Collecting Native American Jewelry

For those of us of a certain age, there are a few touchstones from the peace-and-love 1960s that bring back instant memories. Large, heavy, and uncomfortable to wear, the squash blossom necklace is nonetheless one of those. The good news today is that such pieces have largely been relegated to decorative status, no longer straining neck muscles around the country. The not-so-good news is that your silver-and-turquoise talisman from that era probably isn't worth much more than you paid for it. Here's a primer.

First of all, native American jewelry in its recognizable form goes back more than a thousand years. The category gained adherents after the Civil War when the new transcontinental railroad enabled a diaspora of native crafts. Enthusiasm (and prices) crested in the 1970s and has been largely flat ever since. Most collectors focus on pieces from about 1870 to the dawn of WWII. During that period, the silver content was often heavier and the turquoise not died or treated with resin. While items made during that era typically weren't signed, researchers have since been able to attribute many pieces to their creators, spawning a handful of rock-star artisans. Still, prices for all but the most premium examples remain quite reasonable.

Of the belts, bracelets, necklaces, and rings that fill most collections, the most sought after are known as "pawn" jewelry. Mostly Navajo in origin, these pieces were made for barter or exchange and often held as collateral by early trading posts as they awaited payment. To this day, some will even have their original pawn tickets attached, adding a dab of Wild West value. Nonetheless, there are a lot of fakes out there and "Indian style" jewelry should not be mistaken for the real thing. If you're interested in starting a collection, deal with a reputable seller and authenticate your pieces as best you can. Look for hammering or layering in the silver and signs of craftsmanship and wear. Every single piece of the real stuff was uniquely hand-made.

One indication of a legitimate dealer - though no guarantee - is membership in the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association. The ATADA can be found online and is most helpful. Several museums in Arizona and New Mexico specialize in the category and there are a handful of yearly shows in those states that offer mind-boggling assortments. It's been a buyer's market now for some years but eventually the genre will come back into favor. In the meantime, now is a great time to educate yourself and dip a toe into these early American waters. If the old stuff isn't for you, there are some outstanding contemporary artisans whose work will likely go places in the future. Here in the valley, coin stores, pawn shops, and better antique galleries like ours are great places to start.

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