What other gem has been collected, traded, worn and treasured with so much passion for thousands of years as the vibrant turquoise?
Turquoise, is a rare gem. The color so extraordinary that it has been prized by civilizations since antiquity. The oldest turquoise jewelry found to date is a strand of beads dating to approximately 5000 B.C. from ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Also found were engraved turquoise tablets with passages from the Koran and Persian proverbs and inlaid with golden gilt which were worn as amulets dating to the seventh century A.D.
In ancient Egypt, turquoise was the chosen stone worn by royalty prior to the first dynasty. Egyptian turquoise beads and jewelry dating to 4000 B.C. was discovered at El-Badari.
The prized gem from the lost civilization of ancient Mexico, the Incas carved beads, figurines and made astonishing inlay jewelry with turquoise.
Siberian turquoise jewelry, dating from the sixth century B.C., was fashioned with clusters of stones. The ancient Greeks and Romans wore signet rings with engraved turquoise emblems.
During the Middle Ages, Europeans decorated vessels and the covers of manuscripts with mosaics of small turquoise.
In Florence, during the Renaissance period, the saying went: “no man considered his hand well adorned unless he wore turquoise rings.” Turquoise graced royal crowns and became one of the most popular gems to wear in Europe as the centuries unfolded.
The derivation of the name turquoise is a mystery, it has not been changed as long as written history and oral legends have been told. Pliny, the ancient scribe, wrote, “The term, ‘kalos lithos’ meaning ‘beautiful stone’ and this was the original name for turquoise, transformed to ‘callais’ in ancient Greece.”
In the old French language, tourques, was used for turkey stone, referring to Persian turquoise that was imported from the Sinai Peninsula via the country, Turkey. However, the Turkish called Persian turquoise by its Persian name, firuse. The Venetian merchants bought turquoise from the Turkish bazaars and called it ‘pierre turquoise’ which also translates to ‘stone of Turkey.’ The term, Turkey stone, was used in reference to any stones that were foreign, turquoise included, originating from the Orient.
Turquoise rocks are found in arid dry regions where the rocks, such as sandstones have copper deposits, alumina and phosphorus (volcanic lava). Turquoise is often found in close proximity with malachite, azurite or chrysocolla. The chemical composition of turquoise is of hydrous copper aluminum phosphate with some iron; the percentages of the composition vary from stone to stone. The typical turquoise mineral formation consists of acryptocrystalline aggregate with fine crystallites rendering it practically amorphous, which means the rocks are very porous, similar to compressed powder. Turquoise found in the U.S.A. will fade faster than Persian turquoise due to its higher porosity and more absorbency to oils and chemicals.
Discovered in 1912, in Lynch, Virginia, U.S.A., an unusual matrix of turquoise consisting of distinct crystals of the triclinic system is the only known source of this type of turquoise to date.
The sky blue color, known in the U.S.A. as robin’s egg blue, is due the higher percentage of copper versus iron. If the stone has a higher percentage of iron than copper, the turquoise color will have more of a greenish hue.
The most rare and valuable turquoise has an evenly distributed sky blue color without traces of matrix. Turquoise with matrix may be less valuable, however, of the matrix variety the “spider web” is the most desirable in the southwest U.S.A.
The turquoise mines in New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California have produced the most turquoise collectively in the world. California turquoise is found in the Mohave Desert, where the mines have been worked for over a thousand years by the Pueblo Indians. Most all of the specialized turquoise mines have been depleted, especially the green variety, only ten percent of all turquoise mined is gem quality. The production of turquoise today in the southwest United States is a by-product of copper mining.
A soft stone, with the hardness less than 6 on the Mohs’s scale, turquoise can be easily cut and used for inlay decorations, carvings and engravings. Gem quality turquoise is typically cut in a cabochon shape, rounded and not faceted, enhancing the opaque lovely turquoise color that is highly lustrous when polished.
The finest quality turquoise in the world comes from the mountainous range near the district of Nichapur, Iran. This area has been mined for centuries and most Persian Turquoise has been marketed at Mashhad and exported to Russia and India in the past centuries. Prior to World War I turquoise was Iran’s most important industry with over one hundred turquoise mines. After World War II the output declined and ceased after the revolution.
Tibetan green turquoise has been highly prized and written about for many years. However, Tibet does not have turquoise mines and the stones were thought to have been brought to Tibet originally by the friar Francesco Orazio della Penna di Billi in 1730, from China.
It was written by the scholar, Laufer, “that the finest turquoises are obtained from a mine in the Gangs-Chan Mountains of Tibet, and the green turquoise is in several mountains in eastern Tibet.” However, the exact locations were not given and have not been known even to the Tibetans. It is believed that the green turquoise is called gyu, may have been derived from Chinese word yu meaning green. According to recent archaeological finds in China, turquoise has been known for three thousand years. Marco Polo wrote of green turquoise used in the province of Caindu (now Sichuan), which was mostly inhabited by Tibetan tribes at that time.
Ancient India did not know about turquoise until the Mughal Period of the fourteenth century, and named the newly founded stone, kiris.
The most important source of turquoise both historically and commercially is the Egyptian turquoise from the Sinai Peninsula. A greenish-blue turquoise, from the mines of Magharah and Serabit el Khadi, supplied Egypt over four thousand years ago, in addition to malachite, azurite and chryosocolla.
The surviving documents recording the extensive mining operations, employing thousands of laborers until about one thousand B.C., from King Semerkhet, 2923 B.C. indicates that turquoise was used for ornamentation during the Egyptian Old and Middle Kingdoms as early as the Baderian period.
The Egyptian name for turquoise was “majkat”, early translations was transcribed as malachite, causing confusion about not finding a reference to turquoise in ancient Egyptian writings.
In 1947 the site was discovered on the port of Merkhah, through which the Egyptians brought turquoise for the Pharoahs and the royal family approximately one hundred meters from the Gulf. The turquoise district of Sinai lies along the southwestern coastline of the peninsula, bordering the Gulf of Suez.
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An ancient temple dedicated to Hathor, the Goddess of Turquoise, is located south of the famous turquoise mine at Serabit el Khadim.
The Native Americans from the southwest, U.S.A. supplied turquoise to the Aztecs in Mexico and to the Toltec’s who preceded them. Famous for inlaid turquoise on a wooden base with wax or gum, the Aztecs artistically decorated objects. An incredible example of this type of work is currently on display in the British Museum; a human skull is completely covered with a mosaic of turquoise with the eyes of polished pyrites and the teeth in white shell.
The Pueblo Indians of the American southwest also used turquoise for inlay decorations, the oldest known artifact is a bone scraper found during the 1896 Hyde Expedition in Chaco Canon, New Mexico.
The Apache Indians called turquoise duklij and highly valued it as a talisman. With the powers to aid a warrior or hunter by assuring the accuracy of his aim, a turquoise stone was tied to the bow to insure a straight shoot to its mark.
Highly traded throughout the Americas, turquoise has been found in burial sites in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Central America and the southwest United States. Over nine thousand turquoise beads and pendants were found near one single grave in New Mexico.
Since turquoise has been treasured for so many centuries, it is not surprising that it was one of the first gems to be imitated. One of the earliest known imitation materials, used prior to 477 BC and during the Roman period until about 51 BC, was glazed soapstone dyed blue and green, a form of faience. It was used for making beads, pendants, rings, amulets and small animal figures.
Since then, there has been many synthetic imitations of turquoise, such as glass, enamel, stained chalcedony, porcelain and pressed pieces of turquoise bonded with plastic or resin, commonly used since 1957.
Reconstructed turquoise is made from finely powdered ivory with copper stain and cement. Other imitations are blue dyed howlite, surface limestone and blue dyed, plastic treated marble beads and plastics. Imitations have faked cracks and are of a color true to the gem turquoise. Artificial products sold as turquoise are called, Viennese Turquoise, Hamburger Turquoiseand Neolith.
Turquoise used for jewelry is commonly oiled, waxed and made stronger by impregnating silica and resins– all are acceptable methods of stabilizing the soft porus stone.
It was recorded in the thirteenth century by Persian scholars that horsemen carried turquoise, known as a horse amulet, on hunt or war for protection from falling from their horse.
According to Persian lore, “one who could see the reflection of a new moon on a turquoise stone was certain to have good luck and be protected from evil.”
The Hindus had a similar belief, “an individual could look at a new moon and immediately after, look at a stone of turquoise, great wealth would surely follow.”
The Navajo believed that to ensure the blessing of rain, a turquoise should be thrown into the river while praying out-loud to the rain god.
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Janet Deleuse Fine Jewelry
Hand-cut natural turquoise, Akoya pearls and diamond bracelet in hand-fabricated 18k gold
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Additional information and photo Credits: Getty Images, Alexander Deleuse
National Gem Collection, The Smithsonian Institution,
Jeffry E. Post with photographs by Chip Clark, 1997
Gems, Their Sources, Descriptions and Identification,
Fifth Edition, R. Webster, Butterworth and Heinemanne 1962
Gems, Crystals, & Minerals,
Anna S, Sofianides, George E. Harlow
with photographs by Erica and Harold Van Pelt,
Simon and Schuster, New York 1990
edited by Alberto Siliotti, VMB Publishers 2006