Mineralogy and chemistry
SCARCITY MAKES AN object more desirable, makes it more
powerful. Scarcity makes an object magical.
For centuries in New Mexico, scarcity has been synonymous
Our reservoir of sky offers us the color of water. It releases
a few drops that the ground laps up. The drops navigate
through rocky soil toward a home port—that small crevice
that opens next to particles of copper.
Over eons, the copper makes magic with the water, taking
its elements, transforming them into turquoise, that reﬂects the
sky. The magic follows a formula: CuAl6
This alchemy creates a range of blues and greens in
different shapes. It makes turquoise as hard as a gemstone,
but compliant to stone tools. It also, in the traditional view,
gives turquoise a soul.
Another kind of chemistry occurred between turquoise
and Native Americans that carries through to the present.
Native Americans recognize turquoise for its power to
breathe in prayers, breathe out protection—against snakebite,
lightning strikes, stiffness in the joints. It brings fertile herds,
guides arrows straight to their targets.
In a land that does not have enough water, turquoise—
formed by water—holds the color of water. The color of
sustenance. Of protection. Of enough.
Real or fake?
ANCIENTS TO MODERNS have sought to capture the color
of turquoise. And in some cases, the color meant more than
Wooden pendants dating to a.d. 1200 were covered with
green malachite paint. Anasazi pottery were decorated with
parallel, diagonal lines that told the viewer to imagine blue-
green where they were painted.
To improve the blue quality of the stone, Navajos soaked
it in sheep’s tallow. Native Americans planning to trade
turquoise held the stones in their mouths, using their saliva to
improve the stones’ color—and value.
When Tiffany & Company’s gemologist sang the praises
of sky blue—or Tiffany blue—turquoise, prices and demand
shot through the roof.
By the 1920s, demand for the bright-as-a-June-day stone
outpaced supply. Hubbell Trading Post met the high demand
among tourists discovering the Southwest by having Venetian
glass created to look like the prized stone. Native American
jewelers would use the beautifully colored, false stone when
the real thing wasn’t available.
Modern steps such as stabilization and reconstitution
enhance the color, and the durability. And just as ancients
painted wooden pendants to imitate the desired color,
synthetic turquoise now reﬂects the beauty of the sought-after
authentic prize, at a much lower cost.
If the color captures the ideal, it is a treasure. But
conscientious shoppers who are concerned about whether they
are buying a quality stone should remember: Caveat emptor.
Color and meaning
JUST AS THE sky’s colors change with the weather and
seasons, turquoise’s color reﬂects its environment.
Aluminum turns turquoise green. Zinc creates a yellowish
green. Turquoise of the highest quality, holding the best
colors, lies near the surface. Exposed to sunlight and weather,
Regardless of the color, turquoise holds prestige and power.
Some Native American creation stories have the ﬁrst
people emerging from a lake. Turquoise represents this
source of all life. Deities carry weapons and live in homes
made of turquoise. The Apache believe turquoise ﬁlled
the pot at the end of the rainbow. Zuni ceremonies include
turquoise-colored face, mask and body paint to represent
Awonauilona, the sun’s life-giving power.
Turquoise’s power is so great that no horseman would ride
while carrying it; it would tire the horse. Similarly, hunters
drew lines with turquoise between the tracks of game to slow
the game down.
It hangs in household bags to protect the home against
unpredictable misfortune. It hung from piercings in the
septums of particularly brave Meso-American warriors.
Turquoise is worn proudly, a display of its wearer’s wealth
and status. Turquoise bracelets, necklaces, rings are wearable
bank accounts; in the past, Native Americans would use
pieces as deposits for goods needed from traders. When crops
or wool was sold, the owners paid the traders and reclaimed
THE SACRED MOUNTAINS in Navajo tradition are decorated
with white shell, turquoise and jet. And Johano-ai, the
Navajo Sun King, had horses of turquoise, white shell, pearl
shell, red shell and jet. (Navajos knew which horse the Sun
King was riding, based on the weather: sunny, blue skies
meant the king was on his turquoise horse; a dreary day
meant the king was astride his jet horse.)
While Asian lapidaries matched turquoise with gold,
rubies, lapis lazuli and diamonds, Native Americans mated
turquoise with more common materials: shell, jet, bone and
red argillite. The less extravagant results are equally beautiful.
Bone was readily available and easily worked. Jet was also
fairly common and beautiful in its own right (the Zuni refer
to jet as “black turquoise”).
Ancient pieces from New Mexico bear spiny oyster shell
from the Paciﬁc and shell from the Gulf of California. The
pieces carry much more shell than turquoise, showing how
hard turquoise was to obtain and to work with.
With broadened markets and more accessible materials,
Native American jewelers today are following in the paths
of their Asian predecessors: their jewelry now combines
turquoise with gold, lapis and diamonds.
TRADERS BROUGHT COPPER bells, parrot feathers, even
chocolate into the Southwest, perhaps exchanging them
Some craftspeople worked in jewelry workshops with
lapidary tools, including abraders and drills, but farmers
and artisans also created turquoise beads, pendants and
pieces for inlay, likely as a fallback in case of low crop
yields or failures.
Evidence of these enterprises was found at Chaco
Canyon and date back elsewhere to a.d. 700 or earlier.
Chacoan turquoise, which may have originated in several
mining areas, was used for trading and religious services.
Among pieces found at Chaco was a turquoise tadpole
fetish. Like Hopi earrings that held rows of turquoise on
a cottonwood square that represented stacked cobs of blue
corn, the fetish was a prayer for water and abundance.
At Chaco for a time, the prayers were answered. Two
individuals were laid to rest with 56,000 pieces of turquoise,
reﬂecting a highly prosperous, and reverential, community.
THE HISTORY OF turquoise mining in the Southwest often
begins with the startup of iconic mines: Bisbee, Cripple Creek,
Kingman, Sleeping Beauty, Cerrillos—mines scoured by
white entrepreneurs beginning in the late nineteenth century.
This is the history that stands at the top of the slag heap.
Underneath is the history of Native miners.
It is estimated that Native Americans had been working
with turquoise about 1200 years before the Spanish arrived,
with the heaviest mining taking place between a.d. 1350 and
1600. Roughly 200 mines have been discovered throughout
the Southwest, most believed to have been started by Native
Americans, who used shaped stone hammers, mauls and
adzes to chisel the pieces of sky out of the rock.
Because turquoise is often found close to the surface, it
is likely that the treasure was ﬁrst discovered in plain view.
Logic followed that if it was on the ground, it was likely
under the ground, too. Many ancient mines were depressions
in the ground. More sophisticated mines had tunnels and
rooms supported by pillars, with lapidary shops nearby for
sorting and processing the stone.
The largest ancient turquoise mine was found at Mount
Chalchihuitl, near Cerrillos, New Mexico. Some turquoise
found at Chaco Canyon came from mines in the Cerrillos
area, more than 150 miles to the southeast.
Native American, Spanish
and Moorish inﬂuences
TURQUOISE JEWELRY EVOLVED as a companion of conquest.
In their 800-year reign of Spain, the Moors introduced
crescent moons and the shape of pomegranate blossoms into
Spanish culture. The Spaniards, seeking gold and silver, rode
into Native American communities on horses wearing bridles
bedecked with crescents.
The Navajo adapted the symbols to reﬂect their own
lives. The shape of the crescent became a naja at the base of
a squash blossom necklace. Pomegranate blooms, a pattern
used widely by the Spanish that represented their Christian
faith as well as health, fortune and fertility, inspired the
squash blossoms themselves.
It is widely believed that the ﬁrst recognized Native
American blacksmith, Atsidi Sani, learned the craft from a
Mexican blacksmith. He may have added silversmithing to
his skills during or after he was held prisoner at Fort Sumner,
after he and his people were forced to relocate from Arizona.
Atsidi Sani and his students spread the skill. Zuni craftsmen
merged the design with their skillful lapidary, form-ﬁtting
stones without matrix into patterns. The lapidary skills of
Zuni jewelers are best demonstrated by inlay and by petit
point and needlepoint jewelry, in which meticulously cut
stones form patterns on silver.
BECAUSE OF THE work of contemporary Native art founders
Charles Loloma, Kenneth Begay and others, current Native
American jewelers no longer have to meet the expectations of
viewers who only know Native American art as “traditional.”
Instead, they are free to merge their own inspirations with
the skills and traditions they have learned throughout their lives.
Among them are Angie Reano Owen (Santo Domingo)—
who, looking for a new avenue for creation amid the trafﬁc
jam of 1970s heishi, revived inlaid jewelry traditions—and
Na Na Ping (Pascua Yaqui), whose elegant inlaid jewelry
bears the work of a true lapidary, with stones that are
meticulously cobbled together.
Both Owen and Ping were inﬂuenced by older jewelers.
Owen was inspired by her mother’s Depression jewelry,
squash blossom necklaces made from plastic and car battery
parts. Ping learned stone cutting from his uncles.
Both also took their paths away from tradition to reach
their artistic vision. Owen merges the old (such as using wood
as the backing for a bracelet) with the new (the black matrix
that outlines each stone in her mosaics). Ping cuts stone with
the skill taught to him by his uncles, but combines the stones
in modernistic blends of color and angularity.
Like many modern Native jewelers, both are able to
express their traditions in a contemporary voice.