Turquoise, from the Old French turquoise, meaning “Turkish (stone),” is perhaps the oldest stone in our long history of adorning ourselves with treasures from the earth. Worn by kings, pharaohs, shamans and warriors, it is a stone of protection, imbued with the power to keep its wearer out of harm’s way.
For the Pueblo Indians and other Indigenous peoples of the Americas (including the Aztecs, who knew the gemstone as chalchihuitl, or “heart of the earth”), turquoise has long been revered as a sacred stone with healing properties and has been part of tribal dance and ceremony for millennia. Cool and comforting to the touch and soothing to the eye, it’s an easy stone to wear, but not always so easy to find, particularly in its finest forms.
Today, most of the world’s turquoise comes from China, Chile, Egypt, Iran, Mexico and Tibet. Closer to home, some of the most productive mines are scattered throughout the southwestern United States, where each is synonymous with a particular variety of the gemstone. Among them are Bisbee, Kingman and Sleeping Beauty, from Arizona; Blue Diamond, Blue Moon, Candelaria, Carico Lake and Damele, from Nevada; Cerrillos, from New Mexico; and Campitos, from Mexico. The varieties of turquoise range in color from light-green to dark-green with black or white matrix running through the stone, to bright, more uniform blues.
Mining turquoise has always been a labor-intensive task, and no less so for anyone on the hunt for it in Santa Fe, where dozens of light-filled galleries and super-chic shops offer an endless array of bracelets, belts and bolos bedecked with New Mexico’s state gem. To the untrained eye, shopping for this illustrious semiprecious stone can be a challenging endeavor that comes with questions: Is the turquoise authentic? Is it priced fairly? Which piece is right for me?
It is estimated that only ten percent of the turquoise being mined today is gem grade, so it can be assumed that only a fraction of what’s presented to the consumer is in fact natural, untreated stone. Authentic turquoise is almost always flawed, and its shade can vary considerably even in individual stones. Typically, the shinier and more perfect in appearance, the more likely it is that the stone is unauthentic.
Remember that price does not always reflect the authenticity or quality of a stone. Always ask if the stone is real or genuine. Real turquoise has not been treated, only polished; genuine turquoise may be stabilized or color enhanced. Any reputable jeweler will be glad to provide written confirmation of a stone’s authenticity as well as specify its type and value. As with other precious gemstones, expect to pay higher prices for high-quality turquoise, particularly as supplies dwindle.
TIPS FROM THE PROS
Here are a few dos and don’ts to guide you on your quest for the perfect specimen of operum tourum gemmam.
- Familiarize yourself with the stone and its many varieties by reading up on the subject, watching an informative video or visiting a gem store or museum where turquoise is on display. (The extraordinary Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian is an education in itself.)
- Research or visit local retailers to see what’s available and what best suits your taste and budget.
- Ask questions before you buy. What kind of turquoise is this? Is it real or genuine? Where is it from? Who is the artist?
- Buy what you love. Knowing you will enjoy wearing a piece time after time should always be part of the equation.
- Assume the authenticity of a stone based on price alone. A high price does not always reflect high quality; a low price does not necessarily mean it’s unauthentic.
- Make an impulsive purchase or let yourself be pressured into buying something. Most stores will be glad to hold a piece for you if you need to “sleep on it.”
- Haggle over the price. Being respectful of what a retailer (or artist, if you’re buying directly from a vendor under the Palace of the Governors portal) is asking for a particular piece will help you build rapport for future purchases.
- Be afraid to purchase processed stones. The quality can be quite good, and the lower prices will allow you to acquire a larger collection of this beautiful gemstone.
Happy hunting. And remember, no amount of advice can replace the words of wisdom that have guided buyers since Roman times: Caveat emptor!
RoseMary Diaz is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe. She studied literature at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Naropa University and the University of California at Santa Cruz.