Shopping for Vintage Native American Jewelry? Facts You Should Know

Updated by the blog author on January 2017

If you love authentic vintage Native American jewelry and shop for it online, you have probably noticed by now that there are literally hundreds of “fake and faux jewelry” sellers using Ebay and other retail websites to hawk their wares online. I’d like to say a few things about this burgeoning retail phenomenon, as it poses a serious headache for collectors, and people who are new to buying collectible jewelry.

Image result for nickel silver navajo cuff new

This is a ‘knock-off’ cuff. It’s not Native American made, it’s not vintage, it has no sterling silver in it and the gems are all synthetic, or ‘block’. This cuff was advertised as “vintage” and sold as “Bell Trading Post” – a well known sought after collectible hallmark. NOTHING about this cuff is real. It’s worth about $39.95 TOPS as costume jewelry or ‘beach’ jewelry. Someone most likely paid well over $100 for this cuff, which has no collector value.

Compounding the problem of “fake vs. real” Native American made jewelry is the fact that some modern Native American made jewelry is actually “factory sourced” out of North American Indian reservations by poor working Indians, so it is still “legally” Native American made – but it is quickly and cheaply made on homespun production lines to imitate the grander more refined pieces of the past, usually made using ultra thin sheets of alloy silver or even the detested nickel silver [ a metal alloy which shines like silver but has no silver content ] combined with block [ faux] turquoise in jewelry designs which are copycats of the very fine authentic pieces made by Native Americans between the late 1800s and the late 1970s.

Here's another example of a fake Navajo cuff rendered in nickel silver [ no silver content ] with block or artificial turquoise. Note the artificial black aging which has been applied to the nickel silver to make it look old. This cuff most likely sold for more than $150.00. It's worth about $35-$40 as 'costume jewelry'.

Here’s another example of a modern era fake Zuni pettitpoint cuff, sold as “vintage’   but is brand new and was copied from the authentic Old Pawn originals that we all hunt for with such diligence as collectors. This cuff was rendered in nickel silver [ no silver content ] with block or artificial turquoise. Note the artificial black aging which has been applied to the deeper areas of nickel silver to make it look old. Very clever. Not good. This cuff most likely sold for more than $150.00. It’s worth about $35-$40 as ‘costume jewelry’.

Sadly Ebay is now loaded with sellers who are misusing the site to sell these near worthless ‘knock-off’ pieces, which they can still legally state are “Native American made.” These pieces are of such inferior quality that the piece, especially if it’s a cuff, will literally fall apart in a few months, at most lasting a few years.


Straight off the retail pages of Ebay, this cuff is also completely nickel silver which has been treated to make the surface look like real sterling. The gorgeous ‘landscape agate’ in the cuff is real, but the lovely real gemstone is ruined by affiliation with fake silver. Although quite appealing looking, the owner will be stunned if they ever try to sell it and find out the silver in it is not real. Nickel silver also causes extreme allergic reactions in some people and it will either cause a rash or turn the skin smoky grey around where it touched the fake metal. Gross!

Buyer beware! If you find a huge “Native made” cuff which is very lightweight [ check the gram weight] and the metal in it shines oddly – almost like chrome, and if you see the phrases “nickel silver” or “block turquoise” used to describe the listing, odds are you might be very disappointed with this jewelry as time goes by. Once the block gemstones begin to fall out of the piece, or it becomes quickly very misshapen after wearing it for a few weeks, a very large but cheap cuff [ $200 or less ] begins to prove the point that “you get what you pay for.”

What exactly is “Old Pawn?”

A peer in the old pawn jewelry trade has described the phrase “Old Pawn” this way:

“As used in the pawn trade, the terms “old” or dead” pawn have absolutely nothing to do with the age or vintage of any particular item. A pawn item goes “dead” or becomes “old” when the person who pawned the item does not pay off their loan on the item in the stated amount of time mandated by state law. At the point the item goes dead it becomes the property of the pawnbroker, who then usually offers it for sale to the public. Native American jewelry can be and is pawned in any and all vintages including brand new for a variety of reasons.”

Others in the vintage jewelry trade have also used the term “old pawn” to describe Native American jewelry made, bought and sold during the mid 20th century period which was the height of fine Native American jewelry making in the American southwest. Some refer to this period [ Early 1900s through late 1970s] as the “Fred Harvey” era.

An example of a very pure all natural gem nugget of Sleeping Beauty turquoise, mined in North America. This little Navajo ring dates tot he 1960s.

An example of a very pure all natural gem nugget of Sleeping Beauty turquoise, mined in North America. This little Navajo old pawn ring dates to the 1960s.

Fake vs. Real Turquoise: What You Should Know

During the early years of the Fred Harvey period of high art in Native American jewelry design, North American turquoise mines were producing a plethora of high quality turquoise gemstone material. A list of some of these well known mines can be found here:

Native American jewelry which was made between the 1930s and the late 1970s tends overall to have turquoise gemstones in it which are far superior to much of what is being manufactured today. That’s because the period between the late 1920s and the late 1970s predates the great incoming floodtide of fake Native American jewelry and fake gemstones from Asia. The modern popular demand for high quality “Fred Harvey” era authentic Native American made jewelry has brought about a floodtide of jewelry fakery which is making it difficult at times for sellers of authentic pieces to differentiate themselves and their trade from a tsunami of cheap fakes.

If you really prefer to invest your money in authentic vintage Native American jewelry, then expect to pay a little bit more for what you buy and choose jewelry which does not contain “block” artificial turquoise and / or cheap imitation chrome-like metal alloys that only imitate sterling silver.

BLOCK or synthetic turquoise is not natural gem material and is mass manufactured and completely artificial. It’s also referred to as “faux” turquoise. It’s found in fake Native American jewelry and much of it is manufactured out of Asia, specifically China. This material has little or no actual collector value, and many consider it to be high end costume jewelry.

Image result for examples of block turquoise

Imitation or ‘block’ turquoise sample card.

Image result for examples of composite turquoise

Synthetic turquoise cabochons designed to imitate real Sleeping Beauty turquoise gems. This is ‘costume jewelry’ as far as merchants such as myself are concerned.

COMPOSITE turquoise is made by taking the cutaway leftovers of the natural turquoise cutting process, small bits, pieces & powder, jewelry design scraps – then mixing these gem cutting table leftovers with epoxy glue at high temperatures. The resulting cooked gem material is uniform in color and can be cut and polished to any shape just as natural stones. Composite turquoise is REAL, is still respectable and has been included in many fine jewelry design items, but it is still an inferior grade of gem material which holds less value collector than the highest all natural turquoise nuggets and cut gems.

Image result for examples of composite turquoise

Blocks of stabilized composite turquoise are lined up, ready to be color matched, sorted, graded and used in jewelry design.

Image result for composite turquoise examples

Popular composite pressed layered turquoise [aka ‘rainbow’ turquoise ] used for mass production rings and pendants. Composite turquoise is respected by collectors, but the highest caliber all natural authentic gem grade material is the most sought after.

The current popular trade in composite turquoise sterling silver jewelry is not meant to be deceptive or misleading.

One large aspect of the trade in composite turquoise is the fact that gemstones of uniform color have always been preferred by the majority of Navajo and Zuni women and girls, a little known fact. There are other economic factors as well. There is a large, legitimate trade in this type of turquoise jewelry in the Southwest and it has been around for a very long time. Native Americans living on reservations have to keep their day to day jewelry trades alive, and many jewelry makers do use composite gems in their work. It’s an accepted practice. The demand for turquoise in the 21st century is so great that many of the older gem mines are now literally tapped out, and in each generation there is less and less high grade gem material being mined from some of these older turquoise mines, thus composite turquoise is used to meet the demand. You might think of composite turquoise as “recycled” gemstone material made beautiful again by heat.

A peer in the jewelry trade put it this way:

Very attractive and expensive jewelry is often created with composite. Very unattractive and cheap jewelry as well. For obvious economic reasons, the pawn shops of the Southwest are well stocked with jewelry pieces set with composite turquoise. It’s a matter of personal taste and value.”

AUTHENTIC ALL NATURAL “earth mined” gem grade turquoise is mined from a bonafide turquoise gemstone mine, graded, cut, polished and finished by a qualified jewelry designer / gemstone cutter. Then the gems are included in original designer jewelry by top Native American jewelers. This is the most highly prized and sought after type of turquoise in the 21st century and collectors will often bid up jewelry with these kinds of gems in it to stratospheric prices. It can become a ‘collectors addiction’, and why not! This stuff is so stunning, valuable and rare that people will fight over it.


Rare “Iron Mountain” turquoise cabochons adorn this extra-large men’s sterling cuff. The gems came from Nevada, which is very well known for an array of vivid greens in it’s natural, earth mined turquoise gemstones. This stellar cuff has been sold. It dates to the 1980s.


Image result for composite turquoise examples

All natural gem grade cabochons of popular Kingman turquoise, mined out of Arizona. Kingman turquoise is the most popular and well known type of turquoise gem material in America and almost all ‘faux’ turquoise is manufactured to try to look like it. Most dyed Howlite seeks to imitate classic Kingman.

It’s important to note that many differing shades and hues of color can be sourced out of the same gemstone turquoise mine. Lander turquoise for example, can range in color from pale cream blue-white, to grey, to grey-white, to deep indigo blue. See first two photos below:

Image result for rarest all natural north american turquoise gems

Raw freshly mined turquoise still sandwiched in it’s original quartz matrix. Real gem grade turquoise mined in North America is becoming more rare and valuable every decade. Approximately 65 to 70% of “turquoise” which is set in modern era jewelry is not real, a sad and alarming fact for new jewelry collectors who are trying to learn what they should buy.

Superior investment grade RARE dark indigo Lander turquoise. Lander turquoise and Number Eight turquoise are two of the most desirable and rarest types of turquoise sought after by modern day collectors of fine vintage Native made jewelry.

Dyed Howlite Imitation Turquoise has become the bane of jewelry collectors and buyers everywhere. If you are new to buying turquoise jewelry it’s easy top be fooled by dyed Howlite. You have to know what to look for. This stuff is produced in tonnage every year, and as far as I am concerned it’s worthless. It should all be dumped at the bottom of the nearest landfill. Just my opinion. “NEON or Bubblegum Blue on the outside, snow white on the inside” is the hallmark telltale sign you’ve been stuck with a piece of jewelry which contains dyed Howlite. A buyer should always know in advance whether the metal in their piece is precious metal and whether the gems are real.

I like to joke with customers that Howlite is thus named because once you find out it’s not real turquoise and you paid a lot of money for it, you are likely to HOWL in anger.

Image result for dyed howlite turquoise examples

Related image

These dyed Howlite faux ‘Kingman’ nuggets will fool 90% of people who see them, including buyers for retail jewelry stores. Take a jeweler’s loupe and look at the bored hole where they are to be strung. If it’s snow white on the inside of the bored hole, it’s Howlite.

Image result for dyed howlite turquoise examples

Cutaway of one of the larger pendant sections in this modern made Zuni ‘knock-off’ tribal necklace reveals it’s inferior soft white Howlite dyed to look like turquoise. The harder gems of pure white Howlite polish up wonderfully and make excellent jewelry gems, without the dye. Gem grade Howlite is also known as ‘white buffalo’ turquoise. A necklace like this has no collector value and should be considered ‘costume jewelry’. The necklace would be worth less than $30.00.

Truthfully, it is very difficult to identify exactly which mine a particular piece of turquoise gemstone may have come from originally, but the most popular and prolific turquoise mines of recent years have included:

Kingman Turquoise

Blue Gem Turquoise

Sleeping Beauty Turquoise

Royston Turquoise

King Manassa Turquoise

Fox Turquoise

Red Mountain Turquoise

Indian Mountain Turquoise

Dry Creek Turquoise

For more information on North American turquoise and mines, browse

Dating Old Native American Jewelry

Most of the pieces in my present collection  date from the 1930s-40s through the late 1980s, and on occasion I also acquire more modern pieces as well. I do my very best to date pieces accurately, to help my customers have a broad selection of items from which to choose. I definitely focus on the mid 20th century Fred Harvey period, [ 1938-1973] rather than the early Fred Harvey, [ 1900 – 1929 ] as aesthetically I just feel many of the early Fred Harvey pieces are too primitive and clunky, and their advanced age renders them more favorable as museum pieces rather than practical and appealing wearable jewelry.

A case in point was the sale I made of a late 1800s very early piece of Native American made jewelry, a primitive ‘Thunderbird’ brroch, to a buyer who was very disappointed with the color, dark grey patina, and the advanced age of the piece when she received it. For her it was not wearable. She stung my Ebay account with one of the very few negative feed-backs I have ever received. So I now veer away from the very very old antique pieces [ 90 to 100 years old ] and focus more on the mid 20th century material which is spectacularly beautiful and will remain wearable for generations to come, if cared for properly.

More Native American Jewelry Trivia

Most Native American jewelry makers did not begin to sign their work until the late 1960s – early 1970s, [ with certain exceptions ] when demand for Native American made sterling and turquoise jewelry began to explode. Believe it or not, the late 1960s Hippie Revolution in America had much to do with the popularization of vintage Native American jewelry. Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos New Mexico were all absolute hubs of counter-culture activity for the Love Generation flower children of the late 1960s and early 70s, and as the population of Northern New Mexico became swollen with the tide of wandering hippies, so did their culture of lavish personal adornment with layers of various kinds of new, old and antique jewelry.

During the late Fred Harvey period the folks who were buying the most Native American made jewelry off the reservations and the street vendors on the Santa Fe Plaza were the American hippy children who were traveling between the east coast, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Fe. When they showed up in Haight-Ashbury adorned to the gills with sparkling fantastic Native American made sterling and turquoise squash blossom necklaces, rings, cuffs and pendants, it created an immediate fashion sensation which has never really abated.

What Seattle did for flannel, Santa Fe and the American West Coast did for vintage authentic Native American jewelry: these regions gave it a permanent place in the wardrobe of everyday Americans, from doctors and lawyers to soccer moms and college kids. Native American made jewelry has become beloved by Americans in a way that other types and styles of jewelry have not. It is the most imitated and copied type of jewelry in the world. And for very good reason.

I hope this page has helped my customers learn more about Native American jewelry and how to make a good selection when investing in a little piece of American history that can be treasured for generations to come.

Leigh at Cherokee Blue Trading Post

Links for further reading:

Turquoise Mines in the USA

What is Nickel Silver?

German Silver and Nickel Silver Types