Turquoise is a very special gemstone

probably the most fascinating of gems. It has a long history with lore, myths and superstitions surrounding it that goes way back into prehistoric times. It was much prized and revered by the ancient Egyptians and in the Americas by the Pueblo people, Aztecs, Toltecs and other ancient cultures of the America's.

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rock and gem magazine issue 62 winter 2013


The name turquoise probably comes from it being brought to Europe via Turkey - hence the name turquoise. The main present day deposits are to be found in the south Western USA, China, Tibet and Iran. In the South West USA the pueblo people whose descendants are the Hopi and Zuni who were mining the stones in back in prehistoric times. They made exquisite ritual masks with turquoise mosaic on wood, shell, and bone. Also carved fetishes, beads and pendants were used for ornamentation. Such was the value of turquoise to the prehistoric people of the South West that practically all deposits recently mined show evidence of being worked many centuries ago. The oldest and largest turquoise mine in the USA is the Cerrillos mine in what is now New Mexico.
The turquoise was found in veins and fissures in a crystalline rock. It was mined using stone hafted axes, hammers and picks of deer horn.

Turquoise mosaics in ritual Aztec mask
Turquoise mosaics in ritual Aztec mask


The main prehistoric pit in the Los Cerrillos hills has been estimated at least 130 foot deep and over 200 feet wide. Logs and tree trunks were notches with toe holes and were sloped down to the bottom of the pit.
The turquoise was broken out of the matrix rock and it was shaped and ground using various grits or fine sand and was finely polished by rubbing with soft leather.

It was a vital source for trade that was more than local. Turquoise mosaics in ritual Aztec masks and other objects are thought to have been obtained by trade with the Pueblo people. Though Turquoise is found in Mexico noticeably at Santa Rosalia, Baja California, Conception de Ore Zacatecasa and the Necozari mine (North Senora just south of Bisbee). Though no evidence of mining for turquoise in prehistoric times has been found in Mexico. It was much revered by the Aztecs, Toltec and other ancient Mexican cultures. Fine quality Turquoise was called tuexivitl which translates as stone of the Gods - which was only used in ritual objects and dedicated to the Gods and no one was allowed to wear it. It does seem most possible that turquoise reached the Aztecs though trade from the pueblos from the Los Cerrillos hills and other deposits.

turquoise crown
This photo captures the special lustre of Persian turquoise. This is the crown of the Empress Marie Louise. Napoleon had this created and presented this as a wedding gift to his Empress. The crown, originally contained emeralds. In the 1950's the jeweller, Van Cleef and Arpeles, replaced the emerald's with Persian turquoise of matching size and shapes. On display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC.


The Zuni and Hopi always had a tradition of working with turquoise. Though the Navajo were relative new to the South West and did not have a tradition of working with turquoise. The Navajo and Apache were closely related and both spoke the Athabacian language and had migrated from North West Canada. They were semi nomadic hunter gatherers - no one knows when they entered the South West. The Navajo were much more influenced by the pueblos than their Apache cousins. They settled into a more sedentary way of life alongside the pueblos taking on many customs and culture aspects from them.
The prehistoric times ended in 1540 when an expedition led by Franscisco Vasquez de Coronado entered what is now the South West of America from Mexico. Coronado's expedition in total was estimated at over 1500 (comprising of soldiers, native Mexican allies and slaves). They were looking for gold and the mythical seven golden cities of Cibola and had no interest in turquoise. They much abused the native people. They returned to Mexico in 1542 - the expedition deemed a failure as they had found no gold. It was not till 1598 that the Spanish first established a settlement in what is now New Mexico. In 1610 Sante Fe was established.

The Navajo, Zuni and Hopi only started setting turquoise in silver sometime in the 1800's. This came about through contact with the Spanish plateros (silversmiths).
In the early 1970's turquoise and Native American style jewellery came very much into vogue. Saks on Fifth Avenue, New York run a fashion show on turquoise and Native American jewellery. Newsweek run an article entitled Tribal Chic. The wall street journal recommended native American silver and turquoise as one of the best investments. And in 1974 Arizona Highway magazine was completely dedicated to turquoise and native American jewellery.

tibetan turquoise
Old Tibetan beads turned deep green with age. They have been worn next to the skin absorbing body oils. The Tibetans do not like treated or stabilised turquiose. They say these stones are dead! As the stone is changing color they believe it is protecting them taking toxins from the body and helping them in some way.


It was a widely held fallacy that Native Americans still owned turquoise mines. It was somewhat ironic that now no deposits of turquoise of any importance were on Indian land. Just about all turquoise was a by-product of copper mining. The US Bureau of Mines geological survey states that nearly all important deposits of turquoise are located near copper occurrences or in copper deposits in arid (desert) regions. Chemically, turquoise is a hydrated phosphate of copper and aluminium. The biggest producer of turquoise in the USA in the 1960's and 1970's came from the copper mines near Kingman, Arizona. LW Hardy and Chuck Colbaugh had the concession for all the turquoise from the copper mines at Kingman and also the Sleeping Beauty mine, Castle Dome and others. The Kingman area also shows much evidence of mining for turquoise by Native Americans in prehistoric times.

Only a small quantity of American turquoise is gem quality (most estimates are less than 5%). The rest was too soft and porous and is likely to crumble or break. It is also likely to change colour to a dull unattractive green with no lustre. Most of this low grade turquoise is impregnated with a clear polymer plastic resin) - this was called stabilised turquoise. It hardened the stone and improved the intensity of the colour. The turquoise from Kingman and
Sleeping Beauty mines is often a Robin egg blue colour similar to Persian. But most of it is soft and porous making it suitable for treatment. Nowadays most turquoise is coming from mainland China and is usually polymer treated.

Persian turquoise is synonymous with the finest quality. It is fine, compact and hard with specific gravity from 2.7 to 2.85. Most turquoise from other sources will generally have a lower specific gravity (usually within the range 2.6 to 2.7). Persian turquoise, being hard, dense and less impervious and therefore more likely to hold its colour.

Being much revered by the Tibetan people turquoise was set into silver prayer boxes, prayer wheels, Buddhist statues and other religious artefacts.

Turquoise is the birthstone for December. In the past it was the talisman for horsemen and people in dangerous professions as it was said to protect them from danger. I do think turquoise is also a happy stone and is said to help you overcome depression.

By David Gibson

Persian turquoise is synonymous with the finest quality.
Persian turquoise is synonymous with the finest quality.

 

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