Known as HlGaa K’id in the Haida language Skidegate dialect, argillite is the black gem of Haida Gwaii. Argillite is geologically unique to the Islands and has been carved by Haida carvers since the early 1800s.
The argillite found in Haida Gwaii is specific to these islands and is found within the geological formation known as the Haida Formation. The age of the Haida Formation dates back to the Cretaceous Period, between the Turonian Age (90 million years ago) and the Albian Age (113 million years ago).
Geologically, argillite is considered to be a type of slate, but the argillite of Haida Gwaii first began as shale. As it was exposed to great amounts of heat over time, it transformed and hardened into slate, which we know and recognize today as argillite.
According to geologist Sutherland Brown, who conducted geological research in Haida Gwaii in the 1960s, argillite from the Haida Formation is:
"...composed of silt-sized fragments of kaolinite (a fine clay) present in a fine carbonaceous clay matrix…changes to its structure occurred through folding and heating caused by a nearby volcanic eruption. The resulting modification distinguishes [this argillite] from all other types of argillite and creates the unique properties that enable it to be carved with ease.” (MacNair & Hoover)
Although types of argillite can be found in other parts of North America, the variety of argillite here is unique because it is strong enough to be carved, yet has a softness that allows for intricate detailing. Argillite found elsewhere can be more prone to flaking apart and is not easily carved.
Argillite carvings have an expansive global history too. The Haida began to produce argillite carvings in larger quantities to respond to the demand from European explorers who were in search of exquisite items for trade.
Haida argillite’s unique locale, difficult to access rock quarry, and its protection by the Haida Nation as a stone only to be carved by the Haida people, all contribute to argillite carvings from Haida Gwaii as being a highly sought-after Indigenous art form.
As a gallery in Haida Gwaii, Crystal Cabin has worked with a number of Haida artists for over 30 years to provide a market for these beautiful works of art and jewelry. We receive many questions and inquiries about how to determine a real argillite carving from a look-a-like, and so we have created this resource to help you know what to look for.
How to Determine if an Argillite Carving is Real:
How does the stone feel? Is it cool to the touch or plastic-like? Argillite is a stone formed millions of years ago and has the feeling of a genuine stone, which is usually cool to the touch. Alternatively, replicas of argillite carvings, which were produced historically and continue to be produced today, are largely made of resin or plastic and mimic the dark colour of argillite. Resin has a more plastic feel but can be smooth or shiny like argillite.
The weight of argillite is another way to determine real argillite from imitation. The weight may not be evident for smaller pieces of argillite, but there is a noticeable weight attributed to a large 3-dimensional argillite carving. If a large carving feels too light for its size, the piece could possibly be an imitation.
Moh’s Hardness Test
One can use the Mohs Scale to help determine what material a stone is. For example, argillite is an approximate hardness of 2.5 on a scale to 10. In an inconspicuous area, such as the bottom or base of the carving, one could use material of a slightly harder material, such as a copper penny, to scratch the stone. If the stone can be scratched by this material, this could be an indication that the piece is argillite. On the other end of the Mohs Scale, argillite is harder than a fingernail and so wouldn’t be easily scratched by a fingernail.
Inconsistencies in the Stone
Argillite is a natural stone and therefore may have inconsistencies, such as small cracks or imperfections in the stone. Resin or plastic, on the other hand, would be devoid of these inconsistencies.
Buy From a Reputable Source
When purchasing argillite carvings today, we recommend that you purchase from a reputable source. This may include an art gallery specializing in Haida art or buying directly from a Haida artist.
Our unique location in Haida Gwaii and close connection to Haida argillite carvers enables us to vet the genuineness of the argillite customers purchase in our store or on our website.
Misconceptions Regarding Authentic Argillite Carvings:
There are a few misconceptions surrounding the originality of argillite carvings, making it confusing to know what’s real and what isn’t. We’ll go over a few of the most common misconceptions we hear about when it comes to determining the originality of argillite carvings.
Presence or Lack of Signature
Today, most argillite carvings are signed by the artist. However, in the old days, it wasn’t uncommon for an argillite carving to go unsigned. The presence or lack of a signature is not indicative of a real or imitation carving.
Less Conventional Argillite Designs & Structures
Different designs and structures of argillite carvings can be observed over time. Today we are used to seeing argillite carvings which depict Haida mythology, transformation stories, or supernatural beings, for example. However, argillite from the past could also include a less traditional design, such as European figures or the ships of European explorers.
Also, the structure of argillite carvings can vary from free-form sculptures, totem poles, boxes, flutes, puppets, bows, and plates. Historically, some of these structures started to be carved in curiosity and influence of European culture.
Presence of Inlays
Similarly to varied designs and structures, various inlays have also been used in argillite carvings from the past and present, such as ivory, animal bone, pipestone, or abalone shell.
For specific questions about identifying the authenticity of an older argillite carving, we recommend contacting a local dealer in Haida or Northwest Coast art in your area.
To see contemporary argillite carvings, you can view a wide selection of argillite carvings and jewelry on our website.
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P. MacNair & A. Hoover, The Magic Leaves: A History of Haida Gwaii Argillite Carving. 2002.