Turquoise in Native American Indian Jewelry

Published on August 24, 2013 by Amy

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Indian Chief Ring
Native American Indian Chief Head
Sterling Silver Ring in Turquoise Headdress
Courtesy of m-u-s-h.com

When people think of Indian jewelry they think of turquoise and silver. While there are many beautiful pieces of Native American handmade jewelry that do not use turquoise at all, the importance and reverence attached to turquoise by Native Americans has guaranteed a place for this gem in their jewelry.

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Worldwide, turquoise has been found in burials over 7000 years old. There are references to it in the bible. Turquoise figures in the myths, religions and lore of hundreds of cultures. It is hard to say why turquoise holds such beauty and significance for us. Perhaps because of its colour – that of the sky – in marked contrast from the usual skin tones of the earth. Turquoise is prominent in the religious cosmology of every Native North American culture that I know.

Turquoise is technically hydrous copper aluminum phosphate. It forms this way: feldspar and apatite are hanging around in the ground minding their own business when the Earth gets a little heartburn and sends hot, copper-rich lava through fissures up to the Earth’s surface. The hot lava releases phosphoric acid in the apatite and melts the aluminum out of the feldspar. The copper from the lava takes a deep breath of oxygen near the Earth’s surfaces and then cozies up to the phosphoric acid and aluminum in little cavities, most of which aren’t any wider than an inch. Just add a little water and a lot of time and you have turquoise. Turquoise likes to be close to the surface of the earth and deposits are often visible on the ground. Native Americans probably became acquainted with it in that way and then began to dig for it. There are ancient mines here in North America. One of the oldest – the Cerrillos mine near Santa Fe in New Mexico – has been mined by Native Americans for almost 2000 years. Turquoise from this mine has been found 1400 miles south in Tenochtitlan, the “Rome” of the Aztecs over the ruins of which Mexico City stands today.

What most people think of as Indian Jewelry today is a recent development. Prior to 1850 the Native Americans of the Southwest did not use metals often in their jewelry making. Early Southwestern Native American jewelry consisted of beads and mosaics over wood, bone, and shell. Prehistoric Indians shaped the turquoise for their jewelry by rubbing it against fine sandstone. Further polishing was done with fine sand, then clay, and finally rubbing the stone with buckskin or some other leather. The drilling of turquoise beads was probably accomplished by sharp rocks of quartz or jasper, or perhaps a dried cactus spine and very fine sand or quartz. Even with these simple tools, a very fine bead could be produced; some as small as 1/16th of an inch in diameter! Once drilled, the beads were strung on sinew or thin buckskin thongs and rolled against a flat sandstone slab to wear the beads into a cylindrical shape. The hand-rolling method for making heishi of turquoise and shell is still in use by some Native American artists today.

The tradition of silver and turquoise jewelry began with the Navajo after 1850 and then disseminated to the Zuni and Hopi. Silver and turquoise jewelry was made for inter-tribal consumption almost exclusively until, in the early 1900s, some early traders began to encourage silversmiths to make jewelry for the tourist trade . The jewelry produced for the tourist industry was very different from the jewelry the Native Americans made for themselves. The early “White man’s jewelry” was produced using thin silver, turquoise stones of poorer quality and die stamps provided by retailers such as the Fred Harvey Company. These stamps would create impressions on the silver of thunderbirds, bows, crossed arrows, and whirling logs; an amalgam of actual Southwestern Native American symbols and superfluous designs contrived to fit the tourist idea of what Indian jewelry ought to look like. This early “tourist jewelry” sold very inexpensively at the time, but is today highly collectible.

Determining Quality

Generally accepted factors in the grading of turquoise are hardness, luster, colour, matrix, and rarity. The world standard for gem (best) quality turquoise is a very hard stone with a pale “robin’s egg blue” colour, a high luster, and no matrix (matrix is the mother rock that shows through between the blue turquoise). In the Southwest, however, we judge turquoise by a different set of standards. We like the colour of our turquoise to reflect our diversity, so darker blues to light greens are all OK with us. We also like to have a little matrix in our turquoise. Too much purity makes us look bad. With that in mind let’s ask, “What is high quality turquoise?” Part of the answer to this question is objective and based on scientific fact. To me, that part includes the hardness of the stone, its luster, and rarity. The second part of the answer is subjective and based on individual taste. For me, that would address the issue of colour and matrix. Lets look at personal taste first.

Turquoise comes in a variety of colours ranging from pale blue to dark blue, and from pale green to dark green with all the green-blue hues in between. Copper content gives turquoise its blue colour. If there is some iron lurking nearby to come in contact with the geological mix, then the turquoise will be greener in colour. The colour of the turquoise here in the Southwest has little bearing on its quality as long as it falls in the green-blue range. Turquoise deposits closest to the surface wear and weather over the eons and bleach out, becoming very soft and chalky. This whitish “chalk” turquoise is too soft to work and has almost no value. One should avoid turquoise that looks “whitish”. An exception, however, is a hard white turquoise that has recently made an appearance on the scene known as “White Buffalo” turquoise from the name of its mine. The jury is still out as to whether this stone can properly be called “turquoise”, but turquoise or no, it is still pretty stuff. So nature has given us quite a colour palette from which to choose in our turquoise. To complicate matters, natural turquoise is porous and is going to darken and change colour anyway. For softer turquoise that colour change can take some months of regular exposure to moisture and oils, for harder turquoise the change can take years. So ask us Southwesterners, “Which colour in turquoise is the best, blue or green?” and we’ll ask you, “Which colour do you like better?”

The same is true regarding matrix in the stone. Matrix is the presence of other minerals that got caught inside the turquoise “mix” or it can be parts of the mother rock around which the turquoise forms. It shows up in the stone as uneven areas of black or brown in the turquoise, or as a net resembling a spider web. Again the presence or absence of matrix, the colour and form that it takes are all part of what makes each individual stone unique. In the Southwest the matrix in a piece of turquoise does not hurt the value of the stone per se. Interesting matrix or “spider web” matrix can even make a stone more valuable. Large, ugly chunks of matrix in the stone that comprises more than roughly 60 percent matrix should usually be avoided.

Now that we have established those factors based on personal taste, we can discuss the facts about good turquoise. Turquoise is graded primarily on its hardness. In the early 1800’s a German mineralogist by the name of Frederich Mohs developed a relative “1-10” scale of hardness for minerals with talc being the softest at number 1 and diamond being the hardest at number 10. Good turquoise is usually considered to be a 5-6 on the Mohs scale. If your pocketknife cost more than 10 dollars it could probably scratch turquoise a little. Quartz would do a better job. As a general rule, the harder the turquoise, the better.

Other considerations in the grading of turquoise are the luster of the stone and its rarity. Luster is a term thrown around a lot. It is more easily understood in an intuitive way, and it is difficult to define. Still I am going to try! Luster is the combination of the depth and the surface polish of the stone. Turquoise has an almost waxy luster in general with a reflective surface polish. A beautiful luster occurs in a harder stone that takes on a glassy polish and gives the impression that you can almost see below the surface and into the stone. Rarity is much easier to define. Turquoise can have certain properties that are unique to an individual deposit. Turquoise from the Bisbee mine, for instance, generally has a beautiful deep blue colour and a chocolate brown matrix that often has the appearance of being smeared or smoky. The Bisbee mine was recently depleted of its turquoise deposits and was buried under 50 feet of dirt. There was relatively little good to high-grade turquoise from this mine, so good Bisbee turquoise is considered rare. So, rarity of turquoise is determined by the quality of the turquoise from the deposit, how much turquoise is or was available from the deposit, and whether the deposit is still active or has been closed or depleted. Probably the rearest North American turquoise is Lander Blue. This turquoise deposit, discovered by Rita Hapgold, a black Jack dealer in Battle Mountain, Nevada in 1973 produced less than a hundred pounds of turquoise before it was depleted. It is a very hard and beautiful turquoise ranging in colour from dark sky to sky blue with an even spiderweb black or rust matrix. Today this turquoise can sell for over 100 dollars a carat. That would be about 500.00 for a stone about the size of a dime!

Stabilized Turquoise

What is “Stabilized” turquoise? Simply put, it is a low to medium grade softer turquoise stone that has been strengthened to increase its hardness. One hears the terms “stabilized, enhanced, or fracture sealed” All of these terms mean the same thing. Early stabilization techniques used a plastic resin to fill the pores and tiny fractures in a turquoise stone. This left the stabilized stone looking “plasticky”. While this old method is still in use, today new techniques using quartz dust (colloidal silica deposition, if you like to sound lawyerly) and other polymers are used which hardly affect the look of the stone. By stabilizing a turquoise stone it becomes easier to carve it, cut it into cabochons, or drill it to make beads. Many retailers preach the evils of stabilized turquoise and much of the buying public has come to understand that a stabilized turquoise stone has no value and should not be sold or purchased. This is not necessarily true.

A poor or average grade of turquoise suitable for stabilizing costs a fraction of a good or high-grade stone per carat. No one is going to stabilize a good to high-grade turquoise stone, as it would destroy its value. Stabilizing lower grade turquoise strengthens the stone and improves the luster without greatly enhancing the colour. By stabilizing, fewer of the stones are destroyed in the cutting and shaping. Starting with a lower grade, less costly turquoise and reducing the waste results in an inexpensive finished stone. This savings in cost allows the silversmith to create a moderate priced carving or jewelry item. Consequently there is nothing wrong with the purchase of a piece of jewelry using stabilized turquoise. It provides a more economically accessible piece of hand made art.

However, when a silversmith is crafting a fine piece of jewelry in which more skilled and detailed workmanship is present, he or she would only use a natural turquoise stone of a superior grade. To use a stabilized stone would compromise the value of the piece and be a waste of the artisan’s fine craftsmanship.

Fake Turquoise

There are many varieties of fake turquoise today. Plastic or block turquoise is just dyed plastic polymer, sometimes with ribbons of black dye made to look like matrix. Certain minerals, such as howlite, can be made to look like turquoise when dyed. Coloured glass is also sometimes seen. Some extremely poor grades of turquoise are colour enhanced and then injected with plastic or quartz dust. I have seen these examples for sale as “real turquoise” and while that is technically true, I place this type in the fake category as well. Popular southwestern jewelry items such as heishi necklaces, and fetish necklaces are now being imported from Asian countries and appear for sale here in the US. One has only to spend a few minutes comparing these to the real thing to be able to see the difference. There is nothing wrong with this jewelry per se, as long as the consumer is aware that it is the equivalent of costume jewelry. This jewelry is usually fairly inexpensive and is often available on racks in gift shops and also throughout the Southwest at roadside stands and “open markets”. These stands are usually operated by Native Americans who purchase the imported beads and hand string them. Many people enjoy stopping at these stands and it is nice to know that the purchases made there supply these Native American families directly and avoid the “middleman”.

There are laws in place that protect the consumer against retailers misrepresenting their items as Indian Hand Made or as consisting of real turquoise and sterling silver. While these laws are adhered to by most retail businesses, they cannot safeguard against disreputable or unknowledgeable dealers. Whether the misrepresentation is intentional or not, the consumer is still often left holding the bag with no recourse. We often see imported “Indian style” jewelry and turquoise for sale in many different venues such as the internet, flea markets, antique malls, and roadside stands around the country. The same good advice for all consumers is true for Native American jewelry as with any other purchase. BUY FROM A REPUTABLE DEALER. One in whom you can feel confident in their knowledge and that will stand behind the items they sell. Like us, some dealers guarantee their jewelry. Always ask.

Care of your Turquoise

When caring for your turquoise the best thing to remember is that turquoise is much more brittle and porous than average gemstones. Shock or impact to your turquoise stone should be avoided and turquoise should not be allowed to come into prolonged contact with any liquids or oils. Turquoise naturally absorbs oils from your skin and moisture from the air and will change colour eventually over time at a varying rate depending on the hardness of the stone. Turquoise cannot be “cleaned” as other gems can. No type of gem or jewelry cleaner should ever be used on turquoise. Even soap and water will do more harm than good. Never use an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner on jewelry with turquoise. Sterling silver jewelry tarnishes when exposed to the air. To help retard the tarnishing process you can store your silver jewelry in airtight plastic bags with as much of the air removed as possible. Use a jeweler’s silver polishing cloth or glove to clean your silver and turquoise jewelry. Because turquoise is prone to crack or break upon heavy impact most bezel set turquoise stones in Indian jewelry are backed with a layer of sawdust to act as a cushion. If this sawdust layer gets wet, it can swell and cause the stone to pop out. The loss of stones in Indian jewelry does happen, especially in moister climates. Most reputable jewelers will replace or repair their Native American handmade jewelry. Some, like us, guarantee all their handmade jewelry for a lifetime and will repair your jewelry for free, the only cost to the consumer being the shipping to the retailer.

Turquoise is a beautiful stone. We see many fashion-conscious celebrities and notables wearing this gem. Wow, still in vogue after 7000 years! We collect it and wear it as an expression of ourselves because we value its beauty and enjoy its meaning. Throughout my whole life I have been surrounded by turquoise. As a child I used to examine the matrix in different pieces of turquoise and wonder if they weren’t secret maps of the oceans and islands of different worlds. In some ways I haven’t grown up much! I hope that this small article has been helpful and informative to some of you. We feel privileged to be able to share a little of the Native American art and culture with you. We always welcome your questions or comments so please feel free to contact us.

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