Over the past few years, I have steadily added to my collection of turquoise jewelry.
My good intentions of being able to be called a saver (like my very disciplined sister) and not a spender go right out the window when tempted by turquoise. I am absolutely magnetized by the gorgeous variety of blues and greens in this spectacular gemstone!
I started out buying turquoise jewelry made by local artists, but the more I learn, the more I find myself having an appreciation for vintage turquoise pieces as well. The most recent piece I purchased is this stunning elongated turquoise and sterling silver ring from the 1960s:
What is Turquoise?
Turquoise is an opaque mineral that varies in color from blues to greens. It forms when water filters through rocks that contain copper, vanadium, and other minerals. Copper adds blue, chromium or vanadium adds green, and iron adds yellow. Mines in the U.S. produce mostly green turquoise because of the high content of iron and vanadium.
The scientific name for turquoise is hydrated copper aluminum phosphate. It is often removed from large-scale copper mining operations as a byproduct.
Turquoise can have inclusions, also known as matrix, which is a part of the mother rock in which the turquoise was formed. It creates a “spiderweb” effect with brown or black colored veins in which the lines can be rather thick or very fine.
You can see the brown matrix in this vintage sterling and turquoise bracelet from Mexico:
Where is Turquoise Mined?
The word turquoise dates back to the 16th century. It is derived from the French term pierre turquoise meaning “Turkish stone.” It was first believed that turquoise came from Turkey, but it was actually brought over to Europe from Turkey where it came from the mines in Persia, now known as Iran.
Turquoise is one of the earliest gemstones ever mined. Persia has some of the oldest turquoise mines in the world. These mines were worked heavily as early as the 10th century, but there is evidence of others as early as 2100 B.C.
The turquoise stones from that region are a beautiful robin’s egg blue color which is the most admired, making it prized as a gemstone. It is also usually pure in color with no matrix.
The early Persians believed turquoise represented the heavens because of its magnificent color of blue and used it to cover the domes of palaces and their places of worship:
Cupula of the famous Tilla Kari Mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
A significant source of U.S. turquoise comes from the Southwestern region. Archeologists believe ancient Native American tribes began mining turquoise thousands of years ago using stone tools. Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico were all rich in turquoise deposits.
The town of Cerrillos in New Mexico is thought to have the oldest mine. Before the 1920s, this state was the largest producer in the country. Today, Arizona is ranked as the top turquoise producer by value. Their dark blue gems, sometimes referred to as “Persian grade,” come from the Sleeping Beauty mines located there.
The Processes for Treating Turquoise
A variety of processes have been used to alter the stone in preparation for jewelry making. It is good to familiarize yourself with the following terms before you buy any “authentic” turquoise jewelry. Always be sure to buy from a knowledgeable and reputable seller, especially if you are spending a hefty sum of money.
If it is natural turquoise, nothing has been altered. The stones are simply polished and cut before being made into jewelry. Only high-quality turquoise can remain natural for jewelry making. Less than 3% of all turquoise on the market worldwide is natural! Since it is quite porous, it absorbs natural oils, changing color over time as it is worn.
The hardest turquoise is usually found close to the surface of the earth where it has had a chance to dry and harden. Softer turquoise is like chalk, too porous to be used until treated. It has to be stabilized by chemically altering the stone to harden it so it will not crumble. An epoxy resin or wax is infused into the porous stone which also keeps the color from changing. This does not affect the value.
Turquoise might be color treated if it is too pale in color to be used commercially. After stabilizing it, a blue dye is added. The color usually looks artificial and the cost of treated turquoise is much lower.
Reconstituted turquoise is a mix of low-grade soft turquoise ground into a powder with plastic resins and dye. It is then compressed into a solid block to be cut into shapes for making jewelry. It is the least expensive turquoise.
Simulated or imitation turquoise is actually not turquoise at all. It is either plastic, ceramic, glass, or a porous stone such as Howlite, which has been dyed to look like turquoise. It does not contain even the slightest speck of turquoise! Rock or sand with black dye is often added to imitate matrix.
Native American Turquoise Jewelry
During the late 1800s, Navajo artisans began to incorporate locally mined turquoise into their silver jewelry as seen in this artistic Navajo piece:
It was not long before it became mined out and cut turquoise had to be imported from Persia for the Native Americans to use in their jewelry.
By the early 1900s, a new turquoise mine opened in Nevada, followed by others. Once turquoise became easier to obtain, it was expected for Native Americans to incorporate turquoise into their jewelry.
The various Native American Indian tribes all developed their own style using turquoise in their designs. For example, the Zuni tribe, who translates the word for turquoise as “sky stone,” is known for its petit point jewelry, a style that originated in the 1920s and is made of tiny rounded, oval, or square pieces of turquoise that are hand-cut and clustered in unusual designs.
Here is a fabulous 1970s Zuni petit point find of mine – a pin that I repurposed into an adjustable ring:
Native American jewelry became extremely popular during the 1970s. Traders had to start importing Persian turquoise because the demand on U.S. mines became too great.
My husband and I took a fun trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico a few years ago to celebrate my birthday. As we walked around the Plaza at the Palace of the Governors, we noticed an area reserved exclusively for American Indian artisans. They sell their authentic, handmade turquoise jewelry, along with other arts and crafts, 360 days a year from 8:00 AM till dusk:
In 1960, the U.S. Postal Service actually issued a turquoise 1 1/4-cent stamp featuring an image of the Palace.
Caring for Your Turquoise
Here are a few things you should know about the care of turquoise if you want to keep yours in good condition for many years to come…
Because it is a phosphate mineral, keep in mind that turquoise is sensitive to the chemicals in hairsprays, sunscreens, and perfumes. Prolonged exposure to sunlight, the oils from your skin, and jewelry cleaners can also alter the color and finish.
To clean your turquoise of any residue build-up, use a soft cloth. It can also be washed with warm, soapy water and a soft brush. Store turquoise separately from other jewelry to keep it from getting scratched by harder gemstones.
As long as I am tempted by those magnetizing blues and greens, I’m sure my collection of turquoise will continue to grow. And if all the turquoise runs out in New Mexico, I might find myself planning my next birthday trip to Persia!
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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