When Authenticity Matters

As a woman in today’s culture, I can’t deny that I love a new piece of jewelry. Be it a gift from a special someone or window-shopping at the mall, I am attracted to the shiniest thing in the display case. Buying the most unique item in the store is often the goal, with hopes of receiving compliments and interest at the next cocktail party. The unique item for the Spring 2012 fashion season is turquoise jewelry. Turquoise in the United States has been associated with southwestern Native American culture broadly for many years, but what do the current wearers of turquoise really know about the native culture it hails from? How do big name sellers of this trending jewelry, which include the Smithsonian Institution, represent the culture in which these items are made?

An example of popular symbols made out of turquoise for sale.

Turquoise has been a prized gemstone for thousands of years, cultivated in desert regions of the Middle East like Egypt and Persia, as well as the Southwestern region of the United States. Among native cultures it is known for its medicinal powers, giving the wearer both physical and mental healing for ailments. The Navajo, who are currently one of the largest craft groups of authentic turquoise jewelry, have historically carved turquoise in to a variety of shapes and sizes to serve multiple religious and aesthetic purposes. Today’s southwestern culture of turquoise manifests itself in craft goods made by native people for profit. Beginning in the 1850’s, creating metal-worked gemstone jewelry became a trade business. First by the Navajo, then the Hopi and the Zuni, turquoise jewelry was produced among other things to bring much needed revenue to native tribes. Turquoise jewelry created for trade consumption is much different than personally made adornments for native people, created as “an amalgam of actual Southwestern Native American symbols and superfluous designs contrived to fit the tourist idea of what Indian jewelry ought to look like.”[1]. Turquoise jewelry has become increasingly popular among tourists ever since.

The most unlikely places now sell turquoise because it is “popular” this fashion season. Museums have not ignored this trending market for capitol. The largest museum system in the United States, the Smithsonian Institution, is following these fashions. At SmithsonianStore.com, you can find a wide variety of turquoise jewelry. There is a small section on each buying page that offers what they call a “Museum Provenance”. Flipping through the different pieces, I realized that this “provenance” was exactly the same paragraph for each Native American piece. The information given ironically suggests that turquoise was “originally used exclusively for Navajo ceremonies and religious rituals”[2], acknowledging that this gem might be a sacred ritual item to this culture, but is still available for purchase. The artist or the community they come from is completely unmentioned. Visitors and online shoppers alike are able to buy turquoise without visiting or having any knowledge about any native culture. While connecting it to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) collection broadly, there is no detail of the why these objects connect to collection items, other than that they are Native American made.

A native jewelry maker passes this tradition to a young boy, likely his son.

The general non-native public is willing to purchase these pieces because they are “trendy” and want to say they own a piece of native culture, regardless of who has made it. However, finding a connection to who made these pieces can bring authenticity to the purchase. Having worked at Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado, I have seen native materials handled and sold much differently. Many tribes sell trade items at this National Park Site, including jewelry and pottery. Each native made pot, for example, comes with a small card that has a picture of the artist, their tribe and a description of their art training. This encourages future sales for artists and provides a personal connection and appreciation for their craft. There is no doubt this pottery is an authentic piece, in both provenance and in the character that created this beautiful work of art. If this principle where applied to the jewelry sold at the Smithsonian Store, an added layer of artistic appreciation could help provide recognition to native craft people and their beautiful pieces.

This authenticity is what gives you the most unique piece in the room.

One thought on “When Authenticity Matters

  1. I am still really fascinated by the topic of gift shops in museums and what we sell. It was like the Inquisition necklace you showed us. Do museums have a responsibility to sell items based off of their collections, or featuring actual artists rather than something mass produced? I still don’t have an answer, but I will definitely continue to think about it.

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