Santa Fe, New Mexico has been on my bucket list since I first became interested in artisan-made crafts years ago. Each year, the city hosts the International Folk Arts Market, drawing hundreds of artisans from around the world to this little historic city to display their wares and grow their businesses.
While I missed the festival this year, I did not pass up the opportunity to shop for local crafts during a recent 24-hour stopover in the city. But after I stopped into a few shops, I began to wonder how to tell what was really artisan-made and what was an imported version of the local designs. I wasn’t familiar enough with the local culture, especially the Native American cultures, to pick up on this difference.
So how do you tell what is authentic and what is not?
Before I dive into how to tell what’s really made by a local artisan and what it not, I think it’s important to clarify why you should even care. Shouldn’t you just buy any souvenir that looks good? Isn’t that its own way of supporting the local economy? Well, yes, you’re supporting that local shop owner, but there’s a lot more to consider.
Here’s my quick list of why you should buy artisan-made when possible:
- You’re supporting the community more deeply when you make sure the artisan (who often created the designs being knocked off) is paid fairly.
- You’re telling the local community that this is a traditional craft that has high value and is worth preserving, so that more generations continue to want to learn these skills.
- You are showing respect for an artisan’s mastery and heritage. These days, so much design is ripped off and produced more cheaply. Honor the maker by making sure you are only supporting local businesses that respect the maker too.
- You get a chance to get to know the maker.
- It’s a smaller environmental footprint if the item wasn’t shipped from far away.
- You are getting something truly special and handmade rather than something mass-produced.
(There are so many more reasons to add to this list – I hope you’ll share yours in the Comments below.)
So now, how do you know if something was really made by a local craftsperson or if it’s imported? My recommendation is to start asking questions from the seller. I like to start off with “I love this design, can you tell me more about it?” And then I get more specific with questions such as:
- Who made this?
- Where do you make it?
- What is it made of and where do the materials come from?
- How do you (or the artisan) make it?
- Who taught you this craft?
Hopefully, these questions will help you engage in a memorable conversation with an artisan as much as they will help you clarify if an item is truly handmade or an imposter.
If you’re in a store that is supposedly selling local crafts, a great indicator is if the artisan has signed his or her pieces or if there is information about the maker next to a piece. Even better, sometimes stores will share photos of where and how it is made to give you more context about the craft itself. You may also want to ask shop owners if they buy directly from artisans, and if so, who sets the price for the goods.
In Santa Fe, I was extremely fortunate. I asked my authenticity question to a staff member at Bahti Indian Arts, mostly because his store provided clear markers of its authenticity: certifications from local councils, information on how designs were made, and the names of the artisans. Bahti Indian Arts is beautiful and a must-see, and the store associate kindly gave me a few other recommendations to help me make sure I was purchasing from stores that truly want to support local makers and craft:
1. Sun County Traders
2. Keshi The Zuni Collection (My favorite and the store makes it clear that the artisan sets the price to ensure fair wages!)
3. Rainbow Man
4. Shiprock Santa Fe (see rug photos above)
In addition to these shops, you can visit the Plaza where artisans daily enter a lottery to display their wares in the approximately 70 spots under the portico. Each vendor must prove that he/she makes the goods, so you can shop here with confidence knowing that you are buying directly from the maker. Go early for the best selection and take your time to learn from the maker how each item was made.
Want to learn more about artisans? A few of my favorite resources are UNESCO, Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, and HAND/EYE Magazine. Still have questions about how to tell the difference? Share your questions in the Comments or email me.