol1.htm for answers to some of