American Turquoise: Gemstone of the Southwest

The aura of blue-green magic

The Spanish explorers trekked into the American Southwest in the 1500s looking for fortunes of silver and gold. According to their extensive journals, the conquistadors weren’t particularly impressed with the pendants, earrings and strands of blue green stone adorning the indigenous peoples they encountered. In fact, they considered the colorful mineral worthless. But archeological sites from as far south as Central America and north to Canada indicate that New Mexico turquoise was a highly valued commodity within the pre-historic cultures.

Along the trade routes into what is now New Mexico, a string of mines forming the Turquoise Trail provided vast quantities of turquoise. The first evidence of mining in the region dates back to before 900 A.D. and thousands of excavated turquoise items have been traced back to this period. The most famous area includes twelve different mining sites in the Cerrillos hills, southeast of Santa Fe, which boasts the longest intact record of historic mining in the Southwest.

For centuries, turquoise was predominately used to make beads and to create mosaic items. It was around 1880 before turquoise was set in silver creating the style of Indian jewelry familiar to most people. And the Navajo had only learned silversmithing about thirty years before that. Atsidi Sani (“Old Smith”) acquired the skill from a Mexican friend and then taught it to other Navajo artists.

In the late 1800s, Tiffany & Co, along with other New York jewelry companies began to market turquoise as a fashion item. When Tiffany discovered one of the Cerrillos mines produced a vein of clear blue turquoise that matched the iconic Tiffany blue box, they exclusively marketed Tiffany Blue turquoise in various pieces of their high-end jewelry. At the 1900 Paris Exposition, Tiffany’s won the Grand Prize for Jewelry with a collection that included “an astonishing tiara composed of tiers of ever-expanding scrollwork…set with turquoise from New Mexico."

Because the mineral is a byproduct of copper mines, the coloration varies considerably from deep blue to shades of green. Some pieces are clear and bright while other mines produce intricate ‘spider web’ specimens. Copper is responsible for the bluer tones while iron creates the green and brown shades. Today American turquoise is often identified by the mine where it was produced- Lone Mountain, #8, Cerrillos, etc.

Many ancient cultures believed the color was determined by the health of the owner and turquoise is still considered a healing stone by many. It was believed to attract beneficial spirits with blues from the heavens and greens representing the earth. Around the world, turquoise has been used for protection, courage, friendship and luck. In the American Southwest, Native Americans found turquoise could also be used to make a living.

As Indian jewelry became popular when Americans migrated west, certain tribes became known for particular styles of jewelry. The Navajo used bold silver designs with large pieces of turquoise creating traditional concho belts and squash blossom necklaces. The Hopi perfected a silver overlay process with intricate carving while the Zuni produced inlay pieces of silver jewelry using multiple colored stones including turquoise, coral and jet.

In the 1960s, Hopi artist Charles Loloma changed the trajectory of classic Native American jewelry when he began incorporating gold, lapis, sugalite, ironwood and Mastodon fossil ivory along with exquisite pieces of turquoise into his jewelry. He created a new contemporary Native American style and blurred the lines between jewelry and art, which also attracted a following of collectors. Even President Lyndon Johnson purchased two Loloma bracelets to give as official state gifts.

Gene Waddell and his family have been in the Indian art and jewelry business since the 1930s and he worked extensively with Charles Loloma providing him with choice selections of gem quality Lone Mountain turquoise, a Nevada mine Waddell still owns today. “Lone Mountain has been ranked as one of the top four American mines that produced gem quality turquoise,” says Waddell. He consistently works with the finest Navajo and Hopi artists who only use American turquoise as well as other high quality gems.

According to Waddell, American turquoise production has drastically changed since he started in the business over forty years ago. “In the 1970s, 60 to 70 percent of the turquoise mines were still in production and now 95 percent are shut down,” he says. While New Mexico boasts of prehistoric mining, Nevada is the state that produced the most turquoise but Arizona is the only state left with commercially producing mines, Kingman and Sleeping Beauty. Many of the old mines have been depleted or it is just too expensive to continue the mining process.

The vast amount of turquoise used in medium and lesser expensive Indian jewelry today is imported from China. And since around 80 percent of the turquoise produced is soft and of inferior quality, it is often treated with dyes and resins creating ‘stabilized’ or ‘enhanced’ turquoise. ‘Natural turquoise’ indicates the stone has not been treated in any way.

Luckily, there is still an inventory of high grade American turquoise available for artists to use. The most rare and expensive turquoise is Lander Blue because the mine only produced 100 pounds. With an array of colors that blend heaven and earth, American turquoise has become the definitive component in Native American jewelry and is celebrated as a historic part of the American Southwest.

Tamara Logsdon Hawkinson is a writer based from wherever she can get cellphone service and plug in her laptop. She is the author of The Desert Home and 2 travel guides. Her favorite subjects are history, music and design of the American West and Southwest. For more info on turquoise and Native American Jewelry, check out www.waddelltradingco.com

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