FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Holding a multistrand necklace of deep-red coral beads, a silver concha belt and a square-cut turquoise necklace, Lauris Phillips looks as if she is handling thousands of dollars worth of handmade American Indian jewelry.
But Phillips says an unwitting customer purchasing these items would be getting a handful of fakes, worth very little.The coral beads are really red glass. The concha belt is not handmade but created from a wax cast. And the necklace is actually made from chalk turquoise, the poorest grade of turquoise that starts out as nearly white, and the characteristic turquoise color and matrix are added later.
"This concha belt has probably never even seen an Indian. This necklace is just awful, but people buy this stuff. If you hold it in your hand, it feels very light -- that's because it's like holding a handful of glue. It's totally permeated with resin," she said.
Phillips, of San Marino, Calif., has spent more than 25 years in the study and collection of Southwest American Indian jewelry.
She recently spoke to volunteers who will be working at the Museum of Northern Arizona's 1999 Heritage Program, a summer series of exhibits and activities highlighted by four weekend marketplaces where Native American artists sell their hand-crafted creations and conduct demonstrations.
Phillips and her husband, Jim, now semi-retired, were active dealers in the Indian arts business, specializing in pawn jewelry, textiles and historical Pueblo pots. They continue to appraise collections for private individuals, lecture throughout the Southwest and judge Indian jewelry competitions.
Through a slide show, Phillips told some of the history of Indian jewelry to demonstrate characteristics of genuine pieces. She then contrasted authentic pieces with counterfeit, saying that in some cases it is very difficult to tell the difference.
"Everybody can be fooled. I can be fooled and I have been fooled," she said.
Some of the historical photos included fetish necklaces with drilled holes that are hourglass shaped, indicating they were hand-drilled, and the evolution of the "naja," the crescent shapes that hang as centerpieces on necklaces. Early najas had hands on each end that sometimes wore bracelets and rings.
Phillips said many people think of silver Navajo jewelry as dating back for hundreds of years, but the earliest pieces are only about 130 years old.
Phillips said collectors can tell handmade silver beads from machine-made by several characteristics. The handmade beads have a lip where the hole has been punched, and a seam where each bead is soldered together in the middle. The machine-made beads are often smooth.
"And they hang perfectly straight," she said, holding up a necklace of machine-made silver beads.
Other pieces may be beautifully handcrafted but are made by Anglos rather than Indians.
"That's all right if you know what you're buying. Just like my glass-bead coral necklace -- I love it, but I know what it is," she said.