Published on August 22, 2013 by Amy
The Sleeping Beauty turquoise mine is located seven miles from Globe, Arizona. The mine is one of the largest producers of turquoise in North America. The mine, and the turquoise extracted from it, derives its name from Sleeping Beauty Mountain, which at one time was part of the Copper Cities operation. The center of the copper mine is located at approximately 33o24″13.23″N. 110o53’34. 60″W, at an elevation of 1224 feet. Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Mining is presently owned and operated by Monty Nichols.
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For many centuries before the first Europeans made their way into Arizona, turquoise was being mined on the slopes of Sleeping Beauty Mountain. The Salado and other ancient peoples mined the beautiful sky stone from several surface outcroppings located in the vicinity, including Pinto Valley. It is believed that Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to locate the source of Sleeping Beauty sometime around the 1860s. By the 1870s, small underground mines pockmarked the hills surrounding present day Globe.
Cities Service Company started the Copper Cities Mine (commonly called the Sleeping Beauty Mine) in 1952 and operated it until the Pinto Valley mine opened in 1972. During the 1960s, L.W. Hardy had the contract to mine turquoise, both at Sleeping Beauty and at Castle Dome, later called the Pinto Valley Mine. Formerly a meat cutter at a market in Miami, Hardy recognized early on that turquoise was more valuable as a gemstone than the associated copper.
By the time the turquoise boom began, Hardy had contracts with mining companies in Miami, Kingman and elsewhere. He also developed a method for stabilizing low-grade, porous turquoise with pressure-impregnated hot acrylic resin, which hardened the stone and improved the color.
Hardy’s mining methods were primitive when compared with current operations. Hardy’s workers sat in a ditch ripped by a bulldozer and hand picked the stone from waste-rock. Hardy mined turquoise at Sleeping Beauty for 22 years, getting about 45 percent recovery, and leaving the rest in waste dumps.
Monty Nichols received the contract to mine Sleeping Beauty turquoise in 1988, and began using modern mining methods to develop the property. Nichols drills and blasts the overburden, hauling it to the abandoned Copper Cities pit, which now contains the recycled tailings from Miami Copper Company’s No. 5 tailing dam. The old dam dominated the eastern skyline of downtown Miami until recently. The year Nichols acquired the contract; he began a two-year project to remove 5,000.000 tons of overburden. Located half way up the side of an open pit mine, the narrow turquoise-bearing zone has about 400 feet of hard waste rock on top of it. In order to move sideways into the ore-body, a whole slice of the mountain had to be removed.
To avoid fracturing the turquoise, Nichols was careful not to blast too near the turquoise-bearing strata. That layer is more crumbly, so the miners can rip it and dump it over screens, separating the material by size. No crushers are used, again to avoid fracturing the gemstone, and the different sized rock is hauled up to a wide mine bench where conveyor belts move the material through three buildings. There, workers handpick turquoise from the broken rock. The buildings are vented with filtered air to eliminate workers’ exposure to dust, and well insulated to keep them comfortable in any weather. It is a far cry from the old methods of mining. Anywhere from 30 to 40 people work at the mine at any one time, depending on how much mining there is to do.
Fifty years ago, mine workers filled lunch buckets with the colorful rock, even though it was reason for immediate termination. Old habits die hard, and some people still think it is okay to sneak in and try to pick turquoise. As a result, security is tight in and around the mine. Motion detectors, night vision cameras and 24/7 roving patrols are used, so the only turquoise leaving the property now is being shipped to markets around the world.
Italy is the largest volume buyer of Sleeping Beauty turquoise, with Germany and Hong Kong following closely behind. These customers buy the best grade for their exclusive jewelry. Jewelry makers in India and Spain also receive Sleeping Beauty turquoise, while in the U.S., Gallup and Albuquerque are the largest consumers.
The Sleeping Beauty turquoise mine produces a uniform light to medium blue turquoise with rare finds of deep, dark blue. Because of its uniformity, it has been a favorite of the Zuni Pueblo. Zuni silversmiths often use it in channel inlay and various types of cluster work that require large numbers of small, perfectly matched stones. The Sleeping Beauty mine has been one of the larger producers of rough turquoise in the United States, although today much less good turquoise is being produced than in the past.
Sleeping Beauty turquoise is noted for its solid, light blue color with no matrix; the host rock is usually granite. Nichols says the mine is producing about 1,600 pounds a month. Of that, only four percent is natural; most of the turquoise from the mine is altered in some way. Most is enhanced, which is more expensive than stabilization, and sold to large distributors in this country and Europe. Currently most of the turquoise that comes from the mine is from the tons of tailings piles that have been accumulating for decades.
The best of the Sleeping Beauty turquoise is comparable to that found in the Middle East. It is thought that large quantities of Sleeping Beauty turquoise is taken overseas and smuggled into, then out of, Iran to be sold as “Persian” turquoise.