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Tantalizing Turquoise

The brilliant blue-green gemstone, prized by admirers from ancient times to our own, commands a booming, billion-dollar market

    The imperial gifts were fit for a god.  Believing the pale-skinned, bearded man who had come from the east to be the reincarnation of the deity Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, lord of the winds, Aztec Emperor Montezuma II sent emissaries laden with tribute to greet Hernan Cortés in that fateful spring of 1519.  From the temple treasure chambers in the capital, Tenochtitlan, they brought chests full of jewelry, two cartwheel-size gold and silver discs representing the sun and the moon, and more.  Aboard his flagship anchored off present-day Veracruz, they also presented him with the gemstone cherished by the Aztecs, used by them in their sacred rituals, and that Montezuma himself affected in the form of necklaces:  turquoise.  Among the many priceless pieces were a handsome turquoise-encrusted ceremonial shield and a mask representing Quetzalcoatl himself, with a symbolic double serpent of turquoise mosaic coiling across the nose and brows of the deity.

    Montezuma, fearing that Quetzalcoatl had returned to claim his throne, hoped by these lavish presents to convince him that his divinity was acknowledged and there was no need to go farther.  But the reality was worse than he imagined.  The “god” was a Spanish conquistador.  Far from stopping Cortés from capturing the capital and taking Montezuma prisoner, the rich gifts only convinced him that a people with such wealth must have what he was really seeking, gold.  He burned his ships to give his men no choice but to march on to his two-year conquest of Mexico.

    Perhaps Montezuma can be forgiven for thinking that turquoise could shield him from harm.  For this legendary gem with kaleidoscopic colors ranging from sky-blue to green to yellow and gray has long been valued for both its beauty and its mystical properties by peoples from Tibet to Arabia and on to Europe and the Americas.  It was prized 5,500 years ago by Egyptian kings of the First Dynasty, who had it mined in Sinai under the high patronage of the goddess Hathor, Mistress of Turquoise.  Marco Polo remarked on the Chinese emperor’s turquoise monopoly in the 13th century, allowing extraction of the best stones only by special order.  And its popularity in Elizabethan England can be guessed by Shylock’s anguished outburst in “The Merchant of Venice”:  told his scamp daughter Jessica had traded one of his rings for a monkey, he cries, “It was my turquoise… I would not have given  it for a wilderness of monkeys!"

    But turquoise’s hold on the imagination has been due not only to the fascination of its fickle character and changing hues, but also to its supposed magic.  Are gods and demons propitiated by it, as Tibetans have long believed?  Does it help its owner to victory over his enemies, protect him against injury and make him liked by all men, as Muhammed Ibn Mansur wrote in an Arabian text about 1300 A.D.?  Both preserve eyesight and induce hilarity, as the medieval scholar Arnoldus Saxo believed?  Did it steal its color from the sky, as the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest like to say?  Change color to indicate the wearer’s health, as many have thought through the centuries? 

 That’s a lot to ask of what is, after all, just a felicitous mix of hydrated copper and aluminum phosphate.  Found in only a few places on earth, turquoise—the name comes from the French for "Turkish," because the stone was long imported to Europe from Turkey—is in the mineralogical class of opaque, colored ornamental gemstones like agates and malachite. 

    Regarding it with the clinical detachment of the scientist, Jeff Post, curator of the gem and mineral collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, notes that turquoise usually is found in barren, arid parts of the world where copper-rich groundwater seeps into cracks in rocks, forming deposits there over variable expanses of time.  “It doesn’t have the great luster and brilliance of, say, rubies, sapphires and emeralds,” he says, “but its fame and the fascination of its color make it important to our collection.”

    The reference collection in the museum’s research area includes tray upon tray of rough, many-hued turquoise from the United States and abroad.  “Pale blue Persian turquoise used to be considered the finest, maybe because it was the first ever mined,” Post says.  “But personally I think the deeper blue of most American turquoise gives it a much more spectacular color.” 

    In a showcase of the Museum’s National Gem Collection, not far from the Hope Diamond, he proudly shows me one of the world’s finest examples of Persian turquoise:  a magnificent diadem given by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1810 to Empress Marie-Louise as a wedding present.  Set in silver and gold with diamonds and 79 gleaming turquoises, the diadem was purchased from the jewelers Van Cleef & Arpels for the Smithsonian Institution in 1971 by Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post cereal fortune.

    The fame of Persian turquoise stems from the huge ancient mines at Nishapur, birthplace of Omar Khayyam, which were worked from the 10th century on.  The Persians called it ferozah, meaning “victorious.”  That made the stone particularly appropriate for decorating one of the jewels of Islamic art, the sumptuous Samarkand mausoleum of the 14th century Mongol conqueror, Tamerlane.  But while ancient Persian is undoubtedly grand, many of us who grew up around the stuff in the American Southwest consider turquoise the American gemstone par excellence. 

    Turquoise, even if it is produced in a few other countries, is an integral part of our New World culture.  It has been for over a thousand years.  Every time I spot a massive Zuni bracelet with its cabochon-cut turquoises individually bezel set, or a macho Navajo concha belt with bright blue gems highlighting its heavy silver ovals, or a piece of intense Bisbee turquoise winking in a bolo tie, I know I’m home.

    I’m not alone, says Joe Dan Lowery, a lanky New Mexican with an easy smile and an encyclopedic knowledge of turquoise, who runs the private Turquoise Museum with his father, Joe, in Old Town Albuquerque.  “Not only is turquoise one of the finest gemstones in the world,” he says with obvious conviction,  “but its wide variety of colors and styles makes it the perfect emblem of America.” 

    Heir of a great turquoise legacy, Lowery is now painstakingly cataloguing the biggest turquoise collections in the world.  The enormous collection—currently locked away in several New Mexico bank vaults--had its origin in the decision of Lowery’s great-grandfather, J.C. Zachery, to pick up and head west at the turn of the century.  Originally a Pentecostal preacher from Indiana, he became manager of the Villa Grove turquoise mine that opened in Colorado in 1901.  His son, J.C. Zachery, Jr., took up the lapidary’s trade as a youngster cutting and polishing the mine’s output.  Soon he developed a devouring passion for the stone.  By the 1970s he was one of the biggest turquoise traders in the United States, combing the Southwest and the world for the finest specimens and assembling several tons of it.             

    Though the whole collection won’t be on view for a couple of years, many fine pieces can be seen at Lowery’s museum.  As he shows me through, he tells me about America’s turquoise mines.  “Nowadays there are fewer than 20 active ones producing in significant quantities, all of them in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado,” he says as we walk through a replica of a traditional mine entrance, complete with wooden beams and visible blue veins running along the walls.  “Sleeping Beauty in Globe, Arizona, is the largest U.S. mine today," he explains.  People often associate different mines with particular kinds of turquoise, but the fact is that mines all contain veins of various colors.  For instance, Blue Gem is known for a rich blue, but it actually turns out stones from pale to dark blue and some with greenish tints.  Some of the rarest and most costly turquoise, a unique dark blue with black ‘spiderweb’ tracery, was put out by the Lander Blue mine in Nevada.  It produced only 80 to 108 pounds of it before closing.”

    The museum displays turquoise specimens in various stages of refinement, from rough material still in the mother rock, or matrix, through polished nuggets.  Its centerpiece is the so-called George Washington Stone, a flat, polished, 6,880-carat sky-blue Kingman nugget nearly a foot across that, with some imagination, resembles a profile of the Father of Our Country. 

    One of America’s finest collections of classic Indian-made turquoise jewelry is in Taos, New Mexico, where the Millicent Rogers Museum sits in a small adobe building on the outskirts.  Granddaughter of Henry Huttleston Rogers (a.k.a. the Hell Hound of Wall Street), one of John D. Rockefeller’s partners in the Standard Oil Company and a founder of U.S. Steel and founder of Anaconda Copper, Millicent Rogers discovered the big sky, clear light and Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Taos in 1947.  A tall, striking beauty with a flair for the dramatic, she abandoned a career as playgirl of the Western World—her husbands briefly included Austrian Count Ludwig Salm von Hoogstraeten and Argentine sportsman Arturo Peralta-Ramos—and settled there for the last five years of her life. 

    The results of her avid buying of the best and most authentic arts and crafts of the Southwest form the core of the museum.  “Out of our whole collection of about 6,000 pieces, including pottery, textiles and other Native American art forms, about 600 pieces are turquoise jewelry,” says the museum’s director, William Ebie.  “Most are pieces Millicent Rogers bought in the 1940s and ‘50s with great discernment, and represent some of the best ever produced by Navajo and Pueblo craftsmen.”

       Her taste ran to massive Navajo cluster bracelets resembling brilliant blue sunbursts;  heavy concha (“shell” in Spanish) belts with large silver ovals on thick leather setting off bright stones;  and squash blossom necklaces with stylized open silver petals seemingly sprouting from the stones and leading down to the traditional naja (“crescent” in Navajo) pendant.

      Appropriately enough, the museum is just north of one of the great prehistoric centers of turquoise mining in the New World.  Recent studies at Cerrillos have shown it was one of the most important sources of turquoise for pre-Columbian peoples, for whom the stone had great social and religious importance.  As early as 700 A.D., archaeologists Garman Harbottle and Phil C. Weigand reported in the February 1992 Scientific American, communities like Alta Vista in central Mexico were importing enormous quantities of turquoise from Cerrillos for rings, beads, pendants and disk mosaics used in burials. “Turquoise in this pre-Columbian ‘Mesoamerican’ society clearly was more than an extravagantly valuable possession,” they write.  “The gem was also a metaphor for life in social and religious realms.”  The Aztec sun and war god Huitzilopochtli, the Turquoise Prince, brandished a turquoise snake as a weapon;  Quetzalcoatl himself was represented wearing turquoise earrings.  Today many 16th century turquoise Aztec ritual objects are in the collections of the British Museum, including masks, collars, shields--and the mosaic-covered handles of knives used to cut the pulsating heart from Aztec sacrificial victims. 

    Beyond that, the stone was the medium of a sophisticated trading system throughout what is now the American Southwest and Central America.  Using an archaeological fingerprinting technique called neutron activation to analyze over 2,000 pieces from 28 archaeological sites, Harbottle and Weigand conclude that the Cerrillos area of New Mexico was a major source of the turquoise that was so extensively used in Central America, where there were practically no turquoise mines.   Well over 1,000 years ago, Native Americans were mining the stone and sending it down trade routes stretching through ancient Mexico from Casas Grandes to Alta Vista, Tenochtitlan, and on to the great  Mayan city of Chichen Itza in Yucatan.

    Trading turquoise in return for merchandise such as copper bells and colorful macaw feathers for ceremonial clothing, the Indians well understood their customers’ need of the stone.  With its color suggesting sky and water, it has always been central to much of their own mythology, starting at the beginning.  One Navajo origin legend holds that when the first man and first woman made the sun, they fashioned it from a stone disc edged with turquoise.  A Hopi legend has it that when the tribe emerged from the netherworld, it was threatened by a flood.  Chiefs offered balls of powdered turquoise and shell to the water serpent, and the water receded.

Turquoise, long used by the Navajo as talismans for luck and protection against contagious diseases, symbolizes the medicine man’s powers.  Mount Taylor, a towering, 11,300-foot extinct volcano northwest of Albuquerque, is to them sacred;  its Navajo name, Dzil Dotlizi, means "turquoise mountain."  Pueblo legend says that when the wind blows it is searching for turquoise.

"Turquoise is still sacred to the Navajo,” says Ellis Tanner, owner of one of the biggest  trading posts in Gallup, which is not only near the Navajo Nation reservation.  “When they harvest pinon nuts, for instance, they thank the earth by leaving a turquoise in the area of the harvest.  And they still count on it for protection from harm and illness.”

    Tanner is proud of his honorary Navajo citizenship and tribal name, A Ye’hee’ Yazzie ("little in-law").  He’s a descendant of Mormons who came west with Brigham Young and established communities and trading posts all over Navajo country in the 1870s.  His emporium, a spacious adobe building on a windy rise with a view half-way across the state, comprises a feed store, grocery and gas station.  It also handles check cashing and tax returns for his Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Acama and Laguna customers, organizes the annual harvest of pinon nuts, and buys their output of handmade turquoise jewelry.  But one of his main activities is taking turquoise jewelry as pawn.  “Out here, people tend to wear their wealth,” he says.  “They’ll come in, buy lunch, groceries, and gas for the pickup, then pull a turquoise bracelet off their arm to pay for it.  When they get some cash, they come and buy it back.”

    Behind a thick steel door, past the trading post’s rows of handsome leather saddles and showcases replete with dazzling displays of turquoise jewelry, is Tanner’s pawn room.   It’s an Ali Baba’s cave crammed from floor to ceiling with bracelets, rings, concha belts and squash blossom necklaces.  Most of the pieces are in clear plastic bags with labels giving the pawn date along with the owner’s name and address.  “More than forty thousand pieces right now,” he says matter-of-factly, “worth about five million dollars.  But very little of this pawn goes dead and can then be sold.  About ninety-eight percent of it is reclaimed.  I like that.  It shows how much Indians are still attached to their turquoise.”  Tanner’s own attachment is evident on his right wrist:  a  bracelet of cabochon-cut chunks of turquoise mined by his grandfather that he’s worn for 27 years.

    Today the old turquoise mines like Mount Chalchihuitl (an ancient Mexican name for turquoise) at Cerrillos no longer produce any significant quantities.  But they still inspire considerable wonder.  In 1988, Douglas Magnus, a jewelry designer who has been working in Santa Fe for 30 years, bought the 50 acres in Cerrillos that hold the area’s old Tiffany, Castillian, Alisa and Council mines.  “The Tiffany, which may have had some relation to the New York jewelry store, was first mined by Pueblo Indians before 700 A.D.,” Magnus says while we walk around the property that he now calls the Millenium Turquoise Mine.  “Manufacture of turquoise jewelry in this area was a major industry by 900 A.D. and probably supplied the Aztecs and other Mexican cultures.  As a designer working with turquoise, I must admit it’s heady and romantic to have this property.  And it’s so beautiful.”  I have to agree.  Surveying the heart-lifting view from the Sangre de Cristo mountains south to the Sandias, I’m reminded of the reaction to the local scene of English author D.H. Lawrence, who ended his days in Taos:  “Something stood still in my soul.”

      I enter the Tiffany through a narrow entrance shored up with weathered beams.  Like most turquoise mines, its shafts are only about 30 feet down;  many, like the nearby Castilian mine, were open pit operations.  Here and there lie heavy stone hammerheads, or mauls, casual reminders of the prehistoric age when, to satisfy the craving for turquoise, this was the most extensive mining site known on the American continent.  Indian laborers hewed out great chunks of stone and cracked them into manageable pieces.  When archaeologists examined the area 100 years ago, they marveled at the scale of the operation.  It’s estimated that no less than tens of thousands of tons of rock were broken out and processed for nuggets.

    As Magnus shines a flashlight over the walls, I can see small bright blue dots here and there, and occasionally a thin blue vein.  “This area produced Persian quality stones of good hardness,” he says, spotting a small nugget on the ground and pocketing it for later use in his shop.  "After the prehistoric trading system collapsed, it had another boom period of intense mining from 1889 to 1910.  The retail value of the stones mined here then is estimated at over a million dollars.”

    A very large part of the turquoise used today in American jewelry is imported—much of it low-priced but quality stone from China.  The American Indian art market, the primary component of the turquoise industry, is said to be worth about $2 billion to $3 billion.  That’s down from the 1970s, the last high point of turquoise popularity in this country.  But with designers updating centuries-old techniques and producing contemporary designs for bracelets, rings, necklaces and belt buckles, many feel the stone is poised for another surge of popularity.  “We’re in a creative phase in turquoise jewelry making right now,” says Magnus, who turns out spare, taut designs for an upscale market—the kind that pays upwards of $1,000 for a silver buckle set embellished with luminous turquoise dots--at his studio in Santa Fe.  “A lot of us are doing free forms and combinations of other gemstones with turquoise.  Right now, some of the most sought-after turquoise colors are things like avocado and lime-green.”

    Alvin Yellowhorse, a 30-year-old Navajo jeweler, might have his Yellowhorse Inlay shop on the reservation, a few dusty miles west of Gallup, but he’s on top of the trend.  As a teenager he learned the basics of the silversmith’s trade from his father, who sold his jewelry from a table set up beside old Route 66 near the New Mexico-Arizona border.  Then he spent a couple more years learning the techniques of “channel” inlaid jewelry, in which stones are cut to fit precisely into the handmade form of a bracelet, earring, pendant or other piece.  “Although I do contemporary designs, they’re inspired to some extent by the prehistoric drawings done by my Anasazi ancestors,” he explains.  “I love the thousands of shades of color you find in turquoise.  But I also use other stones, including some imported from Australia and Italy, to build a complex composition of colors and textures.”

    As I watch, Yellowhorse takes a small piece of turquoise and holds it to his jeweler’s cutting wheel, thumb and forefinger only millimeters from the whirring, diamond-tipped blade.  “I’m like an octopus, I grow fingers back,” he quips as he nimbly carves the piece to the rough size and shape he wants.  Then he finishes it on a succession of five grinding stones with progressively finer surfaces of diamond dust, with up to 50,000 particles per square inch.  In five minutes he has a perfect fit and slips it into its slot in a silver inlay bracelet.

    In nearby Gallup, Ray Tracey is another designer who knows how to mix and match turquoise to produce a contemporary look.  A Navajo who was born and raised on the reservation at Ganado, Arizona, Tracey, 46, began making jewelry as a child and sold it at flea markets for a living.  At 23 the good-looking young man heeded the siren call to Hollywood and acted in films for 10 years, then shucked that to return to designing jewelry in Gallup.  Today his creations, produced by several dozen Navajo artisans in his workshops, are sold through some 500 jewelry shops nationwide, with other sales outlets in places like France and Germany. 

    His smooth, understated contemporary pieces featuring things like stylized arrowheads and bear fetishes range in price from $50 for something simple up to $10,000 or more.  “I love the colors of turquoise,” he says.  “I use it in reverence for what it has meant to my people.  But I’m not a purist about it and I’m market-aware enough to know what the public wants today.”

    One thing much of the public—the part that doesn’t understand the real charm of turquoise--wants is “stabilized” stone.  “The fact that natural turquoise, being porous, changes color over time and after contact with body oils, perspiration, dirt and soap, disturbs some people if they don’t know it’s normal,” says Tracey.  That, plus the fact that only a small proportion of turquoise is naturally hard enough to be cut and polish to a high luster, means that many producers work with a certain proportion of treated stones. 

    Experts like Joe Dan Lowery estimate that up to 85 percent of all turquoise mined today is in the form of whitish chalk stone.  This is then treated with mineral oil, paraffin or epoxy resin to deepen the color and make it hard enough to work.  It also stabilizes the color permanently.  Unfortunately, that removes one of the stone’s age-old charms, a symbiotic relationship between it and its owner revealed by its changing color.  This was what the 17th century English Metaphysical poet John Donne described when he wrote of “a compassionate turquoise that doth tell,/By looking pale, the wearer is not well.”

    As long as it’s labeled and priced accordingly—in the league with costume jewelry--and not sold as natural turquoise, treated stone is considered legitimate by craftsmen, dealers, and the Albuquerque-based Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA), which works to keep the market honest.  Still, it’s anathema to purists.  “They call it 'stabilized,' 'dyed,' and other fancy names, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s just doped turquoise and I don’t like it,” says dealer Manny Goodman, echoing many who want only the real thing.

   But the real thing is getting harder to spot all the time.  Skillfully “improved” turquoise can fool even the experts, because the back of a mounted stone isn’t visible and a thorough gemological test using heat risks destroying it.  And then there’s plastic.  “A lot of turquoise jewelry being sold today is 100 percent plastic,” laments Cheryl Ingram at the Silver Sun shop in Albuquerque, showing me blocks of sky-blue plastic available in artists’ supplies stores.  “We don’t like to admit it, but the quality of plastic nowadays is getting so good that even we dealers sometimes have trouble spotting it visually.  It takes a high shine and is easy to work, like cutting butter.  And of course it costs the maker a fraction of real turquoise.  If people want to buy plastic, that’s their business, but they should know what they’re paying for.”

    Treated stone will give off a faint odor of oil, paraffin or plastic when rubbed vigorously or heated.  “When buying turquoise, get a written guarantee from a well-known, reputable dealer that the piece is natural, saying what mine it came from and who made it,” advises Roger Wilcox, executive director of the IACA.  “Also ask for a signed certificate of authenticity, and look for the IACA logo on the shop door.  If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

    Joe Dan Lowery points out that the term "turquoise" by itself can include treated and even artificial turquoise.  “So there’s really only one question to ask:  Is this natural turquoise?  If it is, you’re looking at more than just another gemstone.  Turquoise in its many hues and variations reflects our country’s endless individuality, changeability and diversity.  It’s really a perfect metaphor for our culture.”

    Smithsonian, August 1999