Southwestern Jewelry, A Great Wearable Antique: Part One
Here in the American West, there is a high demand for southwestern jewelry. Nearly every local family here has a cache of pieces, often having been handed down through the generations. However, the big buyers of southwestern jewelry here in the West are the tourists; the folks who come here to visit and want to buy a piece of turquoise, a liquid silver necklace, or a fine piece of sandcasting.
The market for new southwestern jewelry is everywhere. When we lived in New Mexico, even service stations would have a case of jewelry for sale. The reality was, however, that most, if not all of that material, was fake. The silver was produced in Asia or Italy, and the stones were anything from plastic to resin-injected stabilized turquoise. Even some of the fanciest shops carried examples of faux work, albeit with jacked up prices to make one think he or she was getting a bargain.
The secret to buying is to look for jewelry on the secondary market. Now before you go off and start buying every piece you see, its important to note that the fake jewelry offered in the primary market is only a short step away from being the fake jewelry within the secondary market. The key is to spend time looking at different pieces, differentiate what you like and dont, and, of course, be willing to make a mistake or two.
Native American jewelry can be broken into several different periods. There are, of course, the old items that predate the 1920s, which are incredibly rare and pricey. If you want to explore this area as a potential buyer, then I would say only deal with a reputable dealer and get fully written statements from them about what you have bought. The jewelry in this period often has a strong emphasis upon the silver rather than the turquoise work. Why? Because the value of a piece was seen primarily in the metal, rather than the stone.
Then there are the jewelry items made from the 1920s to the 1960s. I break this out because this is the period when much of the turquoise used in the jewelry was hard stone coming from the mines. Here we see the great jewelry that many collectors go after. Sadly, by the late 1950s, many of the mines were worked out, and so the amount of great hard stone disappeared. Jewelry in this period may or may not be marked, and good reference books on both stones and jewelry makers are invaluable.
The next period is the one where many of us begin our collections. This is the jewelry produced up through the 1980s. Here the works are almost always signed, so tracing a maker is relatively easy. The challenge is that pieces with big stones are almost invariably made using reconstituted (adding resin to powdered turquoise), stabilized (adding resins to soft, unworkable stones to make them hard), or colored (adding dyes to increase color quality) stones. There is some hard stone being used but not as much as in the past.
In my next column, I will continue the story of southwestern jewelry.
Peter Seibert, a native Pennsylvanian, grew up in the antiques business and remains closely tied to auction houses, collectors, and dealers. Professionally, he has served as a museum director and public historian in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming. He holds a Master of Arts in American Studies from Penn State and has authored two books and numerous articles on decorative arts, interior design, and history.
Peter Seibert, a native Pennsylvanian, grew up in the antiques business and remains closely tied to auction houses, collectors, and dealers. Professionally, he has served as museum director and public historian in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from Penn State and has authored two books and numerous articles on decorative arts, interior design, and history.