Northwestern New Mexico Feature
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Buying Smart: Native Arts and Crafts
When you visit northwestern New Mexico, you'll have numerous opportunities to buy Native American arts, crafts, and souvenirs. But how can you be sure the pieces you buy are authentic? There's a lot of fake merchandise out there, and it's sold by Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike.
Although quality arts and crafts aren't necessarily expensive, if a price for a piece seems too good to be true, it probably is. Still, knowing what you're looking for—and most important, what questions to ask—can help you determine what's worth buying and what isn't. Here are some good rules of thumb:
Goods carrying the IACA (Indian Arts & Crafts Association) symbol are reliably authentic.
When buying jewelry, ask the vendor to tell you about the stones you're looking at and where they came from. The first thing to ask about turquoise is whether it is natural or not ("genuine" won't do—it does not confirm that the stone is its natural color, nor whether it has been treated in any other way). Ask if the turquoise is stabilized, from block, or injected. Hand-polished American turquoise (or Chinese, which is quite common these days and not generally considered a negative by fine artisans—unless it has been treated, of course) is more costly if it hasn't been stabilized or injected with dye to enhance the color, and is uniquely beautiful. Matrix, the brown or black veins in turquoise, is not a flaw, but it often provides clues as to the quality of the stone. Also ask if the jewelry settings, usually silver, are hand fabricated or precast; the former will be more expensive. And while artists are currently creating quite a lot of very beautiful, clearly contemporary silverwork, be aware of a trend to re-create historic styles—while lovely in their own right, to the untrained eye, these can be difficult to distinguish from genuine period pieces.
If you're interested in pottery, start looking at the wares offered by the renowned potters at Acoma, although the Laguna and Zuni pueblos also have fine potters. Ask whether you're looking at "greenware," precast commercial ceramics that come ready for the artist to apply paint, or hand-coiled pottery. Hand-coiled pots start as coils of hand-gathered clay and are built from the bottom up; feel inside a pot for the telltale unevenness that distinguishes a hand-coiled pot. You can also ask what kind of paint and paintbrush was used to embellish the pottery; traditionally, black designs were rendered with boiled-down bee weed, and yucca-fiber brushes were used to apply it.
In the market for a rug? Beware of imported, foreign-made rugs with Navajo designs. These rugs may be nicely made, but they are entirely different from handwoven Navajo textiles. Authentic pieces usually have tags that identify the weaver; but you can also ask if the yarn is hand spun, hand dyed, and what types of dye were used (commercial or natural or both). A rug that is entirely hand processed will be the most expensive, but it will also be an heirloom. And before complaining about the $5,000 price of a Two Grey Hills rug, remember that it probably took several months to weave.
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