Above: Fifty to eighty percent of jewelry marketed as "Native made" is actually counterfeit. Photographs by Inga Hendrickson.

TONY ERIACHO JR. ARRANGED A COUPLE of pieces of silver jewelry on the table of his well-marked booth.

He was readying a carefully planned presentation, one he’d given many times before. It was 2013, the first weekend of March, and already warm in Phoenix, where the annual Heard Museum’s Indian Fair & Market was well under way.

The necklaces Eriacho arranged weren’t ones that he or his wife, Ola, made, but to a layperson’s eyes they might have seemed similar to their work. At the very least, they looked like the kind that come from the couple’s home pueblo of Zuni. The specimens were inlaid squash blossom necklaces, an original Zuni design, with a signature Rainbow Man pendant, an abstract figure that arches acrobatically like a rainbow.

His question to those listening was unexpected but simple: “Guess which one is fake?” Liz Wallace, of Diné and Nisenan descent, was nearby, selling her own custom silver jewelry, and came by to participate. Standing above the samples, she looked and chose one, deducing that the other had to be authentic.

Each piece was stamped with a silver hallmark. That much was evident. But it was a trick question. Both were bogus, Eriacho explained. To demonstrate the point, he pulled out a magnet. It stuck. They weren’t silver. Nor had a Native jeweler made them. He had played Wallace just like a magician or a huckster might. But unlike either, he had the goal of actually revealing the illusion, to demonstrate that the visual power of fakes could fool any eye.

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Wallace learned that Eriacho had long been familiar with the prevalence of jewelry advertised and sold as Native American but made in factories as close by as Gallup and as far away as the Philippines. He founded the Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture in 1998, made presentations like the one Wallace witnessed, passed out trifold flyers, and spoke at a congressional hearing, in 2000, in an effort to stem the massive tide of jewelry presented or sold under false pretenses.

Eriacho had no qualms about pointing out whether the necklace or earrings worn by a passerby were authentic. He’d even go so far as to critique it component by component. Those close to him describe Eriacho, who passed in 2016, as a one-man force who tirelessly educated anyone willing to listen—and even those who weren’t—about fake Indian jewelry and the far-reaching economic repercussions for Native jewelers across the state and the nation.

Wallace had already intuited that a fakes market existed years before meeting Eriacho. When walking the streets of downtown Santa Fe, she encountered certain shops advertising Native-made jewelry and suspiciously selling it en masse for impossibly low prices. While there are a number of reputable dealers in town and elsewhere in New Mexico, anxiety crept in at the realization that she couldn’t compete with these shops. Unbeknownst to her, the fakes market had become such a lucrative industry that it had birthed an entire echelon of organized crime. “It was Tony who really opened my eyes,” she says.

Liz WallaceAbove: Liz Wallace.

He exposed a grim world in which the market for fakes had completely upended the sale of authentic Native jewelry, causing a tectonic shift in buying behaviors so extreme that most people looking to spend money on Native jewelry came to expect the much lower prices of counterfeits. This forced some Native jewelers to produce at price points that only a factory could achieve, earning as little as 50 cents an hour, and pushed other makers out of the market altogether.

“Even if I woke up tomorrow and no more knockoffs were being made,” Wallace says, “they would still be flooding the market for years.”

For all that pop culture tells us about Chinatown Rolexes, knockoff Louis Vuitton bags, and fabled basement Vermeers, it’s far more rare to hear about counterfeit Native jewelry, its prevalence, and who endures the brunt of the economic shock. It’s estimated that a staggering 50 to 80 percent of all jewelry marketed and retailed as “Native made” in the U.S. is actually counterfeit—not made by a Native person. Globally, that number is even higher. For Native Americans in the U.S., 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line, the counterfeit market can “literally take food off of people’s table,” says Ira Wilson, executive director of the Southwest Association of Indian Arts, the organization in charge of the annual Santa Fe Indian Market.

“It’s not a big, rich Fortune 500 company being ripped off,” says Wallace. “It’s impoverished and marginalized Native communities who are experiencing the greatest effects. It’s economic colonization.” 

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A CHRONOLOGY
Native adornment is millennia old. Counterfeiting it goes back at least a century. 

Pre-Colombian: Ancestral Puebloans trade turquoise with Mesoamerican tribes. Early Zuni lapidaries use stone, antler, wood, or cactus spine to cut, shape, drill, and polish turquoise, jet, argillite, and red shale.

1850s: Atsidii Sání becomes the first Diné silversmith, adapting technologies from Mexican blacksmiths and using coin silver.

1879: Miners found Los Cerrillos Mining District, in Cerrillos.

1880: The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway’s branch line reaches Santa Fe from Lamy.

1881: H.H. Tammen Company opens in Denver, Colorado. 1901: Jake Gold and J.S. Candelario open a popular curio shop in Santa Fe.

1935: Congress passes Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

1960: Non-Native author Ben Hunt publishes Indian Silversmithing, a “complete how-to book and guide for anyone who appreciates the beauty of American Indian jewelry.” 

1990: Congress amends the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (Public Law 101-644), prohibiting the misrepresentation of Indian arts and crafts produced within the United States. 

1998: Tony Eriacho Jr. founds the Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture. 2007: Rose Morris is the first to be convicted under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act for fraudulently selling imported rugs marketed as Navajo.

20010-2015: Sterling Islands, an Albuquerque company owned by Nael Ali, imports 298 shipments of jewelry manufactured in the Philippines with a total declared value of $11.8 million.

2012: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigates Sterling Islands for their purchase and subsequent sale of counterfeit Native American jewelry.

2017: Ali pleads guilty to fraudulently selling, offering, and displaying inauthentic wares at two Albuquerque stores.

2018: Ali is sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay $9,048 in restitution.


WALLACE IS WEARING EARRINGS beaded by the Lakota artist Charlene Holy Bear and her own necklace made of natural turquoise. The jeweler is known for casting creatures from the natural world in her silver jewelry and plique-à-jour pieces—butterflies, octopus, dragonflies, and tiny snails. The necklace represents the one time Wallace tried her hand at whittling natural turquoise to string.

Wallace has also become one of the most public and vocal advocates for authentic Native jewelry.

About halfway through our conversation, she pauses to apologize. “I keep jumping around in time,” she tells me while speaking passionately about the present industry of fakes, only to rewind many decades—1930, 1900, even 1880—in the same breath. She’s here to talk precedents, to paint a picture of the past that soon looks like a dark specter hovering over today’s market. It’s hard not to feel like what came before is repeating itself.

The books are stacked in front of us, in between bowls of pho and rice noodles at May Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant in an old strip mall in Albuquerque’s International District. There are aged wholesale catalogs, how-to manuals, and Jonathan Batkin’s The Native American Curio Trade in New Mexico, all carted by Wallace in a rollaway suitcase to our table. My history lesson.

Amid the pile lies a tattered copy of the Denver-based H.H. Tammen Company’s Souvenirs and Novelties, published in 1933. It’s a wholesaler’s bible, with a vaguely ethnic cover design, filled with 150 black-and-white pages of inventory: combs, Lincoln Logs to build “settler cabins,” and children’s cotton parasols. There’s also an entire section of Navajo and Chimayó rugs, what’s classified as “sterling silver totem pole jewelry,” and “Indian Design” everything—stamped-silver spoons, belts, buttons, earrings, squash blossom necklaces, scarf pins, and lavalieres (now more commonly known as bolo ties).

A faded green 50 percent trade discount coupon is in the front pages, ready to be torn out.

Read more: Meet the five Native fashion designers pushing Native couture to new heights.

“This jewelry is made from coin silver, decorated with hand-hammered characteristic Indian symbols,” the mail-order catalog proclaims in its first pages. It’s a confusing mouthful—“characteristic Indian symbols”—though a glossary with images attempts to clarify. The “avany,” for instance, is listed as the “giver of water” (the correct spelling would have been Avanyu). Next to the words are an ambiguously Puebloan design, among several others. The stamped-silver bracelets on the opposite page boasting those very designs are sold by the dozen.

By the time H.H. Tammen’s catalogs became popular, dealers had long been the brokers of a massive curio industry. For almost half a century, they bought from H.H. Tammen and other wholesalers. At the same time, they commissioned Native makers to produce bale-loads of textiles with machined yarn and displayed those alongside machined jewelry. They hired Pueblo and Navajo men to work in curio shops to produce jewelry on-site. They commissioned from non-Native sources, too. In one instance, a dealer negotiated with inmates at a penitentiary in Cañon City, Colorado, to produce Navajo-style silver for Santa Fe shops.

An assortment of turquoise jewelryAbove: An assortment of turquoise jewelry.

Because the demand for Indian arts and crafts only boomed with supply, a startling array of objects emerged—some truly handmade and authentic, others commissioned by the hundreds, based on dealers’ designs. Others bore more underhanded origins. Here, authenticity could be staged. Jewelry oxidized for aging, symbols concocted, stories exaggerated, and Native-made mixed with factory-produced.

“Native jewelry designs have always been treated as open source,” Wallace says, pointing out the feeble attempts at Native compositions that multiply throughout the catalog. This era, she says, was the prelude to our current spiraling fakes crisis. It was here that some Americans began equating Native jewelry with souvenirs, even if by the early 20th century making jewelry had become a significant chunk of Pueblo and Navajo economies.

The catalog I page through is so old it “sheds paper fur,” as Wallace puts it, tiny pieces of debris settling on our table. The cover is still bright, though, bearing a frontispiece with a dubious indigenous figurine floating against an ocher background, flanked by red and black rays. From its Denver headquarters on the corner of 17th and Larimer Streets, H.H. Tammen successfully dealt curios in the Southwest beginning in 1881, only a year after the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway started ushering carloads of curious tourists into New Mexico.

Those in search of Indian wares could purchase a treasure with cultural cachet in one of several shops in Santa Fe and along the ATSF line. That jewelry is now characterized broadly as “Fred Harvey jewelry,” after the entrepreneur who founded hotels and curio shops at train stops.

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By the late 1920s and into the 1930s, the market was so jumbled—and so dominated by dealers’ whims—that then–Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work wrote a report mandating that Indian handicrafts “should be standardized and their genuineness guaranteed.” It was the first step toward creating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in 1935, to “promote the economic welfare” of Native people. Helmed by John Collier and Rene d’Harnoncourt, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board was tasked with another goal: to differentiate the bona fide Native-made objects from the spurious, to reset the market in favor of individual Native makers who, like most Americans at the time, were weathering the effects of the Great Depression.

IN 1990, CONGRESS AMENDED the Indian Arts and Crafts Act into a truth-in-advertising law. It was the same year they passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Both were landmark pieces of federal legislation aimed at giving Native people—past, present, and future—some measure of recompense after waves of attempted cultural erasure.

According to the act, it is a federal offense (a fourth-degree felony) for any person to mischaracterize a piece of jewelry (or other work of art) as Native-made when it is not, covering anything produced after 1935.

“A lot of artists will say they make ‘Indian art,’ like it’s quote-unquote ‘cowboy art,’” says Roy Montibon. He’s the co-founder of Montibon Provenance International, which is developing anti-counterfeiting technology to indelibly hallmark an object. Based in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Montibon is looking to protect Native artists and others from exploitation. “Whether or not the artist is a cowboy is irrelevant. But if you call a painting or anything else ‘Indian art’ when it’s not made by a Native person, that’s a violation of federal law.” Similarly, it’s illegal for a dealer to even suggest that a Rainbow Man squash blossom pendant is Indian made when it’s not.

But national and international counterfeit industries are only growing. In almost three decades, a mere 10 people have been convicted, three of those in New Mexico, according to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which receives and screens complaints of possible violations and refers them for further investigation to other law enforcement organizations. The reason is that there needs to be a convincing amount of evidence of fraud, and that it exceeded a certain monetary amount. Anyone can submit a complaint, and they can do so anonymously, but the manpower comes from those partner organizations that work on either the federal or the state level. The most in-depth investigations have taken close to 15 years to bear fruit.

Ira WilsonAbove: Ira Wilson.

Eriacho didn’t live long enough to witness the verdict in one of the highest-profile cases in the history of counterfeit Native jewelry, one at least a decade in the making. A longtime dealer of fake Native jewelry, Nael Ali, was charged, and later found guilty, for fraudulently selling, offering, and displaying wares produced in sweatshops in the Philippines at two locations in Albuquerque. His sentence included a fine and six months of jail time. The sting, called Operation Al Zuni—which also included charges against his middleman, Mohammed Manasra—was conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

More recently, Robert Haacke was indicted for counterfeiting the designs of renowned Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma from his home in Los Angeles. Robert Rhodes, the husband of Loloma’s niece Verma Nequatewa, says that several years back, he and his wife noticed a number of pieces marketed as made by Loloma on eBay. Based on Nequatewa’s experience working with Loloma in the studio, the ones on eBay “didn’t fit,” he says. “They didn’t capture the subtlety of Charles’ work,” even if Loloma’s hallmark was stamped on them. But once “those counterfeits got out, buyers became disenchanted,” Rhodes says, “deteriorating the Loloma market by 30 to 40 percent.”

Over the years, he estimates that $2 million worth of fake Lolomas, cranked out by Haacke and others, circulated online, where vendors would manufacture stories about having found “a ‘lost Loloma’ in their grandmother’s basement,” Rhodes says. “That doesn’t usually happen. But it was happening a lot on eBay. You realize that someone is stealing from you and your family”—a form of exploitation that he describes as “identity theft.”

According to Wilson, who testified in the Ali trial, he’s seen fakes enter the market within months of a Native maker debuting a new design. In brick-and-mortar shops, dealers have gone so far as sprinkling in a few authentic pieces among the counterfeits—“one Native designer in a sea of non-Native work,” as Wilson describes it, where in a back room “there might be 300 or 400 bracelets that look exactly alike.”

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Markets shape-shift when fakes usurp authentic Native jewelry. They change the “consumer concept,” says Janie Reano. “There is pride in the fact that we come from generations of jewelers, that we make high-quality jewelry,” she says of her Santo Domingo Pueblo family’s lineage of makers. “We used to make a lot of heishi necklaces in the seventies and eighties, but once the market got flooded with fakes, there was no one willing to pay the price for a real one.”

Up until that point, she says, most consumers wanted “real stuff” and “were willing to pay the price, but when the fakes came, we stopped making them.”

SITTING IN A DARK CORNER OF MAY CAFE, Wallace makes a quick analogy. “If a Navajo person were to go to Chinatown and buy a Rolex for $20, thinking it was real, people would call them crazy.” It’s a telling move to flip the script, but the point sticks. I pause, laugh just a bit, and agree. It would be ludicrous. Yet there’s something about consumer culture in general, and the undervaluing of indigenous people specifically, that makes the analogy so incisive. Countless buyers, she says, come to New Mexico “expecting a quality silver piece with natural turquoise for the same price. They need to adjust their expectations.”

So many variables go into pricing. Is the stone natural or imitation turquoise? Is it made with sterling silver or some other metal? What other stones does the piece comprise? Is it handmade or handcrafted? And how many hours did the jeweler put into making it? Native jewelry, Montibon notes, has another, more numinous quality. “It is a cultural object, one that can reflect deep histories. It’s not just a souvenir or trinket,” he says. “It should be treated as heritage and with gravitas.”

A turquoise cuffAbove: A turquoise cuff.

The fakes market, however, asserts that you can buy authentic enough wares for a fourth to a tenth of the cost. Those pieces, like the ones Ali had made in the Philippines (whose country-of-origin stickers were removed) or the ones sold long ago through H.H. Tammen, could be bought in multiples, forcing Native jewelers to compete in the same market. When consumers see a price that rightly reflects a Native person’s time and expertise, “they often experience sticker shock,” Wilson says.

Wallace has seen it happen with her work. “If I made a natural turquoise butterfly pendant, it would normally go for $1,500,” she says, “but the knockoffs from the Philippines are $100.” Some people ask her to negotiate that low. Doing so is like haggling with a renowned painter to sell you a masterpiece for the price of a giclée, or assuming you could get vintage wine for the cost of Two-Buck Chuck.

To many tribes, though, jewelry is prized. It protects and adorns. It gets passed down through the generations. It tells stories. Even while herding sheep, Wallace says, “a Navajo woman always wore her bling.”

Story Sidebar

KEEP IT REAL
1. Do your research. Start online, price jewelry, and know your budget. Think deeply about what you’ll enjoy and consider it an investment. As Ken Williams, the manager of the Case Trading Post at the Wheelwright Museum, in Santa Fe, says, “there’s something for everyone and every budget. But always buy the very best you can afford.” The point, he says, “is to feel confident about your purchase.”

2. Learn the difference between handmade and handcrafted. Ira Wilson, executive director of the Southwest Association of Indian Arts, says handmade means “designing and building from the ground up, doing the lapidary work, drawing the silver, and building a piece completely by hand.” Handcrafted means using elements purchased at a jewelry supply store (cut stones and gauged wire) and assembling the piece. Both, he says, are acceptable forms of jewelry, but the difference “will affect the price point.” So make sure to ask when buying.

3. Consider buying directly from an artist at the Heard Museum’s Indian Market & Fair, in Phoenix, the first weekend of March; the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, August 2–11; the Gallup Native Arts Market, August 10–11; We Are the Seeds Santa Fe 2019, a market of an indigenous vendors, in the Santa Fe Railyard, August 15–16; and SWAIA’s Indian Market, on the Santa Fe Plaza, August 17–18.

4. If you don’t buy directly from an artist, buy from an established dealer who does. Always ask for a receipt or a certificate of authenticity, which includes the artist’s name and tribal affiliation, retail price (for insurance), and a description of the piece. Have the lead buyer sign it. If it’s an antique, ask for provenance. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board defines “Indian” and “Indian artisan.” They offer an online directory of recognized tribes, as well as provide information on the Indian Arts and Crafts Act to Native American artists, cultural institutions, and buyers.

5. Be curious. Because of the uptick in counterfeits, fraud detector Roy Montibon suggests going so far as to ask “whether the dealer you’re buying from is under a federal investigation for fraud.” It’s gutsy, but it could pay off.

6. Follow artists on Instagram or Facebook. Liz Wallace often posts design ideas and the steps involved in her process just to show the amount of work that goes into each piece.

7. If you’re really yearning for your heart’s desire, but it’s out of your price range, ask the artist if they’ll work with you on a layaway plan. Or buy in your budget and work your way up to more expensive pieces.

8. The quality of a counterfeit can be very low or very high (and, at times, expensive), but even if it’s well made, that doesn’t make it authentic Native-made jewelry. It’s just a really good counterfeit. If you suspect you’ve bought a counterfeit, call 1-888-Artfake, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board’s hotline.

 

THE TURQUOISE DILEMMA
Turquoise is a gemstone whose density depends on the amount of copper and aluminum in its structure. Without those minerals, it’s chalky and white. To Diné people, turquoise recalls both sky and water. For others, it has become synonymous with the Southwest. So much of it has been sold for so long that it’s hard to think of Native jewelry without it. Yet many mines have been played out and closed, while other countries, including China and Japan, have cornered the U.S. market.

Because of that global shift, natural turquoise can be out of many Native jewelers’ budgets, costing more than $800 per carat in certain cases. But, as in the market for diamonds, certain buyers can just as easily be satisfied with cubic zirconia. Similarly, stabilized, enhanced, dyed, and blocked turquoise now make up a spectrum of treated turquoise alternatives to natural turquoise. And if a Native jeweler is using any as beads or otherwise, the resulting handcrafted (not handmade) product is still Native jewelry benefiting Native makers.

As long as you know what you’re getting and how much it’s worth, says Joe Dan Lowry, of the Turquoise Museum, in Albuquerque, “it can all be considered art.” Just make sure to ask when buying. And if you do want to buy natural turquoise, then the price will reflect what mine it came from, color and clarity, matrix, and amount in carats. As always, get a receipt detailing your piece.

Learn more at the Turquoise Museum’s newest location: the castle-style mansion of the late Gertrude Zachary, a longtime Albuquerque jeweler. The downtown château holds 8,000 square feet of turquoise, tools for the best education you’ll get. Plus, it’s decked out with a chandelier comprising 21,500 pieces of natural turquoise.