Turquoise, a soft semi-precious stone, is one of history’s most cherished and symbolically imbued gems. Prized for thousands of years, it is thought to be one of the first gemstones intentionally mined. Iran served as a key source of turquoise for at least 2,000 years, providing trade across the Middle East and Europe. In the Americas, turquoise moved between mining areas in present day New Mexico through trading networks, and were incorporated into the range of objects known as Aztec mosaics. Demand for turquoise from the Mesoamerican world arguably led to its popularity in the Southwestern United States. Areas of California and New Mexico were mined by pre-Columbian Native Americans using stone tools, reinforcing the heritage of turquoise as a symbol and ornament within Native American cultures.
As a direct result of westward expansion in the United States, turquoise mining reached its zenith in the late-19th century, but was abruptly halted by onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s. A significant source of turquoise, however, can still be found in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Only one mine, located in Apache Canyon, California, commercially operates today.
History of Turquoise Jewelry
For centuries, jewelry and talismans made from vivid turquoise stones have proved compelling for cultures all over the world. For early civilizations such as the Ancient Egyptians, Chinese (carving it more than 3,000 years ago), Persians and Aztecs, turquoise was a prized material laden with both political and spiritual symbolic value.
In Mesoamerica, the use of turquoise was first seen in the 3rd century, becoming more widespread around the 10th century due to its ideological significance. The material was used in ceremonies, adornment and general decoration by kings and priests to represent desired outcomes such as rain, fertility and maize.
Originating from the French expression pierre tourques, the term ‘turquoise’ reflects how the material first arrived in Europe through Turkish trade routes during the Crusades in the 11th century. It was used throughout the Middle Ages as a talisman and was seen as a fashion item from the 17th century. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria re-established turquoise as a symbol of true love, leading to a surge in the stone’s popularity across Europe. The stone was also used by Art Deco jewelers and later in the 1960s and 1970s for statement pieces combined with diamonds and yellow gold.
Native American Turquoise Jewelry
Today, turquoise is linked with Native American heritage in the American Southwest. With a tradition of creating turquoise jewelry and carvings for at least 140 years, the stone was of particular importance within Navajo, Pueblo, Hopi and Apache cultures for it’s ceremonial and “protective” qualities. With the subsequent development of new artisanal and silversmithing techniques, this established the distinctive combination of silver and turquoise.
Today, the mass-production of cheaper versions of turquoise have distorted the value associated with the material. The quality of the stone is one of the most important factors when determining the value of a piece of turquoise jewelry, followed by the design and make, the value of other stones the turquoise is combined with, as well as the piece’s historic relevance. Prices for turquoise jewelry at auction can range from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on these critical factors.
Since the Indian Arts and Crafts Act was passed in 1935, it has been illegal to falsely identify goods as being Native American-made. In general, authentic pieces made with “real turquoise” fetch higher prices, however mines yield stones of different colors, which makes it difficult to identify the source of turquoise in antique Native American turquoise jewelry.
Contemporary designers whose pieces are popular at auction include Jesse Monongya, Gail Bird and Yazzie Johnson, Kenneth Begay and Julian Lovato. Perhaps most lauded is Charles Loloma (1921–1991), who is recognized as the father of contemporary Native American jewelry. His pieces are among the most widely collected and generally perform well at auction.
More recent Japanese interest in American turquoise jewelry has rekindled connoisseurship and interest in vintage turquoise jewelry from the 1970s, with a consequent impact on cost. Antique Persian jewelry featuring carved turquoise inlaid with gold is also of particular value.
Types of Turquoise
Today, most mined turquoise requires some degree of treatment in order to make the stones durable enough for use in jewelry. Below are different types of treated turquoise, in order of desirability:
Natural Untreated Turquoise
This type of turquoise doesn’t require any treatment in order to be used by jewelry-makers. Unsurprisingly, it is the most desirable and valuable type of turquoise, especially when it bears a strong color.
Stabilized turquoise is the most commonly used within the jewelry market. This type of raw turquoise is usually too soft and fragile for manufacturing. Therefore, is often treated by infiltrating a polymer or other binding material to make it durable enough for cutting.
Composite or Reconstituted Turquoise
Otherwise known as “block turquoise,” composite or reconstructed turquoise is made from small pieces of turquoise that are mixed with a polymer and cast into block-shaped pieces. To achieve the effect, finely crushed turquoise and non-turquoise materials are combined to strengthen the material. The end result is labelled as a “man-made product” rather than “turquoise.”
This technique is most commonly used for composite and reconstituted turquoise which is porous, absorbing any dyes easily.
Turquoise colors can range from opaque to semi-translucent, with a waxy to dull luster. Turquoise tones, which are determined by iron and copper content in the stone, span from China blue to deep blue, and from blue-green to yellowy green, with “Persian Blue” being the most valuable. Turquoise sometimes has “inclusions” from the mother stone, resulting in a “matrix” of brown, black, or ochre veins.
American turquoise is characterized by its wide range of blue and green hues and the regular presence of ‘matrix’, distinguishing it from clear blue Iranian turquoise. In general, turquoise with a green to greenish blue color is less desirable — however, there are some designers who actively seek these colors.
How to Tell Real Turquoise Jewelry from Fake
Typically, turquoise is evaluated on three basic quality factors: color, texture, and the presence or absence of “matrix”. Here are some tips to spot the counterfeits:
- Howlite and magnesite are light gray to white minerals with patterning that resembles spider webbing, which are dyed to look like genuine turquoise. Be cautious if the color is a brilliant blue and very uniform. Scratching the surface can also reveal a difference in color.
- Turquoise of lesser-quality is porous, so changes from pale blue to verdant green can occur over time.
- Reconstructed or pressed turquoise is made of turquoise powder or chips mixed with liquid plastic resin, which is then dyed and baked. This can be identified by magnification or heat, which reveals a burning plastic smell.
How to Care for Turquoise Jewelry
Improper care and cleaning of turquoise can significantly alter its color, particularly with American turquoise, which is more porous than the Persian variety. Try not to expose turquoise to prolonged sunlight, direct heat, cosmetics or perspiration. Moreover, pieces which have a “spiderweb” effect are easily breakable if not handled correctly.
To clean your turquoise jewelry pieces, gently wipe with a soft cloth that is wet with a very mild soap solution, followed by rubbing with a soft cloth that has been dampened with water. After the turquoise is dry, store the pieces away from bright light or heat.
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