A while ago, @TAH posted about a belt buckle, made by Ralph Lauren. You can see the post here:
The post had me thinking, and I got to do some research. Little did I know that Ralph Lauren was an avid collector NA jewelry. As it turns out, RL copies a lot of NA jewelry too. The copies are identical to pieces of real NA jewelry, and I feel like some awareness needs to brought to this matter.
This post touches on some ethical questions that I have been thinking about lot since I’ve begun collecting NA jewelry.
When I first started developing an interest in NA art and jewelry, I have to admit that the RL style was a bit of an inspiration. But since then their NA inspired accessories such as concho belts etc. have begun to not sit right with me. I was never aware that some of his pieces are outright copies of pieces he’s collected though. That is very disappointing if true.
As I’ve learned more about NA jewelry I’ve also learned a lot about how extensive the fake market is and how this hurts NA artists. But what exactly makes something a fake? To me it’s not always black and white. I think it helps to break it down into three components when thinking about any particular item. Are the materials real? Is it native made? And is it hand made? A “no” to any one of these questions doesn’t necessarily make something fake or not worth owning. But each question I think is worth considering when you are considering something a piece of native art. And how something is represented (or misrepresented) is probably the most important of all. For example, a concho belt could be handmade by a NA out of nickel silver. If you know what you are purchasing, this could just be considered a more affordable version of authentic NA art. Is that a fake then? Natives can machine make jewelry out of real materials. One could certainly make the argument such pieces are not fake. There is a whole market of “southwestern style” jewelry that is legally sold by respected establishments, just not advertised as NA. Is that fake? What combination of the above 3 factors make something fake? Or is it all in representation? The Indian Arts and Crafts act, to my knowledge the only law on the subject, only focuses in representation, or truth in advertising.
In the Ralph Lauren example, he is selling items made of real materials, not handmade, not native made, but also not represented as being native made. And yet it doesn’t sit well with us. To me it’s unsettling even if he’s not making direct copies and reproductions. Why? Probably because he is a rich, white man, profiting further off the art and intellectual property of another culture. A culture that is as a whole more socially and economically disadvantaged than the dominant culture that RL belongs to. I buy NA jewelry because it appeals to me, but also because I want to support artists. Native artists. Not RL.
So to me the question that follows is, is it ethical for anyone who is not NA to make jewelry in a NA style? I don’t know the answer to this question. I tend to think not. I tend to think that this art form is part of the NA cultural heritage, and what right do others have to imitate and profit off of it? But that is debatable for sure. There are respected white jewelers who have been taught by Native Americans in the NA style. Is this OK then? I don’t know. I don’t choose to buy their art.
I think that a telling quote is by the Navajo artist Liz Wallace, in the context of the prosecutions for the recent case involving the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. She said, “I don’t think calling this cultural appropriation is adequate. It’s economic colonization.” Wow. I never thought I’d have to think so carefully about the ethics of my hobby.
Blatant knock offs strike me as an infringement of artists rights, as in paintings, pottery etc. And for the reasons you mention, it is even more distasteful. But non serious turquoise people, who love the style but will not grow in the appreciation over years, may choose to purchase goods that immulate a southwest or NA style. They will never know or care for the love and appreciation of the craft, art and heritage. For me, a big part of the joy of collecting is learning all I can, making informed decisions, the hunt, and sharing with others. I love learning about the artists and why they developed or chose a style.
I really appreciate your response. It’s really insightful, intelligent, and it brings up a lot of good points. Misrepresentation is a huge issue in our industry, and RL represented everything correctly, IMO. I think what bothers me the most is that this big, corporate conglomerate just took and copied someone else’s work, and put their brand name on it. If RL put their own spin on their products, I don’t think I would be so upset. I appreciate art, and more specifically, jewelry in general. I will buy southwestern, NA- made and Anglo- made if I feel it is well made and represented correctly.
Carolyn Pollack I feel is a good example of how to do it correctly. A lot of people online ‘accuse’ her of copying NA jewelry. As much as I don’t care for her jewelry (it’s mass produced, not unique) she puts her own spin on things. Each piece draws inspiration from the southwest and I applaud that. She also works with NA artists, and claims her jewelry is made in the southwest. I feel like she went about it correctly, whereas I feel RL just came in and said, “I like this. This is mine now.” David vs. Goliath per say.
As much as the Ryan Michael/Ralph Lauren sandcast buckle disappointed me, I must say that it is one heck of a reproduction. Embarrassingly, I admired that buckle in those ads for at least a year and was totally convinced it was vintage Navajo.
What’s sad is, the sterling version of the RL sandcast buckle is $500. $500 would buy a nice authentic, handmade NA buckle. I suppose the people buying the RL buckle just want “the look” for an outfit and have no interest or passion for the meaning behind it.
Therein lays a big part of the problem. If we go to ebay and search (RL/RRL Native American) most of the listings state Native American in the title leading buyers to believe NA are making these pieces.
North American Indians are not sitting still in the midst of the insults. Here is just one of the write-ups…
I suggest we as dealers and collectors join to enlighten the public. - A simple ditty included in every listing we post and word of mouth goes a long way to educate and bring awareness. I’m now working on how to word such a ditty to include in all my listings. How does this sound?.. Past - Present - Future - Authentic American-Made. To take it another step, possibly we could share the same ditty which would make a bigger impact. Any other suggestions?
$500 will certainly get you a nice authentic NA buckle. I think that the type of consumer buying the RL version probably doesn’t know where or how to shop for authentic NA jewelry. I imagine they are probably just buying a brand that they know and trust and haven’t thought it through fully. The issue of cultural appropriation probably has not occurred to them and I bet they would also rather have the real deal if they realized they could for the same money.
Incidentally, I found this page when reading about this topic:
I find it pretty ironic that RL would give a seal of approval to another business for “being among the most trusted dealers in turquoise and turquoise jewelry from the American Southwest” meanwhile they are copying and stealing from NA artists.
I am new here. So happy to see this! I have not read through all the responding posts but I agree to what I’ve read so far. Not right unless Native American artisans are doing the work and being paid well. Or if all proceeds are going to Native American collage funds. Anyone can copy.
Even the packaging looks like it’s strait from the history Fred Harvy books. Again, my comment is after just a glance through to this post. I have not looked into this sufficiently.