Turquoise tales and truths
By Scott Gerdes
The hydrated phosphate of copper and aluminum, known worldwide as turquoise, is as much a symbol of the Southwest as cacti and Kokopelli. It most commonly comes in various shades of blue and green, and even has a specific color named after its brilliance. The word “turquoise” is derived from the French turques for “Turks,” because it was first brought to Europe from Turkey. Much of America’s turquoise is found in Nevada, but mines can also be found in Arizona, Colorado and, here, in New Mexico. (Why not Utah? That’s a question yet to be answered.) Other countries known for quality turquoise are China, Chile, Egypt, Iran and Mexico.
In those places, rainfall infiltrates soil and rock, dissolving small amounts of copper in the process. After the water evaporates, the copper combines with aluminum and phosphorous thereby depositing small amounts of turquoise on the walls of subsurface fractures. A solid mass of turquoise is formed when it completely replaces the rock it came into contact with — the result is the host rock appears as the “matrix” (aka veins, spiderwebs) within the stone.
The word “chalchihuite” or “chalchihuitl,” from the Nahuatl Indian language of Central Mexico, was used for turquoise in New Mexico by the Navajos and other groups into the late 1800s, according to Amigos de Cerrillos State Park information.
South of Santa Fe in the hills of Cerrillos, the once-thriving mining area held a notable appeal to world-famous jeweler Tiffany & Co. However, before the New York-based business took hold of the mine, Native peoples followed by Spanish colonists were drawn to the stone’s allure. The
Cerrillos mining area has seen activity since 600 A.D. In present day, the mine is owned by an individual.
In Native cultures, this semi-precious, ornamental, opaque gemstone has been valued for its beauty and reputed spiritual and life-giving qualities for more than 7,000 years. Since its ancient discovery by Native peoples, they have cherished turquoise and often refer to it as the stone of life –– stone of sky, stone of water, stone of blessings, good fortune, protection and good health. It isn’t just its cultural significance, color or the fact that it is found almost solely in arid regions that make turquoise unique and special.
Whether dramatic or subtle, a piece of turquoise’s matrix is like a snowflake — no two are exactly alike. And while those brown to black veins found in many types of turquoise are created by numerous geological chains of events occurring over thousands of years, that hasn’t stopped copycats from trying to pass on fakes to untrained eyes. China isn’t the only place imitation turquoise generates from, but it has become a major producer of the fake stuff that is typically created from howlite or magnesite (both white in their natural states) and dyes.
“The Chinese are phenomenally good copiers,” warns Louise Pasaka, owner of Mesas’s Edge on Taos Plaza and at Taos Ski Valley.
So, how do you know you’re looking at the real thing?
“It’s not so easy to determine real from fake,” she confirms. For the last 10 years, Pasaka has based her business — as have other Taos retailers — on selling only the real McCoy. Like other reputable retailers, she educates herself by knowing the mines, the miners and the artists and passes on that knowledge to customers.
“People must ask questions,” she implores.
Questions such as: Where did this stone come from? Who is the artist?
Another way to find out if a stone is true turquoise is by its weight. It will be heavier than an imposter, but that is hard to tell if the stone is set in silver. And you can’t rely on the matrix of a piece of turquoise to tell you if it’s real or not. Copiers have been known to paint vein lines on fakes. Turquoise veins are naturally a caramel color or black. Running your fingernail across a stone will expose if it is smooth or not. The smoother the surface is, the more likely the lines were painted. Having a matrix doesn’t, however, mean a stone is real and a stone with no matrix doesn’t mean it’s fake. Some jewelry creators cut out small pieces of a stone to get nuggets without matrix.
Pasaka also advises to look for “funny colors” beyond the matrix — if the colors are dark or too blue and don’t look realistic, the stone is probably a phony. True turquoise will always be somewhat variegated.
To test a stone Pasaka questions herself, she sticks a hot needle into it. A fake, she says, emits a chemical odor and plastic melts. It’s a little easier to tell if turquoise beads are real or fake. Look at a beaded necklace — if the beads are uneven, then it’s a good sign they were hand rolled. If bead sizes are too consistent, too perfect, it’s a safe bet they were not handmade.
“When an artist or a vendor tells you the beads are handmade, be careful,” Pasaka advizes. “These days, beads are mostly mass produced. The real deal would also be very expensive. Few people hand make beads anymore.”
But don’t shy away from turquoise that has been “stabilized.” Turquoise is naturally soft. Stabilizing refers to the process of hardening turquoisethat is too crumbly or soft to cut and polish. The process is done in an autoclave in which resins are injected under heat and pressure. This is not the same as a stone being dyed. Stabilizing helps maintain the natural color of turquoise and hardens it. This is often done because turquoise slowly absorbs oils from our skin and comes into contact with natural elements, changing its color over time.
In rating turquoise, the higher the shine on it, the higher the gem grade a piece receives. Diamonds are rated the top at 10. Turquoise is typically in the 6 range, the same as glass.
High-grade turquoise is getting more expensive, Pasaka says. It’s harder to mine since turquoise is often found around copper. The mine owners pick who gets the rights to mine out the turquoise when uncovered, and oftentimes, won’t even stop copper removal to let others come in to remove the turquoise. Add to that, the copper mining process literally crushes the turquoise.
Copper has a higher monetary value than turquoise. Plus, turquoise is expensive to mine. It can be found in gold mines, too. The Fox Mine in eastern Nevada is now closed to turquoise mining and only removes gold.
“That happens a lot, unfortunately. The (turquoise) mining process is brutal,” Pasaka says. “Much of it isn’t mined from underground anymore.”
All of that drives up the price of the real Mc- Coy, which today is sold by the carat and not by the gram. Higher prices and demand keep the door open for fakes. “It’s driven by fashion, which helps the turquoise industry,” Pasaka says. “But there’s still a huge influx of turquoise in department stores. Demand goes up and down, but turquoise won’t ever loose its popularity.”