The first Southwest Native Americans to do metalsmithing were the Diné (Navajo) in the mid-nineteenth century. By the end of the century, the craft had spread to the Zunis, the Hopis and the Rio Grande Pueblos. The earliest silver used was Mexican coin silver.

Nowadays, program participants make silver, gold, copper and brass jewelry. Silver used is sterling silver (92.5% pure). Silverplate over base metals and nickel alloy are not allowed under the portal. On some silver items, non-silver attaching or adapting devices, called "findings", may be used. Gold is becoming increasingly common in Native American jewelry. Program rules permit gold, goldfill (12KGF or 14KGF) and gold overlay or sterling silver. Many jewelers get their start working with brass. More experienced jewelers, too, use this less costly metal in some work to provide buyers with less expensive items. Some silversmiths cut and shape some or all of their stones; others use pre-shaped, polished stones, called "cabs" (cabochons).

Knock-off: Example of nickel-plated silver. Silverplated metals appear overly shiny and are breakable due to poor quality (click to view larger image).  

Native Americans have been making pottery in New Mexico for over 1500 years. Some of the pottery sold under the portal is stone polished. Some is decorated with natural mineral or vegetal paints; some with commercial paints, an innovation introduced in the 1920s. All pottery sold here is made of earth clay gathered on the potter’s own reservation, hand-constructed and traditionally fired out-of-doors. A protective sealant is applied to the surface of some pottery. Under the current rules, kiln-fired pottery is prohibited.

Real Thing: Polished Red and Black pot - Laverne Tosa, Jemez Pueblo (click to view larger image).

Real Thing: Unpolished pot - Vicky Calabaza, Santo Domingo Pueblo (click to view larger image).

Stones, Shells and Beads
Turquoise, the most common stone under the portal, has been used for millennia by Southwestern Native Americans for adornment, as a trade item and for ceremonial purposes. It comes in various forms and many grades of quality. Natural turquoise is unaltered except for shaping and polishing. It is most often set in metal jewelry. Stabilized turquoise is a genuine stone hardened to make breakage less likely and is used in work where stones are unprotected by metal settings. The sale of reconstituted turquoise, a combination of turquoise dust and plastic, is prohibited under the portal.

Knock-offs: Imitation and low-quality turqoise is made of plastic or uses plastic coatings. Look for an overly shiny surface and feel for the vein structure of the turqoise which you should be able to feel with your fingers as well as see. Plastic turqoise will also smolder and burn when touched witha match (click for larger images).  

Like all artists and craftspeople, Native Americans want to work with new materials. A variety of shells are used by contemporary jewelers including mother-of-pearl, spiny oyster shell, olive shells, clam shell, melon shell, coral, jet, lapis, jasper, agate, hematite, sugilite, serpentine, black onyx, pipestone and malachite. This list is not exhaustive. If you have questions about the materials, ask the vendors. They can identify the stone or shell, tell you where it is from and how it is worked.

Real Thing : Glass beaded bracelet and earrings - Alice Begay (Navajo)  

Heishi (he-she), necklaces of delicate, disk-shaped shell beads, are made primarily by Santo Domingo artisans, who are renowned for this work. Heishi sold under the portal is cut, drilled and ground by hand. This is a painstaking process; a single necklace may require the fashioning of hundreds of tiny beads. Glass beads, introduced to the region as a trade item, have been used by Native Americans for centuries.

Knock-off: Mass-produced bead necklaces are pre-drilled, resulting in beads where all the holes are the same size. This example also uses dyed plastic instead of real turqoise (click for larger image).

Real Thing: Handmade beaded necklaces have irregular size holes. Turquoise Heishi necklace - Sammy Garcia, Santo Domingo Pueblo (click to view larger image).


The sale of decorative sandpainting in substantial numbers dates from the early 1960s. Sandpaintings under the portal are made using natural pigments which the vendors grind themselves. Often vendors have samples of the original stones from which the various pigments are derived for visitors to examine. The surface of some sandpaintings is coated with a protective sealant.

Real Thing : Sand painting - Lorenzo Sandman, Navajo (click to view larger image).  

Other Goods
Other arts and crafts represented under the portal include leatherwork, weaving, carving (both stone and wood), drums, drawing and painting. Some vendors sell the work of their children and grandchildren (under eighteen years of age). Others sell food items such as freshly-baked oven bread, tamales or pinon nuts. There is a label providing the maker’s name and a list of ingredients on all food sold. Any vendor selling food must have the food handler’s card, required by city health regulations, displayed on his or her cloth. In all cases, program participants and museum staff strive to maintain the high quality people have come to expect from the Native American Vendors Program.

Ask Questions
Do not be afraid to ask questions. The more you know about how a piece is made and its materials, the more you will appreciate its craftsmanship and beauty.

Look at the Maker’s Mark
All items offered for sale have a maker’s mark. Vendors can point out these distinctive "signatures" for you. A maker’s mark enables museum staff to identify vendors if, as often happens, customers wish to order additional work at a later time. Some vendors also have business cards. It is important that you know the name or maker’s mark of any artist or craftsperson whom you might wish to contact in the future because there are no assigned spaces under the portal.

The Pricing of Arts and Crafts
Some program participants negotiate prices; many do not. Please remember that authentic Native American arts and crafts are labor intensive and that handcrafted objects cost more than those that are machine made.

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