Is Turquoise Back?

Printed online courtesy of The Desert Leaf Magazine, December, 2015

by Dyana Z. Furmansky


If you grew up in the 1960s or the ’70s, you may recall the popularity of turquoise jewelry during those decades. Back then, the bright sky-blue to sea-green gemstone that has been a wearable icon of Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and Pueblo tribes for centuries was also a dictate of fashion.

“It was the disco era of turquoise,” recalls Mark Bahti of Bahti Indian Arts, whose family has been selling turquoise jewelry in Tucson and Santa Fe for more than 60 years. Men and women, young and old, rock stars and recluses—whether they lived in Tucson or Trenton—sported silver concho belts, buckles, bracelets, earrings, bolos, hatbands, knuckle- grazing rings, and squash blossom necklaces flowering with turquoise.

Turquoise was often extracted as a by-product of copper mining at about 36 sites in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. The colorful semiprecious mineral resulted from acidic water seeping for eons through deposits of copper and the dissolved copper subsequently combining with aluminum from feldspar, and phosphorus from apatite, to form microcrystals of the mineral. Substitution of metals such as iron, zinc, and manganese for the aluminum resulted in variations in color and hardness. Sometimes, deposits sat so close to the surface that miners could chisel chunks of it free and squirrel them away in their lunch boxes. College students could buy buckets of rough stones and sell them at a profit. The stone was so popular that the legislatures of Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico each voted to make turquoise their state’s official gem.

The high demand for traditional Native American jewelry gave rise to a domestic industry of poorly made silver pieces set with top-quality but undervalued turquoise, and an influx of imitations mass produced in foreign countries. These included stones that were inferior or made from reconstituted turquoise dust or plastic. Native American–style imports cost less than Native American–made pieces.

In the 1980s, turquoise tanked. Indications of how much poor-quality turquoise jewelry was made at the end of turquoise’s era of popularity were the disappointing appraisals many people received from expert appraisers on the PBS television series Antiques Roadshow during its filming in Tucson last May.

Though charmingly regional, turquoise was widely perceived as just part of the trinket trade. An Arizonan could proudly wear a Navajo squash blossom necklace paired with a cuff encrusted in natural turquoise nuggets, but a New Yorker? Forget about it.

Until recently. “It’s the biggest resurgence of Native American turquoise jewelry in fashion since the 1970s,” says Dr. Mark Sublette, owner of Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson.

Sam Patania, a third-generation master silversmith, says that although sales of his contemporary Native American–style turquoise jewelry have picked up significantly, “it’s a much narrower market than in the past, because quality natural turquoise has gotten so expensive.”

Tucson’s turquoise impresarios agree that the current market is quite different from what it was 40 years ago. “In the ’60s and ’70s most people liked turquoise as decoration and weren’t concerned about where it came from,” says Sublette. Today’s “turquoiserati” can speak reverently of the classic turquoise mines such as Bisbee, Lander Blue, Number 8, and Lone Mountain, which produced the rarest specimens. The unique character of the spidery or patchy inclusions of the host rock (matrix) present in the turquoise makes specimens from those mines pricey. Turquoise extracted from the Morenci, Blue Gem, Fox, King’s Manassa, Cerillos, Sleeping Beauty, and Kingman mines fetches significantly higher prices, as well.

Customers are now more likely to ask if stones are stabilized, or request a guarantee that they are natural. Less than 15 percent of all turquoise on the market is completely untreated. Stabilization, an age-old process of impregnating the stone with epoxy, resin, or some other form of liquid plastic to prevent color changes and fracturing, is quite acceptable. Or it’s not. Even veteran appraisers sitting together at Antiques Roadshow disagreed on this point.

A warming interest in Native American jewelry is one factor to explain turquoise’s ascent. Another is the international demand for Southwest turquoise at a time when there is a shortage. “Kingman is the last full-time turquoise mine open in the United States as far as I am aware,” says Kingman Turquoise Mining Company owner Marty Colbaugh, a third-generation turquoise miner. Kingman turquoise reached its “highest point in sales in the last 11 years,” he says. “China and India are extremely hungry for our turquoise.”

Shane MacPherson, whose father opened Mac’s Indian Jewelry in Tucson in 1977, concurs. “The greatest demand for turquoise has not been domestic,” he says. Chinese and Japanese businessmen have come looking for material in quantities that are so large, MacPherson can’t supply them.

Panic gripped turquoise dealers in 2012 when the Sleeping Beauty mine in Globe suddenly shut down. An unprecedented surge in the price per pound for Sleeping Beauty rough—and per carat (where 5 carats equals 1 gram) for the rarest kinds of turquoise—quickly followed. “Sleeping Beauty was a large and consistent source,” says Lauren Moody, who buys Native American jewelry for the Western National Parks Association’s shop. “Its abundance [of turquoise] made it affordable and classic.”

Colbaugh, who is familiar with the Globe mine’s closure, says there was little Sleeping Beauty left and that the Australian mining company BHP Billiton no longer wanted the liability of a small, independent turquoise extractor operating in its abandoned copper pits. Turquoise mining has ceased everywhere else, according to Colbaugh, because the costs of labor and land reclamation required on public lands are prohibitive, despite the gemstone’s record prices.

The closure of the Sleeping Beauty mine also has been hard on Zuni artisans, who favor the stone’s clear, uniform robin’s-egg blue for making their traditional petit point and inlay jewelry. “Sleeping Beauty earrings that I used to sell for $60 not so long ago I now have to sell for $150,” says Steve Osborne, owner of Desert Son.

The turquoise-market paradox is that while no new extractions are on the horizon, there are a lot of rough and polished stones hidden away. In pails, shoe boxes, desk drawers, safes, and closets, Tucson turquoise addicts hoard blue or blue-green rocks mined years ago that can later be cut and polished for new jewelry. Sam Patania says he and his father, Frank Patania Jr., draw from a turquoise stash acquired over decades and started by Frank Patania Sr., the well-known jewelry designer who opened his famous Thunderbird studio in downtown Tucson in 1937. “If the demand goes up by 10 percent, then yes, our supply would dry up,” says Patania.

“We took our good old turquoise for granted,” mourns Rick Rosenthal, who bought his first bracelet in 1967 and opened Morningstar Traders in 1972. Rosenthal, who specializes in early 20th-century Native American jewelry, personally experienced the dark side of the current interest when his shop was burglarized one night last January. Entire showcases filled with hundreds of items were emptied into garbage bags and carried out.

For those who have stashed away their own vintage Native American turquoise jewelry, thoughts of mine closures and Chinese businessmen scouring Tucson for Sleeping Beauty turquoise could enhance the pleasure of wearing what they have. Jill Freeman, a Tucson turquoise collector for 20 years, arrays herself daily in a turquoise squash blossom necklace, four cuffs, and five rings. “I am not fashionable,” says Freeman. “I love the stuff.”

Dyana A. Furmansky is a Tucson-area freelance writer.