5 Things You (Probably) Don’t Know About Turquoise

Here’s a prediction: Those of you headed to Las Vegas for the JCK show at the end of this month—as well as those who plan to join the jewelry industry there vicariously—will see a LOT of turquoise. The sky stone is enjoying a popularity not seen since the 1970s. That’s when fashion’s love affair with bohemian style fueled a turquoise boom that lifted the profile of the blue and green stones mined in the American Southwest.

This time around, countless designers—from both the fine and fashion jewelry realms—have incorporated turquoise into their repertoires. If we were talking about any other gem, that statement would suggest a tide of same-same looking jewelry coming our way—but turquoise is the Sybil of gemstones: It’s blessed with multiple personalities. Read on for a handful of surprising facts about one of the gem trade’s most popular yet least understood stones.

1. The first and foremost factor in turquoise valuation is origin.

The mine where a piece of turquoise was found—not its color, nor its matrix, which refers to the veins and patterns of the stone—is the primary factor in determining its value. Historically speaking, the finest turquoise came from the mountains of Iran’s Khorasan Province. In the 20th century, however, the copper-rich American Southwest supplanted Iran as the primary source of rare, and valuable, specimens, including collector favorites such as Bisbee, Lander Blue, and Number 8 (Black Web). Today, buyers are looking to China, a historical source that recently ramped up production, to supply the bulk of the world’s turquoise.

2. Prices on collectible turquoise can be sky-high because many come from so-called Nevada hat mines.

“Lander Blue because of its rarity is what we call a Nevada hat mine—that means you can almost put everything you mined in a hat,” says Joe Tanner, owner of Tanner’s Indian Arts in Gallup, N.M.

As a fourth-generation trader whose family has been supplying Native American artisans with turquoise since the 19th century, Tanner is intimately familiar with the appeal of turquoise. He describes “Bisbee blue” as a color of such intensity that it’s worth the ordeal that is required to extract the stone from the earth (at a wholesale value up to $500 per ct.!).

“Mining turquoise is the best known way to starve to death,” Tanner says. “Mother Nature is pretty stingy with her turquoise, and it’s not a picnic to get it out.”

3. Italians played a role in popularizing Sleeping Beauty turquoise.

For most of the world, the word turquoise conjures an image of Sleeping Beauty, the iconic robin’s egg–blue variety found in Arizona’s Gila County. And there’s an interesting reason for that. In the 1970s and 1980s, jewelers sought out turquoise boasting a consistent color and clean appearance, and only one mine in the world fit the bill and produced a steady supply: Sleeping Beauty.

Courtesy Sterling Turquoise

Sleeping Beauty cabochons

The Italian cameo-makers of Torre del Greco were among its biggest fans. “They preferred the light blue color because it looked great with coral,” says Matthew Foutz, cofounder of Sterling Turquoise in Phoenix.

In the decades since, Sleeping Beauty has become something of a poster child for the American gem industry. “There isn’t a more significant gemstone from this country than Sleeping Beauty,” says Foutz.

The gem’s legend—and pricing—is set to grow. In 2012, the Sleeping Beauty mine closed and sent prices skyrocketing (not because the mine was spent, but because the copper mine that owned the mining concession sold the mine, and its new owner decided not to pursue the turquoise mining operation, according to Foutz). Buyers used to pay $10 per ct. at wholesale for Sleeping Beauty; it’s now edging closer to $50 per ct.

4. The vast majority of turquoise is not the genuine article.

“Ninety-five percent of turquoise is imitation,” says Joe Dan Lowry, co-author of Turquoise: The World Story of a Fascinating Gemstone.

While statistics vary, there’s no denying that turquoise—whether it’s dyed, painted, enhanced, stabilized, impregnated with plastic or resin, or synthesized altogether—is an attractive stone to imitate. The popularity of Sleeping Beauty has played a significant role in that. “There was only so much stone to supply all that demand,” says Foutz. He described the rise of synthetic varieties of turquoise, as buyers clamored for the look of Sleeping Beauty at prices commensurate with fashion jewels.

The upshot for collectors—especially the Japanese and Germans, who are turquoise’s most ardent fans—is a greater focus on American-made gemstones.

“They don’t want anything to do with Chinese turquoise,” says Tanner. “The reason for that is everything the Chinese mine has has been impregnated with plastic, so you lose that zeal of the gemstone. They want United States domestic turquoise. The most famous and most sought after is the Lander Blue. Then there is Lone Mountain, which has been a much bigger producer than Lander Blue. And also incredible Bisbee turquoise.”

5. Make way for Kingman turquoise.

Now that Sleeping Beauty is no longer producing, expect Arizona’s Kingman mine to fill the gap in production. Light blue to dark blue in color, the material has a white matrix that is typically dyed black. There is also a beguiling green variety of Kingman. Designers such as Jacquie Aiche and Pamela Love are besotted with it. Turquoise from Arizona’s Morenci mine, another leading producer, is a close second.

Courtesy Sterling Turquoise

Rough turquoise from the Kingman mine in Mohave County, Ariz.

Regardless of the variety (personally, I’m partial to rare, spider-web-looking Number 8, while the celebrated Navajo jewelers Lee and Raymond Yazzie prefer Lone Mountain), you can’t go wrong with stocking turquoise.

“I’ve seen it come and go as a trend, but it’s starting to attain that classic status and become a staple, like pearls,” says Foutz. “It’s a great ride to be on.”

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