Spotting Fake Native American Inlay Jewelry

A serious issue facing buyers and collectors of Native American jewelry is the problem of imports and other non-Native items being sold as Native American made. In recent times, the “Al Zuni” bust (as it has become known) has been the latest “sting” operation to receive media attention. It seems law enforcement officials tracked a bunch of jewelry imported from the Philippines and found it interspersed with authentic items in various shops across the Southwest and else where. The shops were all related in one way or another and several men were arrested for blatantly deceiving the public by selling products they knew were imports as the real thing. At least one has been convicted. 

Anytime there is money to be made in selling desirable items, there are always those who try to cut corners and sell lesser products as the real deal. Greed is most always the motive. Today we are going to touch on one segment of jewelry which is often “faked”—that of “Native American style” inlay jewelry.

Most Native inlay jewelry has traditionally come from the Pueblo of Zuni. They became known as master lapidaries in the early days of Native jewelry production (the early 1900s or so) and they pioneered the inlay style of jewelry set in sterling silver, starting around mid-century. However, there is much more inlay jewelry made today than could possibly be produced in that one small community. To take up the slack and fill a need in the market, members of other tribes also produce inlay jewelry. Unfortunately however, inlay jewelry is also imported from over seas and mixed in and sold as Native made (as mentioned above). This happens more often than you think.

A trained eye can usually spot the imports. However, sometimes it may not be easy to tell. Here are a few tell-tale signs to watch for if you are looking to purchase Native American style inlay jewelry. 

A big red flag is contemporary jewelry (made in the 1980s or newer) with no hallmarks on it (this rule does not apply to older pieces made in the early 1970s or before). Also watch for modern inlay with generic initials for hallmarks. Almost all modern artists use identifiable hallmarks. A lot of fakes either have no hallmarks (other than sometimes “sterling”) or have a generic initial like a “B” or a “C” etc.. Most of the early (1970s - 80s) imports had no hallmarks, but the devious sellers soon figured out people were becoming suspicious of that as most Native artists had started using hallmarks by then, so they began having the overseas shops put a hallmark on the items. Usually it was a single, generic letter. As time went on, folks became suspicious of those, so the importers started getting the stuff hallmarked with a couple of generic letters, such as “DD” or “YZ” and things like that. Not all generic initials are fakes, but if that is how an item is hallmarked, ask the seller for a reasonable assurance as to who it might be. There are sources out there to compare examples of known artist’s hallmarks and work.

The use of a silver content hallmark of .925 instead of sterling also should raise a red flag. Native American artists almost always use the sterling mark instead of .925 to indicate the item is made using sterling silver (although both hallmarks actually mean the same thing). Some of the early imports used to come in with a .925 on them because that is what is commonly used to denote “sterling” in much of the world. Folks caught onto that pretty quickly though and the importers soon had their stuff stamped with a sterling hallmark instead of a .925. If you ever see an inlay item marked with .925, be cautious. If you see one stamped “sterling,” but no maker’s hallmark, also be cautious.

A lot of fakes use “block,” synthetic or plastic materials instead of real stones. Look closely (use a jewelers loupe if necessary). The scratches are a dead give-a-way on used items. Real stones do not scratch easily and when a real stone scratches it is generally more of a gouge, whereas fine scratches like you might see on a hard plastic child’s toy look differently—and that is what a fake “stone” or hard plastic scratches look like. The man-made stuff just looks different under magnification whether new or older. If the inlay is too rounded at the corners, or domed, that can also be suspect and is usually an indication of fake “stones.” Not all rounded corners are from fake inlay, but when “inlay” (ie: block or plastic) is actually a poured mold (which is common), it is most always rounded at the edges or domed overall.

Very fine and symmetrical silver pieces (spacers) separating the various stones should also be looked at closely. A lot of channel inlay with little, very fine silver pieces between them are machined, not handmade. These actually inserts of so-called channel inlay and they are set into ready-made settings just like a calibrated turquoise cabochon would be. Unfortunately, some of this type of work is done at shops here in the Southwest as well. It takes a trained eye to see the difference between those mass-produced inserts and a fine jewelers work.

In the case of figural inlay, look closely at the figures. The imports almost never get the people or animals right. The folks doing the work tend to depict people and animals as they see them in their culture. It is hard for someone overseas to see things through the same eyes as someone living in Western New Mexico, for example. The faces are usually a dead give-a-way.

Replication in pieces is also a big red flag. If you see numerous inlay items that all look the same, over and over, in different sizes or slightly different styles, watch out. A true artist very rarely replicates the same item over and over (and handmade items always have slight variations from one to the next). Artists may have a certain style they are known for and do it with regularity, but if you see a tray of rings, for example, that all look almost exactly alike and there are several in each size, that is a good indication of “shop” work (usually imported).

Of course there are exceptions to every rule and you should study the overall appearance of the item. For example, there is a particular artist who is well known for fine inlay work. However, there have also been import items made with his hallmark faked on them. A lady I know went to a Home and Garden show in Phoenix and bought a “hallmarked" piece from a fast-talking vendor who said it was the real deal. That very same weekend, she went to an artisan’s fair in the area and just happened to stumble onto a booth where the real-life artist was selling his fine jewelry. She proudly showed her new piece to the artist, only to be embarrassed when he told her he did not make the item, it was an import. The fakers are now even using hallmarks from known artists! 

Older items from the early 1970s and before are not always hallmarked, so it is good to educate yourself about what you are buying and what it should look like. Having a good, general knowledge is a must. That, and as always, you should deal with a reputable dealer who knows what they are selling and is willing to stand behind it—just in case they got it wrong or made a mistake. And remember, if a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is!

Jim Olson © 2019