One of the joys of visiting New Mexico is returning home with a gleaming silver and turquoise bracelet. Visitors have been snapping up Indian-themed jewelry and souvenirs for more than a century. The enduring popularity of these items is impressive, but nothing tops the backstory of how shopping for turquoise jewelry and other Native American arts and crafts became a thing in the first place.
When New Mexico’s earliest tourists began arriving by train in the 1890s, local Navajo silversmiths already had a long history of creating beautiful jewelry. Their pieces were large. They were also heavy because they contained a lot of silver along with big pieces of turquoise. Each was truly an original, one-of-a-kind creation designed to showcase its owner’s wealth.
The chunky style of jewelry appealed to Native Americans and a few collectors. But for the most part, it did not dovetail with the tastes of the middle-class Victorian tourists. Plus the Navajo jewelry was expensive, well beyond the price range of most travelers.
Enter Fred Harvey
It seems obvious in retrospect, but in the late 1800s it was not clear that tourists would ever be interested in buying hand-made items from Native Americans. Indians had been portrayed as wild, vicious savages who rode around on war ponies whooping and scalping innocent settlers.
The concept of respecting and appreciating Indian culture and the corollary activity of collecting Native art and artifacts was brand new. It was an idea looking for a sponsor, someone to develop and promote it. An English immigrant named Fred Harvey took on the task essentially inventing southwestern cultural tourism in the process.
Fred Harvey was born in 1835 and migrated to America when he was 15. He worked in restaurants then became a railroad freight agent. As he traveled around the west on trains, he was appalled by the horrendous food and terrible service he routinely encountered. But rather than complaining about the sorry state of hospitality on the rail lines, he saw a business opportunity.
Fred Harvey had a simple plan. He would open a series of restaurants catering to railroad passengers. He would provide delicious food for a fair price and it would be served in clean, pleasant surroundings by friendly, wholesome young women.
In 1876 he opened his first lunchroom at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad station in Topeka, Kansas. The Harvey Houses were immediately successful. The waitresses were known as Harvey Girls. Some people credit them with civilizing the wild west. A 1946 movie starring Judy Garland romanticized their story.
So what do good food and friendly waitresses have to do with Navajo silversmiths and turquoise jewelry?
It wasn’t long before Fred Harvey’s business empire extended beyond the restaurants. He built upscale resort hotels in fantastic locations including El Tovar on the rim of the Grand Canyon and La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe, both of which are still welcoming guests.
The Fred Harvey Company also opened retail shops which featured authentic, high-quality Indian-made goods such as rugs, baskets, pottery and jewelry. The company commissioned production of all the merchandise. They provided tools and raw materials to Native American craftspeople and artists who then created products exclusively for the Fred Harvey outlets.
In the case of silver and turquoise jewelry, the company went one step further. They specified the designs with a special emphasis on what came to be known as souvenir bracelets.
The Fred Harvey bracelets were smaller, lighter, more delicate and much less expensive than traditional Navajo jewelry. They were made of lightweight silver plate, contained small pieces of turquoise and were festooned with supposedly mystical Indian symbols such as arrows, thunderbirds, lightning bolts and snakes. None of these symbols, however, had ever appeared on traditional pieces. That was because the Fred Harvey Company had invented them.
According to some estimates more than a million of the souvenir bracelets were produced and sold. There are plenty still floating around. When contemporary collectors talk about vintage turquoise jewelry, it is often the Fred Harvey bracelets they are referring to.
Like all the other divisions of the business, the gift shops were very successful. The company understood the traveling public. Tourists wanted authentic and affordable native-made souvenirs and that’s exactly what they found in the Fred Harvey shops.
The shops were more than simple souvenir stores. They sought to educate people about Indian history, culture and art. They were staffed by traditionally dressed Native Americans who performed craft demonstrations such as weaving and basket making in addition to answering endless questions and selling merchandise.
The most famous and elaborate shop was at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. The shop had many rooms and occupied an entire structure called the Indian Building. The shop, the hotel, its restaurant, lounge, patios and gardens, and the train depot were all part of the Albuquerque Railway station complex. Sadly the Indian Building and the hotel were torn down in 1970.
According to the old saying, all good things must come to an end, and so it was with the Fred Harvey Company. As the traveling public’s habits and tastes changed, the elegant shops were replaced by Indian Curio Stores and Trading Posts that focused less on art and culture and more on cheap souvenirs.
By the 1940s westbound travelers had abandoned the trains and were driving to New Mexico in their own automobiles, cruising Route 66 with carloads of kids. Their appetite for shopping was stoked by gaudy roadside billboards. They pulled into Indian Trading Posts and scoured western-themed shops in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Gallup searching for the perfect “Genuine Indian Made” treasure.
Even though the details and the nature of the merchandise continues to change, the tradition of shopping for Indian art and artifacts lives on and it’s just as much fun as it’s always been. There are still a few establishments that offer the classic mid-century tourist experience of the Indian Trading Post with jewelry, pottery, rugs, baskets, plastic dolls, toy bows and arrows, turquoise-inlaid bottle openers, roadrunner magnets and raunchy shot glasses. A few notable examples are described below. Most contemporary shoppers, however, end up in boutiques, galleries, museum shops or upscale jewelry stores.
Taking the Plunge
If you’re in the market for turquoise, the best approach is to buy something you like and enjoy it. There are dozens of shops in Old Town Albuquerque and around the Santa Fe Plaza. In fact there are so many, it can be overwhelming. Take a deep breath and dive in. Start by getting familiar with what’s available and how much it costs.
Be careful. Unfortunately there is a lot of fake turquoise on the market and it won’t be labeled. You’ll notice right away that many pieces tout the fact that they are “Genuine Indian Made.” This phrase doesn’t actually mean anything. It certainly doesn’t mean the piece contains real turquoise or even real silver.
Here are a few recommendations. All are located in Albuquerque.
If you want to learn how turquoise is formed, mined and processed, set aside an hour or so for the Turquoise Museum. It is located at 2107 Central Ave NW in an unassuming building in a strip mall adjacent to Old Town. You’ll learn about different grades of turquoise as well as how to differentiate the real thing from the fakes. The museum also has a nice gift shop. Hours are very limited.
If you want to visit a store owned and operated by a local Pueblo, try the Santo Domingo Trading Post at 401 San Felipe St NW in Old Town. The staff is friendly and helpful. It’s a good place to get started and it’s only about two blocks from the Turquoise Museum.
The contemporary Native art scene is thriving. Exciting and beautiful one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces are available at Shumakolowa, the gift shop in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. You can preview some of their inventory along with prices online. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is located at 2401 12th St NW. In addition to the museum and gift shop, there are regular live dance performances in the courtyard and an award-winning restaurant, The Pueblo Harvest Café. Highly recommended.
Wright’s Indian Art has been in business since 1907. Their beautiful family owned shop is at 2677 Louisiana Blvd NE, across from the Sheraton Albuquerque Uptown and a block north of the Coronado Center. They offer contemporary as well as vintage pieces.
To capture the flavor of a mid-century Indian Trading Post, visit Skip Maisel’s at 510 Central Ave SW. Take a few minutes to look at the murals in the shop’s entry alcove. They were hand-painted by Native American artists in the 1930s when the shop was built.
Palms Trading Company at 1504 Lomas Blvd NW also recreates the atmosphere of a mid-century Indian Trading Post with a stunning array of merchandise.
If Fred Harvey souvenir bracelets are on your list, try Cowboys and Indians Antiques at 4000 Central Ave SE. Don’t be intimidated by the bars on the doors and windows. Central can get weird at night. Ring the doorbell and they’ll let you right in. They have an amazing collection of vintage western treasures.