How to Take Care of Authentic Native American Art and Jewelry
Whether you’ve purchased handcrafted Native American art as a memento of a trip to the Southwest, as a statement of fashion or style, or simply as an investment, you will want to take the best care possible of your newly acquired treasure. This convenient guide shows you how to care for authentic Native American crafts.
Jewelry is the type of Pueblo art that often needs the most maintenance, as we wear it out in the world to show it off. To keep your handcrafted jewelry and genuine gemstones looking their best, don’t expose them to chemicals, ammonias, oils, lotions, soaps, or detergents—all of which can cause damage or discoloration. To clean, wipe each piece gently with a soft, damp cloth, and use a dry silver-polishing cloth to lightly buff the metal.
All gemstones have been hand-set, and over time may become loose with wear. If you notice a loose gemstone, find a qualified silversmith to have the stone tightened. Please note that turquoise, coral, opal, malachite, and pearls are porous gems, and should be treated with care.
Pots and storytellers are some of the most popular types of Pueblo art, and people often wonder about how to care for these pieces once they get them home. First, never expose your handcrafted and handmade pottery to water or moisture. Wiping with a damp cloth or filling it with water can damage the pottery’s paint and finish. These unique handcrafted works of fine art are meant for display, and should not be used for everyday purposes such as holding plants, water, or other objects.
There are exceptions, of course, including micaceous pottery that can be used for cooking. To watch a cooking demonstration with micaceous pottery and download seasoning instructions, see our blog here.
Next, you’ll want to avoid exposing your handcrafted pottery to extreme changes in temperature and humidity, and display them in a safe place out of direct sunlight. We also suggest placing a small cloth bag filled with sand or marbles inside your pot so that it will not be easily tipped or moved.
We also recommend dusting pottery often, using a soft, smooth cloth, such as a microfiber cloth or a soft paintbrush made of camel- or sable hair. Do not use terry cloth or textured fabrics, as these may scratch or damage the pot. You’ll also want to handle pottery with clean hands, as natural oils and other elements can affect the finish. Whenever possible, use two hands when moving or carrying a pot, and never grip or lift pots by their rim.
Lastly, pottery handles and raised details are especially fragile and prone to breaking. You’ll want to avoid turning, spinning, or sliding pottery on its base, as this will scratch the bottom. Placing a mat of soft cloth or felt between the pot and surface will help protect the artist’s hallmark or signature.
Native American carvings like Zuni fetishes are delicate works of art, and should be treated with care. Avoid displaying them in direct sunlight or exposing them to extreme temperatures and shifts in climate and humidity. Don’t wash your carvings with water or chemical cleaners, because many carvings are made from porous materials that will be damaged or discolored by chemicals or water.
To clean, dust frequently with a soft, dry cloth or paintbrush made from camel- or sable hair. Always handle carvings with clean hands, because natural oils and other elements can affect the finish. Carvings with gemstone details should be treated with additional care, as these can easily be cracked or chipped. Antique fetishes that appear aged, soiled, or dirty should not be cleaned or altered, as this will decrease their value.
Handmade Native American rugs are extremely valuable works of art that will last for generations if they are displayed and treated as fine art. When hanging your rug, choose a method that will not damage the weaving. Never puncture the rug, or use nails or hooks for hanging. We recommend using custom rug hangers or Velcro to display your rug. Place the adhesive side of a Velcro strip against your wall, then place the rug against the Velcro, allowing it to grip the rug’s fibers. To prevent the natural dyes from fading or changing colors, avoid exposing your rug to direct sunlight. We recommend against Native American rugs being used as floor rugs.
To clean, lightly vacuum your rug with a handheld attachment to remove dust, and flip every 90 days to allow it to breathe. These steps will help maintain the rug’s color and keep it free of insects. Do not use cleaning agents or chemicals on your rug, as these can cause the colors to bleed and the wool to shrink, permanently damaging your weaving. If your rug requires extensive cleaning, please take it to a professional who has expertise in cleaning Navajo rugs, Persian rugs, or Oriental rugs. When storing, never fold your rug—roll it up and place in an airtight plastic bag or bin. Place cedar chips behind or beneath the rug to protect against moths.
Natural fiber Native American baskets should not be exposed to moisture, direct sunlight, or fluctuations in temperature or humidity. To clean, dust frequently with a feather duster or camel- or sable-hair brush. Never vacuum your handmade Native American basket or apply cleaning agents or chemicals.
If your basket requires any repairs, we recommend taking it to a professional who has expertise in restoring natural fiber baskets. On rare occasions, a basket made from organic materials may attract mold or mildew. We recommend taking these baskets to an expert for immediate attention and restoration. If there is extreme dust or debris within the weave of your basket, it should also be taken to a professional for care and cleaning.
To keep your Native American drums looking and sounding their best, avoid moisture and high temperatures, and periodically dust them with a soft cloth or feather duster. We recommend oiling the leather drum head and laces with Neatsfoot Oil leather conditioner—but be careful not to saturate the hide, as this will change or ruin the tonality of your drum. In dry climates, you will need to oil more frequently. If your drum is used for decoration, do not display in direct sunlight, or place sharp or heavy objects directly on the drum head. If you need to store your drum, place in a cool, dry location inside a cloth drum bag or plastic bag.
If your handcrafted drum begins to lose its tone due to humidity or moisture exposure, you can restore it by placing the drum in front of a fire, or heating slowly with a hair dryer on high. You may also place the drum in direct sunlight for a short period of time to tighten the drum head. Be careful not to overheat the drum head. If the rawhide becomes too dry, the drum head may split or become permanently damaged.
Handcrafted Native American flutes are delicate, and should be treated with care. They are sensitive to changes in climate and temperature, and may crack, disfigure, or separate along the seams if exposed to extreme heat, cold, or humidity. When not in use, store your flute in a fabric sleeve, or inside a flute case away from direct sunlight and heating/air conditioning vents. Never use chemicals to clean your flute.
To preserve the instrument’s tonality, we recommend oiling once a month, depending upon the climate and how often your flute is played. Oil prevents moisture from penetrating the wood, and maintains tonality. Use nontoxic mineral oil or linseed oil, but avoid vegetable oil.
When playing the flute, don’t wear lip balms, lip gloss, or lipstick, as this may damage the mouthpiece or stain the flute. Don’t chew gum or eat immediately before playing. If played for an extended period of time, drops of condensation may form in between the “bird” and the “nest” on the flute body. This causes the flute’s timber to become muted, or stop resonating altogether. As a quick fix, you can remove moisture from under the flute’s “bird” by blowing the water out of the small space between the “bird” and the flute. After playing your flute, remove the “bird,” and wipe the underside and sound holes. Wipe off any remaining moisture with a soft, nonabrasive cloth, shake out any excess moisture, and let the flute air dry completely before storing.
This guide will help you get the most out of your Native American art, whether you regularly buy Native art, or received cherished Native American gifts. If you have any further questions about how to care for Native American art, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re here for you.