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Knockoffs hurt jewelry industry

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By Sherry Robinson

It’s tourism season again. In New Mexico, that means it’s also time for an uptick in purchases of Indian jewelry. But of all the money spent here for jewelry purportedly made by a Native American, about half is fake.
Visitors flying in to Albuquerque can walk into inviting shops at the airport and not find a single piece of jewelry created by a Native American artisan, according to Bruce Bernstein, executive director of the Southwest Association for Indian Art.
They will find instead Native American-looking jewelry made in China, Syria and Jordan. This stuff is out there in abundance, even in the epicenter of jewelry making, Gallup.
Knockoffs plague a lot of industries, but here the impact is more personal – it reaches right into the pockets of our New Mexico artisans.
I sometimes think we do a lackadaisical job of protecting the jewelry industry because it’s so dispersed. We have some major manufacturers and wholesalers, but a lot of jewelry is made by the lone artisan working at home. It’s a shadow industry even though Native American art is a $1 billion industry in the Southwest.
This has been a problem for years, and we’ve tried various fixes without much impact.
In 1989, Navajo lawmakers, Sen. John Pinto and Rep. Leo Watchman, introduced legislation to sharpen state laws aimed at fraud in Indian art.
“Asian imports are flooding the market,” said Regis Pecos, then executive director of the state Office of Indian Affairs. “Some may be misrepresented as authentic Indian. The consensus is, it’s getting worse.” And it was expanding into rugs and pottery. Pinto’s bill would have made it illegal to sell a product as Indian when it’s not. It also called for the attorney general and district attorneys to enforce the law. The bill failed.
By 2006, state and federal laws prohibited misrepresenting fake Indian art or jewelry as authentic, but they weren’t enough. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, of Gallup, carried a bill to require a certification stamp to protect Indian artists. Then-Gov. Bill Richardson, struggling to balance the budget, vetoed the money.
Lawmakers tried several more times after that. In 2009 through a memorial, the state Senate asked U.S. Customs to prohibit detachable country of origin markers on imported Native American-style arts and crafts. Finally, in 2010 after a lot of publicity Sen. Linda Lovejoy and Rep. James Madalena got a bill through that made sales of $500 or more of misrepresented fake jewelry a felony; the previous threshold was $20,000.
So we have some laws, federal and state, but imported jewelry can be labeled with a paper sticker, which hardly discourages fraud. And enforcement hasn’t improved. The Attorney General has one or two people prosecuting.    
“SWAIA decided to turn up the volume on the conversation,” said Bernstein, speaking recently to New Mexico Press Women. “There’s nothing wrong with souvenirs and cheaper materials, but they need to be labeled.”
The association now sends “arts ambassadors” out to educate people.  
Darrel Begay, a Gallup craftsman, said: “I’ve seen a lot happen in this industry. I’ve seen stuff the traders have done to our craftsmen. Gallup is supposed to be the hub of Native American jewelry.
Middle Eastern people came in the 1970s and started to price things differently.” They weighed the silver content and paid only for labor. “When I saw this, I thought, how can I made a living being a craftsman?” He began selling to galleries, but not everyone has this option.
The other issue is the mind-boggling range of turquoise. Where the fake or stabilized stone was once easy to spot, it’s not any more.
The old adage, let the buyer beware, doesn’t quite cut it, but lean budgets mean lean enforcement. One solution: People who know their jewelry need to keep an eye out and report the frauds.

Sherry Robinson
New Mexico News Service