Tucson, Turquoise, and Tequila

While the rest of you were watching the Super Bowl yesterday, I was stuck at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif., waiting to board my flight to Phoenix. During the 90-minute delay, I started plotting my strategy in Tucson, where I’ll spend the next week hunting for loose stones and finished jewelry at the AGTA GemFair and JCK Tucson shows, respectively. Gem Week in Tucson is one of my favorite events on the jewelry calendar. It’s where I look for story ideas, connect with old friends, and shop for baubles for my sister (and myself!).

This year, my newest obsession is turquoise. I’ve been intrigued by the blue gem since I met a dealer a couple Tucsons ago who showed me a map not unlike the one below, indicating all the places where turquoise is mined in the United States (a leading producer of it, along with Iran and China). I had no idea there were so many types of turquoise—from ubiquitous Sleeping Beauty to rare and expensive Lander Blue—in the world.

Courtesy Turquoiselady.com

Turquoise mines abound in the American Southwest.

My interest in the stone intensified in mid-January, right before I left New York City for Geneva, to attend the 25th annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. That’s when I hit up the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, to check out an exhibit of Navajo jewelry I’d learned about on Twitter.

Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family” was a revelation. You may think you know something about Native American jewelry—silver, turquoise, and squash-blossom motifs inevitably come to mind—but the stone-inlay, silver, and gold pieces made by brothers Raymond C. Yazzie and Lee A. Yazzie reflect a level of sophistication and originality that is not to be believed. I was completely floored. (You’ve got nearly a year to see it for yourself—the exhibition, which was curated by Lois Sherr Dubin, closes on Jan. 16, 2016!)

Photo © Kiyoshi Togashi, courtesy National Museum of the American Indian

Belt buckle by Lee A. Yazzie (2000), Lone Mountain turquoise and sterling silver; collection of Gene and Ann Waddell 

The family of 14 hails from Gallup, N.M., where matriarch Mary Marie Yazzie began making necklaces to help support her children in the early 1970s. She drew on a long tradition of jewelry in Navajo culture, whose worldview is apparent in her and her son’s exceptional designs: From the charming corncob bracelets that use coral and turquoise beads to evoke kernels to the distinct and recurring motifs that call to mind mountains, clouds, and light, every single piece is steeped in a tradition that connects the Navajo people to their forbears.

The “glittering world” of the title is a reference to Diné Bikéyah, the land of the Navajo people as defined by six mountains. According to legend, the people traveled through many worlds before emerging on the one that glittered and in which they stayed. Four of the six mountains that encircle the land (the ones located at the cardinal points) are sacred and are associated with specific seasons, colors, and stones.

The names of these mountains, which straddle the borders of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, are as enchanting as the stones that lie beneath them: East is White Shell Mountain (aka Blanca Peak); south is Turquoise Mountain (aka Mount Taylor); west is Abalone Shell Mountain (aka Humphreys Peak); and north is Jet Black Mountain (aka Mount Hesperus).

As I walked around the exhibit, I noted the varieties of turquoise that were used by the Yazzies: Lone Mountain (both Spider Web and Blue Vein), Royston, Burnham, Pilot Mountain, Morenci, Villa Grove, Lander Blue, Nevada, Bisbee, Persian, and Chinese. Some were flecked with dashes of coral and gold coloring, some crackled with navy-colored veins, some were creamy and smooth.

Sacred to the Navajos, turquoise, the use of which dates from 300 A.D., represents the sky or water. Between the 10th and 13th centuries, I learned, Chaco Canyon workshops in northwest New Mexico converted turquoise from the nearby Cerrillos Mine.

But while turquoise is a key stone in the Yazzies’ jewelry, the brothers also used plenty of coral, opal, lapis lazuli, and jade, elevating their designs beyond the more predictable pairing of the blue gem and silver.

Photo © Kiyoshi Togashi, courtesy National Museum of the American 

Ring by Raymond C. Yazzie (2006), opal, coral, lapis lazuli, jade, Blue Gem turquoise, Orvil Jack turquoise, and 14k gold; collection of Leota and Phil Knight 

The most enchanting concept I learned at the Glittering World exhibition was a Navajo term known as hózhó, which loosely translates to “beauty” or “harmony.” Often referred to as “walking in beauty,” it is a concept of balance and is depicted as spokes radiating from the center in four directions (symbolizing the four sacred mountains).

I have a few traditions of my own in Tucson—enchiladas at El Minuto, margaritas at Café Poca Cosa, and tequila and Mexican coffee by the fire pits at the J.W. Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, home to the JCK show—and as I engage in them this week, I won’t forget the grace and spirituality I saw in the designs of the Yazzies. Here in Tucson, where I’m surrounded by the stones that lent the brothers their greatest inspiration, “walking in beauty” is standard operating procedure.

Photo by Sam Franks, courtesy National Museum of the American Indian

Bracelet by Raymond C. Yazzie (2012), coral with accents of opal, sugilite, lapis lazuli, Orvil Jack turquoise, 14k gold, and silver; collection of Leota and Phil Knight