Southwest Find: Fred Harvey Indian Silver

Over the course of the next couple days, I'll be sharing some of my vintage finds from my Southwest road trip. If anyone has any information about their origins, I'd love to learn more!

image from farm7.static.flickr.com

There was absolutely no way I could visit the Southwest (particularly Santa Fe) and not come home with some turquoise jewelry. Before arriving in New Mexico, I completely underestimated how difficult it would be for me to find a piece to buy! It's not that there weren't things I liked — I fell in love with a lot of pieces. It's just that I (totally uncharacteristically of me) did NO research whatsoever before arriving in NM. I didn't know how much the jewelry should cost, where I should buy it, how to identify the pieces, what to ask, etc… Not being educated about a purchase like this was quite frustrating.

A quick look online indicated that I should ask if the turquoise is "natural," not real. That means it isn't heavily treated with chemicals or other added elements to make it look better, fit better or just seem more like prized turquoise. I'm terribly shy about asking folks about the quality of their goods so there was no way I was going to ask a Native American sitting out in the Plaza of Governors whether their stuff was natural. To complicate matters, treated turquoise isn't *always* a bad thing since it's a gemstone that needs to be stabilize. It's all far more complicated than I can handle on vacation.

That brings me to another point: should I buy jewelry straight from the source, so-to-speak, or from the jewelry stores set up around the plaza? Personally, I thought that buying from a Native American was the right thing to do but I found that I really wasn't drawn to any of the jewelry I saw. Plus (see the note about being shy above), I found it really hard to approach any of the vendors. They were totally nice and approachable but without marked prices, I didn't want to start a conversation that wouldn't end without a purchase. I just didn't want to waste their time.

It turns out I ended up wasting someone's time in a shop and he, in about 20 minutes, told me all about the jewelry that kept on catching my eye: Fred Harvey era Indian silver. It turns out that the type of jewelry that kept on catching my eye during the trip always turned out to be vintage/pawn. I've trained myself to be able to identify the eras of non-Indian costume jewelry — when it came to Native American jewelry, I just didn't know what to look for. So I relied on my taste. As it so happens, the stuff I liked turned out to be the old stuff. Imagine that.

I ended up wasting this shop owner's time because I didn't end up buying the amazing Navajo bracelet from the 1940s that he had in his shop. I was almost ready to buy it at $232, but then he suggested that I check out another store down the block — Shalako Indian Store.

Shalako is tucked in a little indoor mall and if you don't know you're looking for it, you might very well miss it. In my opinion, it had the best assortment of vintage/pawn Indian silver in the entire plaza (maybe Santa Fe, I don't know). At the store I was just at, there were about 10 Fred Harvey era bracelets to choose from. At Shalako's there were at least 75, if not more. I was told by the clerk helping me at Shalako that the owner of the store (or maybe the owner's mother) was a Harvey Girl and that she's been collecting these pieces with a fervor that showed in the display cases. If you, like me, aren't educated about Harvey, check out this history of the man and an article about the jewelry.

image from farm7.static.flickr.com

I ended up with two items, the bracelet from the first photograph and this road runner brooch. In total, I paid about $10 less ($225) than one bracelet from the other shop would have cost me. I'm sure that if I wasn't in Santa Fe and therefore wasn't as much demand for the jewelry, I could have bought both pieces for less. The price was justified because I loved the jewelry and actually learned quite a lot on the spot. So there you go.

Author

Mena Trott

Mena Trott started The Sew Weekly to document her attempt to sew all of her own clothes in 2010. Since then, she's made over 125 outfits and has way more clothes than she needs.

6 Comments

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  1. as a sewist who also studies and teaches Native American art history, it’s so hard not to
    I know so much more about the Northwest Coast art market than the Southwest (and about the southwest i know more about textiles than jewelry). The most recent major catalogue on SW jewelry is Totems to Turquoise.
    As a Native art historian, I would affirm that it’s best to buy from the source – but I wouldn’t suggest buying something that you don’t like just to do so; that’s obviously just patronizing. One of the most interesting things that has come out of Native art history is that in some areas like Sitka, Native vendors really allied to make sure that they weren’t undercutting each other, thereby guaranteeing themselves the fairest price they could get. I expect that is the same today; (it wasn’t necessarily historically the case in the Southwest due to distance of reservations to Santa Fe, Albequerque, and other tourist locales). Some galleries/shops have positive and culturally appropriate relations with Native artists, and some mos def do not. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know which ones do and which ones don’t until you really start to get to know people, and the stories come out.
    I think your pieces are absolutely beautiful, and a testament to the extraordinary beautiful work and enormous amount of skills that Native peoples were doing at a time when they were really particularly oppressed. One of the things that always breaks my heart about historic pieces on the art market is that Fred Harvey era companies paid SO LITTLE to the artists for those works, and their value has increased exponentially. But contemporary Native communities artists don’t see the economic benefits – especially when the old is more highly valued than the new. This issue with the rising costs of the old afflicts all artists, of course; it’s just that the issues are much bigger in Native North America when middlemen like Harvey controlled the trade.
    Sorry – couldn’t resist passing on my two cents! The economics of Native art is something I’m pretty passionate about! That and sewing!

  2. UGH. I always forget to finish sentences.
    First sentence – it’s so hard not to put in my two cents!

  3. I love the two pieces you got – especially the roadrunner pin.
    During my last trip to the States, and in particular travelling through the states around the Grand Canyon I had wanted to buy some authentic Native Indian jewellery – and like you, I found it much more difficult than I had anticipated. I also felt very uncomfortable approaching vendors and had no idea how to authenticate what I was looking at. In the end – I just decided to buy pieces that I loved – authentic or not. I came home with a few cute pins and a lovely pendant of white turqoise. Shopping can be tough!

  4. Hey Aliesje! Thanks so much for your comment! Buying vintage/antique/pawn gave me that pause — knowing that money isn’t being recirculated into the Native American community. Your comment and expertise was great — thanks for posting!

  5. To my inexperienced eye, both of those pieces embody the vintage Southwest jewelry style – I can easily imagine my grandmother and aunt wearing them 50 – 60 years ago when they lived in the Southwest. I have the same lust for this vintage jewelry and the same anxiety and confusion in regard to turquoise, silver, and authenticity that you do. I even have some books on turquoise and honestly they add more confusion. There are so many colors, compositions, and countries of origin of natural turquoise. That’s not even including concerns about the silver, the artisan, the age, the price, etc. I think that without getting a degree in Native American art history, the best we can do is exactly what you did – talk to as many knowledgeable people as possible, and in the end find things that you genuinely love. These two pieces are beautiful!

  6. I think your pieces are lovely!!! It totally blows my mind how we were in the same place at the same time practically!!! I bought some great jewlery while I was in NM as well, it is so beautiful there and everything Native American appeals to me! Next time you are in NM, go to Gallup. It is a very small, and I mean tiny town close to the Zuni reservation. They sell amazing jewlery, it is the towns # 1 commerce. The prices are really good as well.