This is a longer version of an ebay guide that I wrote today:
So you want to collect vintage Navajo or Indian jewelry? You are browsing the web and keep seeing the word "pawn". You see "dead pawn" "old pawn" "Navajo pawn". Does this mean that this piece of jewelry came from a pawn shop? Does it mean that someone sold it for melt to a pawn shop and now you can buy it and call it pawn? Well, it often means that the seller bought it from a pawn shop because it was sold for melt, but unfortunately most of what you see being offered as "pawn" is not true pawn, not to the sophisticated and well informed collector.
So, what is "Navajo Pawn" anyway?
Here's the thing...For over 100 years, the Navajo People, The Dine', used the reservation pawn shop or trader the same way that the urban dwellers use a safe deposit box. A safe place to keep the valuable family jewelry.
The jewelry is pawned and stored at the pawn shop and the loan is paid and the jewelry worn for ceremonies and special occasions only to have the jewelry returned the the pawn shop for safe keeping after the event. A family may keep items pawned for 10 or even 20 years. The pawnbrokers know this and the jewelry is safe with them. Once in a while a family will let some pieces go to be sold, or someone passes away with no family and these pieces are released for sale as "Dead Pawn". Pawn is Native American jewelry that was owned by, worn by and pawned by Native Americans. It is not tourist jewelry that was sold to a pawn shop in Boise, Idaho and resold to be resold again. Most of what you see being offered as pawn, is indeed NOT.
Here is a photograph of privately owned genuine Indian pawn:
Here is a photo of Old Navajo Jewelry that is not pawn:
They look the same don't they?
How do you know what is genuine pawn and what is not? If you do not want to drive to the reservation to buy from the pawn shop and you do not know Navajo people who will sell you old family jewelry, you are going to have to trust the sellers that you buy from. If your heart tells you that you that you need to collect something, then you have to put your brain to work learning about that thing. Read books, ask questions. Use that "contact seller" link and ask the seller why they call the item pawn. Some sellers use the word simply because they see others using it.
With pawn you may be lucky enough to find a piece with the pawn ticket attached. That is a rare find. And do be aware that there are fake pawn tickets. There is a seller in Southern California that does Native American arts auctions and he places fake pawn tickets that he made on all of his pieces. I see his things resold as the real thing.
Look for provenance, which is also a rare thing. A piece may be pawn, found at an estate, but most dealers do not think to ask for the story on the piece or information is not available.
You will notice the two piece in the lower photo that have the whirling logs in the design. There are those that believe pieces bearing this symbol are automatically pawn. This is quite a false assumption. I find this symbol on more tourist pieces. Seeing this symbol means that the piece has good age and was most likely made before 1940. It is a symbol that is a sacred image that represents as legend that was used in healing rituals. Some consider it to be of good luck and representative of the circle of life.
It looks old, but it's not pawn. Is it tourist jewelry? Is tourist jewelry valuable? Of course it is. Old tourist jewelry is highly collected and is very valuable. Here's the two concho belts. One is pawn, one is not.
The one at the top is tourist jewelry. I bought it new in Gallup, New Mexico in 1992. I bought it from a wholesale Indian trader. It is sterling silver and well made. The conchos are hand stamp decorated and the artist did a great job. It is lighter in weight and comfortable to wear.
The belt on the bottom is pawn. I bought it from a Navajo/Apache man. It is a family piece that he had stored in a shoebox in his workshop. The conchos have seen a couple of belts over the years and it has been in the pawnshop many times. The conchos are thick and heavy. The belt weighs a couple of pounds.
The difference between tourist jewelry and pawn is that tourist jewelry was made to be sold to tourists. It is lighter in weight for the most part, to keep the price down. Pawn was made for, owned by, worn by and pawned by Native American people.
The three bracelets on the left are tourist jewelry. The three on the right are pawn. They are all valuable and beautiful. If true pawn is what you quest, buy from sellers that you can trust.
Once again. The bracelet on the left is old tourist jewelry, not pawn. The one on the right is pawn. Look that the beautiful wear on the terminals!
Things to be aware of:
The certificate of authenticity or COA, means nothing. Anyone can print one. Look for real pawn tickets, but know that they are a rarity. Ask questions and work with knowledgeable dealers. (I rarely list a piece as pawn. If I suspect that is is pawn because of the construction of the piece, I will state only that I suspect that it is pawn.)
Also know that just about 1975 there was a huge buying craze of Native American jewelry in the USA. It was the "Beanie Babies" style craze of the 1970's. Indian jewelry was being made as fast as possible, mines were being mined like crazy and fakes were also being made in great quantities. There is nothing wrong with 1970's Indian jewelry, but it is often sold as pawn. And the fakes, well, that's a subject for another guide.
I hope that I have helped you. Vintage jewelry is a wise investment that you can wear and enjoy.