There are some stones you’re drawn to, some you’re indifferent to, and some that actively repel you. For much of my life, turquoise repelled me. I noticed that the people who loved it almost worshipped it, wearing it as a talisman, a sacred stone with healing properties. Me, I looked askance at healing stones. Turquoise did have a definite vibe, and it was not a vibe I liked. I couldn’t even try it on.
Furthermore, I didn’t like the color. Maybe this was because the turquoise palette was such a mainstay of mid-century home design. Maybe I’d encountered one too many aqua bathtubs or avocado refrigerators. (Even as a child I knew these were bad ideas.) As for actual turquoise, the expensive Persian stuff looked like blue plastic to me, and Native American turquoise-and-silver jewelry did not speak to me at all. So when my husband and I made our first trip to Santa Fe in 2008, I figured I was safe from the Urge To Buy. “It’s a good thing I don’t like Southwestern jewelry,” I said as we boarded the plane.
You’d think I’d have known myself better. Here’s what happened. Santa Fe is in the high desert, 7,000 feet above sea level. The air is thin, the sun relentless, the light alarmingly clear. The minute I saw turquoise in that light, I got it. The color popped: It really did vibrate with life. My impulse was to grab it and wear it, possibly forever. And when I saw turquoise paired with coral, its complementary color—I was beside myself. Every stone used in Native American jewelry is glorified in that light, and somehow, I was able to take that glorified color back to New York with me. Once you’ve seen it, you’ve Seen it.
The first thing I bought was the pendant at right, of Sleeping Beauty turquoise. It’s not named for the fairy tale. All American turquoise, I learned, is named for the mine it came from. The Sleeping Beauty mine in Globe, Arizona yielded clean (matrix-free) robin’s egg blue stone prized by jewelry makers worldwide. The price skyrocketed after 2012, when the mine was shut down so its owners could concentrate on mining copper instead. A tiny geology lesson will be useful here.
Turquoise is a hydrated phosphate of copper and aluminum. It’s formed when acidic groundwater percolates through aluminous rock in the presence of copper. Cutting to the chase: Where there’s copper, there may be turquoise, if the climate is dry enough, and if certain other minerals are present.
Turquoise grows in the spaces between things, the cavities or fissures in volcanic rock. Iron oxides grow there too, which is why turquoise is often veined with pyrite or limonite. Because it’s a crevice filler, large clean nuggets are rare. But turquoise in its matrix, or host rock, is just as beautiful, and can be just as rare, depending on where it was mined. Some American mines were called Hat mines because they yielded only enough turquoise to fill a hat. (I feel sure this is metaphorical.) I’ve come to love many varieties of Southwestern turquoise, though I’m not brilliant at recognizing them. Even experts can find it hard to know where a stone came from by looking at it.
Someone once told me that turquoise turns green with age. While it certainly can change color over time if it’s exposed to heat or chemicals, green turquoise is almost always green because it grew in the presence of iron. Nevada produces many gorgeous greens, and I never tire of looking at them.
Because its formation depends on geology and climate, turquoise tends to be found in a specific range of latitudes. Iran has been an important source for at least 2,000 years: Persian turquoise—a clean sky blue similar to Sleeping Beauty—is still among the world’s finest. Turquoise is also mined in Tibet and China; the nugget pictured at the top of this post, big as a child’s fist, is Chinese. But gem-quality turquoise is just as rare in China as it is in the US, and a huge proportion of the turquoise coming out of China now is low-grade stuff that’s been impregnated with plastic or otherwise adulterated. Lapidary artists I’ve talked with will no longer touch it.
I could write an entire post on the ways turquoise is dyed, enhanced, or completely faked. But as I always seem to wind up saying, the key is to buy from trusted sources. If the price of ‘real’ turquoise is too low to believe…don’t believe it.
I’ve finally reached the point where I can admire turquoise without lusting after every single piece. It’s somehow soothing and protective, and I can lose myself in the color. Each piece—damn it, I was about to say that each piece of turquoise has a soul. I’ve clearly gone off the deep end.
But it does have a soul.