A couple of posts ago I was crowing about how I’d resisted buying jewelry in Santa Fe this summer. My self-restraint went to hell near the end of the trip, when I snapped up a passel of pieces as blithely as if I’d been a buyer for a jewelry store. All turquoise, most of it rare, or at least rareish. After a week in that town, I’d become obsessed (again) with how the different mines produced such different-looking stones. I wanted all of it.
It seems as though every woman in Santa Fe wears turquoise. The color leaps out at you on every street corner, in every restaurant. Can it be that they’re satisfied to own just one turquoise necklace, one ring, one bracelet? I can’t believe it. Surely they, too, keep buying it. But I’m willing to bet they don’t buy it in bulk.
The trouble started when I met my friend Libby Chadd for lunch. Libby’s an artist who draws extraordinary freehand works in colored pencil (which have now become fabrics and home furnishings). She knows her turquoise, and I’ve bought many a piece from her. That day she told me she was ready to part with her Orvil Jack cuff because it no longer fit her wrist comfortably. I had been eyeing that cuff, pictured above, for years. Lime green Orvil Jack turquoise is truly rare, because there’s simply no more of it. The bracelet was on my wrist before the salads arrived.
Libby wasn’t finished. She’d brought along some necklaces by her jeweler friend Pam Springall, who’s been collecting various beads for decades. I was interested in turquoise from historic Southwestern mines, and this was an itch Pam could scratch.
The beads above are from the Number 8 mine in Eureka County, Nevada. The mine hasn’t produced turquoise since 1976 (it’s currently owned by a gold mining concern). But the mine’s last owner, Dowell Ward, stockpiled quite a bit of it. These beads are from his collection. Number 8 turquoise has a distinctive spiderweb matrix (ranging from reddish brown to black) which I never tire of looking at. It’s so much easier to look at jewelry than to make eye contact with other people. (Did I write that, or just think it?)
I had less of an excuse for buying the necklace above. The beads are Nevada Blue Gem turquoise, which isn’t especially rare. But the quality is high. Pam Springall says they’re from the collection of Roman Hubbell, who ran the famous Hubbell Trading post (I’ve written about this) after the death of his father, Lorenzo Hubbell. The color sings, even in the not-so-great light of a rainy Manhattan afternoon. It draws the praise of my barista with the buzz cut and the great tattoos.
And that, I guess, is why I come home from Santa Fe with so much turquoise: I buy from people who are passionate and knowledgable, and I know I’m getting the real thing, not stuff that’s been dyed or stabilized or reconstituted. The vast majority of turquoise on the market has been altered in one of these ways.
Turquoise is relatively soft, ranging in hardness from 5 to 6 on the Mohs scale, which measures resistance to being scratched. (Diamond, the hardest stone, is 10; sapphire is 9; window glass is 5.5.) Top-quality turquoise is found in veins near the earth’s surface. Orvil Jack’s daughter Grace described how her father used to scrape the ground with a bulldozer, after which she would run over the exposed dirt looking for turquoise—a low-tech operation, to say the least.
The deeper you dig, the softer the turquoise. Turquoise that’s too soft and porous to cut may be ‘stabilized’ by injecting liquid resin or plastic. There’s nothing wrong with this; the Chinese used oils and waxes to stabilize turquoise for centuries. (Now they’re aggressive in their use of plastics.) Stabilized turquoise is much cheaper, and can be quite pretty. But it absolutely must be labeled as such. If you see turquoise on a shopping network or at a large retailer, it’s been stabilized and probably color enhanced; it may be a composite of stabilized stones smooshed together. Or it may be ‘reconstituted’ turquoise: the softest material from a turquoise mine—soft as chalk—ground into powder, mixed with resin, tinted, and cut into blocks.
So you might say I wasn’t being profligate in Santa Fe; I was simply going to the source. Besides, I did resist an eye-poppingly beautiful pendant of Persian turquoise, shown at right. I resisted it last summer, too. The price was simply too high. (It’s at True West of Santa Fe if you care to inquire.) I’m wringing my hands a little as I write this, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. On the last day of my trip, I went back to visit it one more time, said a firm No to it, and stepped back from the case.
…and walked over to another case, where I purchased the much more affordable necklace below, with Sleeping Beauty turquoise punctuating brown shell heishi (sliced flat circular beads). Considering all the other stuff I bought that week, though, this last purchase was profligate. Extravagant. Uncalled for.
Behold! The shekels fall as rain from my hands!