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Turquoise Overview

Admired since ancient times, turquoise is known for its distinct color, which ranges from powdery blue to greenish robin’s egg blue. It’s one of few minerals to lend its name to anything that resembles its striking color. The word “turquoise” dates back to the 13th century, drawing from the French expression pierre tourques, which referenced the “Turkish stone” brought to Europe from Turkey. Ancient Persia (now Iran) was the traditional source for sky blue turquoise. This color is often called “Persian blue” today, regardless of its origin. The Sinai Peninsula in Egypt was also an important historical source. The U.S. is now the world’s largest turquoise supplier. Nevada, New Mexico, California, and Colorado have produced turquoise, but Arizona leads in production by value, as well as quality. The stone’s popularity here makes it a staple in Native American jewelry. Turquoise is found in arid regions where rainwater dissolves copper in the soil, forming colorful nodular deposits when it combines with aluminum and phosphorus. Copper contributes blue hues, while iron and chrome add a hint of green. Some turquoise contains pieces of host rock, called matrix, which appear as dark webs or patches in the material. This can lower the stone’s value, although the uniform “spiderweb” pattern of Southwestern turquoise is attractive. Turquoise is sensitive to direct sunlight and solvents like makeup, perfume, and natural oils. The hardest turquoise only measures 6 on the Mohs scale, which made this soft gemstone popular in carved talismans throughout history. From ancient Egyptians to Persians, Aztecs and Native Americans, kings and warriors alike admired turquoise for thousands of years. It adorned everything from jewelry to ceremonial masks to weapons and bridles—granting power and protection, particularly against falls. Highly esteemed for its striking namesake color and its ancient history, turquoise remains popular through time.

Turquoise History

Cultures around the world have admired the distinct color of turquoise since ancient times. The earliest evidence comes from ancient Egyptian tombs, which contain elaborate turquoise jewelry dating back to 3000 BCE. Egyptians set turquoise in gold necklaces and rings, used it as inlay and carved it into scarabs. Most notably, King Tut’s iconic burial mask was extravagantly adorned with turquoise. The oldest turquoise mines are located in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. One sat near an ancient temple dedicated to Hathor, the Greek goddess of love and joy—worshipped as a protector in the desert and as the patron saint of mining. Egyptians called turquoise mefkat, which meant “joy” and “delight.” Ancient Persians decorated extensively with turquoise, often engraving it with Arabic script. Turquoise covered palace domes because its sky blue color represented heaven. (This later inspired the use of turquoise in buildings like the Taj Mahal.) Believing turquoise guaranteed protection, Persians adorned their daggers and horses’ bridles with it. Their name for turquoise, pirouzeh, meant “victory.” Persians wore turquoise jewelry around their necks and in their turbans. They believed it offered protection by changing color to warn of pending doom. (Turquoise can, in fact, fade if exposed to sunlight or solvents.) When Turkish traders introduced this “Persian blue” stone to Europe via the Silk Road in the 13th century, they influenced the gemstone’s name. The word “turquoise” comes from the French pierre tourques for “Turkish stone.” Meanwhile, pre-Columbian Native Americans mined the turquoise gemstone throughout the present-day southwestern United States. Shamans used it in sacred ceremonies to commune with the spirit of the sky. Apache Indians believed that attaching turquoise to bows (and later, firearms) improved a hunter’s accuracy. Turquoise became valuable in Native American trade, which carried North American material toward South America. Consequently, Aztecs cherished turquoise for its protective power, and used it on ceremonial masks, knives, and shields. The turquoise-studded silver jewelry that’s commonly associated with Native Americans today originated in the 1880s, when a white trader convinced a Navajo craftsman to transform a silver coin into turquoise jewelry. While many historic turquoise deposits have depleted over the gemstone’s long lifetime, some small mine operations (mainly in the U.S.) still produce fine material today.

Buying Turquoise

Turquoise, the traditional birthstone of December, is also gifted on the 11th wedding anniversary. But buying turquoise doesn’t require special occasions; its namesake blue color has been internationally revered for centuries as a symbol of protection, friendship, and happiness. Thanks to its historical and cultural significance in many Native American tribes, turquoise remains most popular throughout the southwestern U.S.—which supplies most of the world’s turquoise today. Turquoise is one of few gemstones not judged by the 4Cs of diamond quality. Instead, the main factors that determine its value are color, matrix, hardness, and size. The most prized turquoise color is a bright, even sky blue. Greenish tones can lower the value of a stone, although some designers prefer it. Some turquoise—particularly the material mined in the American Southwest—contains remnants of its host rock, known as matrix. These splotches decrease a gemstone’s value. Although it can create an attractive “spider web” pattern, unblemished varieties command higher prices. The porosity, texture, and hardness of turquoise varies greatly. Fine-colored turquoise that’s too soft or chalky will lose color—and value. Course, porous material is usually treated to make it stronger, smoother, and shinier. Because of its fragility, turquoise is often treated to enhance durability and color. Some treatments involving wax and oil are relatively harmless, while other methods—including dye, impregnation, and reconstitution—are more controversial. Seek out an American Gem Society jeweler who can help you find the best quality turquoise. Like other opaque gemstones, turquoise is commonly priced by size, rather than weight. It’s available in a variety of sizes, but color is always the determining factor.
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