By Scott Gerdes
“Old pawn” jewelry has a special story to tell. Much like the traditional and ancient cultures of the Southwest, vintage American Indian jewelry holds against its heart a great legacy and a pride of a people.
These decades-old cuffs, squash blossoms, concho belts, silver-beaded necklaces, buckles and rings skillfully handcrafted by visionary minds and patient hands were not originally made to be put in a display case with a price tag attached. Every piece is a reflection of the person who made it and of the place from which it came.
Navajo, predominately, and Hopi and Santo Domingo peoples made the jewelry to wear themselves or to give to friends and family members. They would only “pawn” their beautiful creations when in dire need of something to trade.
What are the origins of ‘old pawn’?
On the more than 27,000-square mile Navajo Reservation, trading posts started popping up in the isolated areas beginning around 1870. Since there were no banks, it gave the Native people a place to trade things they made, such as rugs, jewelry, wool and even bartered with whole lambs in exchange for staples such as flour, clothing, tools and coffee.
“When Navajo people needed goods, but had nothing to trade at the trading post or no credit built up in their trading accounts, they would pawn things like jewelry, rugs and saddles,” explained Nancy Colvert, Millicent Rogers Museum Store manager. “They would then claim these back when they did have things to sell. In the spring they had sheep, wool and rugs to sell, and in the fall they had lambs and piñon nuts. But in the summer and winter, not so much. So their jewelry was often pawned to buy things and then reclaimed.”
At the time, the government required that pawn be held by the trader for at least six months before it could be sold. Many reputable traders held it longer.
“Nevertheless,” Colvert added, “pieces were sometimes not reclaimed for various reasons and eventually sold by the traders. This is how ‘old pawn’ first worked its way into the broader Anglo marketplace outside the reservation.”
How do you know you’re looking at the real deal?
“Today the term (‘old pawn’) is overused and used incorrectly because there are also the terms ‘trading post jewelry’ or ‘Fred Harvey jewelry,’ which refers to jewelry made for shops to sell to tourists,” explained Two Graces Gallery owner Robert Cafazzo. “This type (of jewelry) has become popular and prices have risen exponentially on this type of jewelry.”
The termed pieces Cafazzo refers to are considered vintage and do have worth, but these should not be classified as authentic “old pawn.”
At Millicent Rogers Museum store, old pieces are referred to as “vintage Southwestern jewelry.”
“We don’t call it ‘pawn’ because we are not a pawn shop,” said Colvert. “And these pieces have most likely been owned by non-Native people for many years. We define vintage jewelry as up to the 1970s.”
“Stylistically (‘old pawn’) tends to be bigger than the trading post jewelry,” Cafazzo said. “Some of it is more primitive, rougher, more raw and some is flashier.”
As with any vintage jewelry, the best way to know if you are getting authentic ‘old pawn’ is to trust the source you are buying it from. It is unlawful to misrepresent Indian-made arts and crafts per the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a law under the U.S. Dept. of the Interior.
Some clues help identify authentic pieces, Colvert advised. If the piece has turquoise in it, it is most likely natural and may have changed in color over time.
“Natural turquoise is very porous and picks up oil from your hands,” Colvert said. “So things like bracelets and rings that are handled a lot will tend to change color. Turquoise gets greener and more opaque, but this takes decades. If a piece of jewelry has many turquoise stones in it, they will most likely change differently resulting in a multi-colored piece, when originally the colors of the stones would have all matched.”
These pieces were usually made with heavy and thick silver of either sterling or coin. This is another way to tell if you are holding a vintage piece. (And they frequently featured large pieces of natural turquoise.) Not all, but much of the silver used today comes from rolled sheets.
“The early Navajo silversmiths did amazing work with very crude and limited tools,” Colvert shared.
Lastly, real ‘old pawn’ jewelry was not stamped with an owner’s initials or maker’s mark (the hallmark) until after 1945. Colvert said people often ask who made the vintage piece they are looking at.
“Without a hallmark, it is nearly impossible to tell,” she tells them. “While that may be a bad thing in contemporary jewelry, in vintage jewelry it usually just means that it is old.”
People also want to know the history of vintage pieces. Colvert said unless they acquire a piece from the original buyer, it is also impossible to know this.
“Most likely the true ‘old pawn’ pieces have changed hands many times over the years since they were pawned on the reservation,” she said.
Because stunning, prized vintage jewelry typically doesn’t come with provenance or a hallmark, these beautiful creations from the past are unfortunately being reproduced in Asia from photographs and shipped to the U.S., even to the Southwest, and being passed off as the real deal. Fake ‘old pawn’ will have turquoise-colored plastic and a gray tone to the silver created from chemical oxidation and not from natural patina.
“While the techniques of creating this chemical patina are getting better all the time, you can often tell,” Colvert explained. “This false patina looks more black than soft gray, and, because it is put on with a brush, the edges are often much more regular than what nature would create.”
Sterling silver and coin silver will patina with age to “a beautiful gray color,” Colvert described when the owner lives in a dry climate like the Southwest. In places more humid, silver can turn black quite quickly.
“It takes decades for a real patina to develop in dry air, and it adds significantly to the value and beauty of this jewelry,” said Colvert. “People who buy old silver jewelry and polish it up to a bright shine are destroying a lot of its value, history and beauty.”
Remember to trust your source.
What’s it worth to you?
“Old pawn” is also an investment. It certainly can be worn, but great care must be taken. Local jewelry maker Gail Golden has experience repairing pieces of “old pawn.”
“It is very gorgeous and fragile,” Golden said, “and a lot of the turquoise is toast. So, it does become an issue when buying ‘old pawn’ as to whether you want to wear it every day or treasure it as an artifact.”
The monetary value placed on a true piece of ‘old pawn’ includes factors such as the sand-casting of the silver and the quality of the turquoise. All of which, Golden added, “are all over the map, but play a part in the final worth of an old piece.”
And when it comes to reproductions, it isn’t just the buyer that gets scammed — the fake stuff puts contemporary American Indian jewelers out of work. A plastic “stone” in a cheap silver piece of jewelry from Asia is going to have a lower price than a handmade Native American piece with real turquoise and a higher grade of silver.
“This is an increasing problem and why we make a big deal of telling our customers that we don’t sell anything in the store that is imported,” Colvert said. “Also, while we love the beauty of the ‘old pawn’ pieces, we all need to understand that if we want to continue the tradition of having beautiful Native American Southwestern jewelry, we need to support living artists as well as collecting the pieces from the past.”
Finding authentic “old pawn” in Taos
121 Kit Carson Road
(575) 758-9407; bryansgallery.com
El Rincón Trading Post
114 Kit Carson Road
Jackies Trading Post
129 N. Plaza (Taos Plaza)
(575) 758-4828; jackiestradingpost.com
108 Teresina Lane (on the northeast alley of Historic Taos Plaza)
(575) 758-8826; kimosabetaos.com
107 N. Plaza (Taos Plaza)
(575) 758-3455; facebook.com/Mesas-Edge-755805024500661/
Millicent Rogers Museum Store
1504 Millicent Rogers Road
(575) 758-2462; millicentrogers.org
Two Graces Gallery
68 St. Francis Church Plaza, Ranchos de Taos
(575) 758-4101; twograces.com