The allure of the American southwest is legendary. Its brilliant blue skies, sweeping vistas, unique Native cultures and vermillion cliffs have drawn people for centuries. Yet among the land’s many captivating features one is universally acclaimed - Turquoise Jewelry.
Turquoise: Gem of the southwest, sky stone, Navajo male energy, healing stone, stone of good fortune, abundance and protection. To the Navajo turquoise is considered wealth, a valuable possession, life itself.
In mineralogy turquoise is described as “a semiprecious stone, typically opaque and of a greenish-blue or sky-blue color, consisting of a hydrated hydroxyl phosphate of copper and aluminum.” The presence of copper makes turquoise blue, iron tints it green. On the Mohs hardness scale turquoise is rated between 5 and 6. By way of comparison diamonds are rated 10. This means that turquoise is more easily scratched. In its softest, most porous forms, turquoise can absorb body oils and cosmetics, thereby changing color.
Humankind has been entranced by turquoise jewelry for millennia. Lustrous stones flanking lapis and carnelian have been found in the tombs of ancient Egypt, in scarab rings, pendants and masks worn by the likes of Tutankhamun. Turquoise jewelry has also had a long and valued history in Tibet, Iran, Mesoamerica and China. In fact, the sky blue stones of Iran are considered the finest in the world. Pure, translucent blue turquoise is rare, since most stones are interspersed by veins of brown, black or dark grey. These veins, called matrix, are the host rock that turquoise grows in or minerals such as iron pyrite. Oftentimes collectors seek stones from a particular mine because of the distinctive matrix. Two examples of this are the renowned (and now closed) Number 8 and Lander Blue Mines in Nevada. Both mines produced exceptionally high quality turquoise with dense spider web veining. In addition to Nevada most turquoise currently mined in the U.S. comes from Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
Prehistoric people in the southwest first mined turquoise using stone tools and antler shovels from areas such as Cerrillos east of Santa Fe and Hachita to the south. Vast trade networks were established with Mexico and eastward across the Plains. Some mines in operation today are those once used by these early peoples, but most of the older mines are played out and much of our present turquoise is a byproduct of copper production.
“This information is interesting,” one might say, “but how does it help me choose a piece of jewelry when I walk into a Gallup trading post and am overwhelmed by the dazzling displays?”
The first thing to realize is that different regions and different mines produce stones of various colors and qualities. “For example, the Sleeping Beauty Mine is known for its light blue turquoise without matrix. Much of the turquoise from the Kingman Mine is bright blue with a spider web of black matrix. The Morenci Mine produces a lot of dark blue turquoise with pyrite in the matrix. Much of the Bisbee turquoise has a bright blue color with a chocolate brown matrix.” (Geology.com) In addition, mines such as Lone Mountain with its brilliant blue stones, Blue Gem with its intensity, Cerrillos with its echo of the Anasazi and Royston with its emerald green, are each special in their own way. China is also a producer of turquoise and many contemporary artists favor it.
After you’ve familiarized yourself with the characteristics of different stones, a good recommendation is to acquaint yourself with both antique Native American turquoise jewelry (often pawn) and modern designs. Most trading posts and galleries separate the two to make this easier. One of the advantages of purchasing older (pre 1960) turquoise jewelry is that you’ll most likely be buying “natural” stone as opposed to “stabilized” turquoise.
Due to the porous nature of turquoise most all turquoise today (unless gem quality) is stabilized with epoxy resins, either by soaking or injecting the stone under high pressure. This is an accepted practice since it insures that the turquoise you buy will be durable and hold its color over time. Stabilized turquoise is the status quo in today’s jewelry trade, unlike treated stone which means color has been added, reconstituted which is pulverized turquoise molded into a block with resins, fake which is usually dyed howlite and block which is dyed plastic. Enhancing and manipulating turquoise is actually an old art. One Navajo silversmith said that his grandfather used to rub stones with mutton fat and bury them for a time, thus making the blues brighter and greens greener. The difficulty in finding rare, gem quality turquoise today is part of the reason antique pieces are so highly valued.
If a vintage piece of turquoise jewelry was made with gem quality stone, you’ll see uniformity in color even after 100 years of wear and perceive a lovely, waxy luster. If an antique ring or bracelet was made with both gem quality and porous stones, you’ll notice a colorful mix of blues and greens within an individual piece. The green stones will be those which absorbed oils over time. Whether uniform or variegated, you’ll find great beauty in antique turquoise jewelry, not only in the stone, but in the artistry of the piece, the story of its maker and the history of the tribe.
Joe Dan Lowry of the Turquoise Museum in Albuquerque “understands the role mystique has played in the history and popularity of turquoise. Like any gemstone, turquoise is graded by cut, clarity, color, and rarity, but most people aren’t looking at that. They’re looking at jewelry, the turn of a silver feather beside a blue oval, the shining raindrops of a finely set Zuni needlepoint bracelet. “It’s defined by art before grade,” says Lowry.” (Kooser:2014) Contemporary Santa Fe artist Kenneth Johnson describes the turquoise mystique another way: “If you look at it culturally, it’s like touching the sky.”
A final thing to consider is the link between tribal affiliation and design. Are you drawn to the teardrop petit-point of the Zuni, the bold artistry of the Navajo or the refined overlay of the Hopi? Does a Zuni cluster bracelet with Sleeping Beauty catch your eye, a striking Navajo concho belt studded with Kingman nuggets or an ultramodern Hopi ring of gold, Lander Blue and precious gems? There are innumerable designs and turquoise jewelry choices for everyone. Plan to peruse, try on, and most importantly, discuss your preferences with trained sales personnel in reputable stores. You’ll have years of pleasure wearing this sacred stone of sky and water.