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New Twists on an Ancient Theme: Turquoise Jewelry

One of the birthstones for December babies, turquoise reflects the wonders of nature, from tropical seascapes to desert sky.


One of the birthstones for December babies, turquoise reflects the wonders of nature, from tropical seascapes to desert sky. It’s been revered as a talisman since ancient times, imbued with all the powers of water and air - potent forces when you live off the land.


pin of turquoise inlay and beads by Hans Siig

In this pin, Jewelspan artist Hans Siig uses the warm tones of ironwood

and copper to complement turquoise inlay and beads.


The word "turquoise" comes from the French pierre turquoise, meaning Turkish stone, and dates to the 13th century when Venetian merchants bought turquoise jewels in Turkish bazaars and resold to the European market. But turquoise jewelry was a hot item long before then. The oldest known turquoise comes from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), c. 5,000 B.C.


In the U.S., we tend to associate turquoise with Native American jewelry. The Navajo in particular use locally-mined turquoise in their inlay, often paired with complementary red coral, carnelian or fire opal - a palette so integral now to Arizona and New Mexico, you can find it everywhere from regional fashion to interior design. It's one of the pleasures of landing in the desert in mid-winter to be hit in the eyes with that vibrant combination.


turquoise cuff bracelet by James Pace

In this cuff bracelet, Jewelspan artist James Pace incorporates natural, untreated Nevada turquoise and turquoise from the famous Sleeping Beauty mine, along with lapis and black jade.


Turquoise was long believed to ward off every evil known to man. It shows up in the jewelry of ancient Asia, Tibet, Persia, Turkey and Eqypt. In ancient Rome, turquoise was believed to protect against falling horses, among other things – which is interesting, since the symbol for Sagittarius is the centaur.


In China and Tibet, turquoise was also worn to attract prosperity. While jade remained the ultimate talisman in China, Tibetans valued turquoise above all other gems. Egyptians wore turquoise as far back as 4,000 B.C. It was among the gems found on the mummy of Tuthankhamen, which was decorated with 143 pieces of jewelry. King Tut ruled Egypt in the mid-1300s B.C. and those particular jewels were probably designed to avert evil in the afterlife and alert the gods to his power and importance.


Turquoise has been popular for a while and there's not that much richly-colored natural turquoise around any more. Imitations abound, including dyed organic material like coconut husks.


Untreated pure blue turquoise is particularly rare - especially the coveted sky-blue Persian variety - and that drives up prices and attracts knockoffs. But less expensive varieties, such as mottled-green Chinese turquoise veined with black matrix, can look fabulous matched with gold and earthy colored stones. The southwest U.S. is also still producing several variations on the turquoise theme, but many famous mines are more or less played out now.


When buying turquoise, it's wise to ask about treatments and request a guarantee of quality and origin. I learned this the hard way many years ago when I bought a pair of "turquoise" earrings that faded to almost white within a year.


Don’t hesitate to ask whether the turquoise you’re buying has been treated and how. A reputable seller will disclose what they know. If you find out the turquoise you’re eyeing was stabilized, it shouldn’t be an automatic deal breaker. Stabilizing treatments can improve the stone permanently, not just long enough to fool unsuspecting buyers.


Necklace of turquoise and sterling by James Pace

James Pace used stabilized Kingman turquoise for this sterling pendant


Jewelspan designer James Pace uses a variety of turquoise in his jewelry and identifies them clearly in his descriptions. In the sterling pendant pictured below, he used stabilized Kingman turquoise, but opted for rare and more expensive natural turquoise for a cuff bracelet (pictured above) that incorporates turquoise from the famous Sleeping Beauty mine and untreated Nevada turquoise.


As these two pieces by Pace demonstrate, stabilized turquoise can be just as beautiful – and often larger and more vivid-colored – than untreated turquoise, but the treatments should be reflected in the price.


Beyond stabilization, common treatments for turquoise include colored-plastic impregnation, used to increase durability and turn whitish, porous stones blue. A similar process using wax instead of plastic can also change color and seal pores. Both can be detected with magnification, so use that loupe.


 Bison pendant by Judy Osburn

Jewelspan artist Judy Osburn used turquoise inlay to embellish this sterling bison pendant on a necklace of turquoise beads.


One way to get more mileage out of turquoise, while taking advantage of its various hues, is to use mosaic-like turquoise inlay. Two Artspan jewelers who do this very creatively are Hans Siig and Judy Osburn, whose turquoise jewelry is pictured above.


While their jewelry looks quite contemporary, turquoise mosaic jewelry is actually a time-honored tradition. Pendants and combs made with this technique have been found in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, dating back more than a thousand years, when the Zuni tribe mined turquoise in the Zuni Mountains. Native Americans have prized turquoise since the time of the Aztecs.


Whether or not wearing turquoise will bring good fortune and stave off illness, as these cultures believed - who knows.  But the beauty of turquoise is alluring as ever, its value will increase as it becomes more rare, and wearing it holds the same allure it’s held for centuries. 


Adapted with permission from a post on The Jewelry Loupe written by Cathleen McCarthy


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