Thursday, May 8, 2008

Forget Diamonds: Turquoise is a Girl's Best Friend

For many Native Americans, turquoise is believed to possess a healing energy; providing protection while enhancing cognitive function and communication skills. Last month, I traveled to a Navajo language competition in Monument Valley in support of our daughter, Kira. Dressed in yellow satin reflecting her Navajo name, Shandiin, which translates to “Sunshine”, we completed her outfit with a turquoise pin from her great-grandmother, a turquoise squashblossom from her grandmother and turquoise earrings of my design. Believing in the strength and beauty skystone brings, I reminded her that she carries the love and support of previous generations of women in her family.
Kira dressed for competition
Kira Simpson dressed for Navajo competition at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

Diamonds were first collected from river beds in India. Four thousand years later, Marilyn Monroe crooned “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”. Perhaps if her eyes and spirit had focused on turquoise and blue skies rather than diamonds and the stars, she may have stayed happy and alive. After all, Tibetans believe turquoise is essential for physical well-being, its cooling nature lowering high blood pressure, purifying the blood and aiding the liver.

In the Southwest, we tend to take turquoise for granted, yet it has been labeled the “Gemstone of the Centuries”. Over 7,500 years ago, slave convoys were sent into the Sinai Peninsula to pluck pieces of the blue gem from the rocks where it had formed. In ancient Egypt, turquoise was believed to have mystical powers and appeared in amulets and talisman representing their gods Amum and Isis. A gold and carved turquoise bracelet was found on the mummified arm of Queen Zer, a ruler during the first dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs. The four bracelets found in her burial are the earliest known examples of precious metal jewelry.

The Middle East emerged as the great purveyor of turquoise, supplying the ancient Egyptians, Nubians, Greeks and Romans. It is believed the name was derived from the French word, Turquie, a reference to the Turkish traders first bringing the rich blue stones to the European continent. It was assumed that the brilliant blue and green stones originated in Turkey when, in fact, they were most likely extracted from mines in the Sinai Peninsula and the Alimersai Mountain in Persia (Iran).

Royston Turquoise
Royston Turquoise Cabochons

Last month, the archaeological world was abuzz with a find near Lake Titicaca, Peru. A hammered gold and turquoisebead necklace from approximately 4,000 years ago was discovered, the oldest gold jewelry item yet found in the Americas. Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, the crown jewel of Ancestral Puebloan sites, has yielded astonishing amounts of turquoise treasures. In one burial chamber at Pueblo Bonito, over 56,000 turquoise items were unearthed, including a necklace with 2,000 beads,turquoise-covered baskets, pendants and fetishes.

Turquoise is healing; turquoise is protection; turquoise is life. If good turquoise brings so many blessings, what happens with bad turquoise? During my tenure on the Indian Arts and Crafts Association board of directors, a meeting was convened at the Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Leaders from the Rio Grande Pueblos and Navajo Nation were invited to discuss the multimillion dollar problem of Indian jewelry fakes flooding the market and undermining Native American artists.

We were well into the meeting when the President of the Navajo Nation finally arrived with his entourage, including several large bodyguards behind dark glasses. Moving forward to greet the President, my eyes rested on his necklace. It was a classic case of the Emperor and his new clothes. The large turquoise necklace meant to connote his status and sincerity to our cause was a fake, blue plastic through and through. Unable to avert my gaze, I pondered the hypocrisy of that necklace. If this leader was so poorly advised regarding this elemental aspect of his own culture, what other weaknesses did he possess? Indeed, the fake necklace proved incapable of any special charms. This particular leader was asked to resign.

Navajo Turquoise Bracelet
Turquoise Jewelry

The history of turquoise does not explain “zat”, the characteristic which separates your ordinary stones from the killers. Steve, Barry and I are often asked how to identify good turquoise. It is not an easy question to answer. Decades of looking at thousands of stones have honed our individual tastes; we know what we like.

Turquoise, chemically described as an aluminum phosphate colored by copper salts, is almost always associated with great copper deposits such as were found in Bisbee, Arizona and Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai Peninsula. A compound of copper, aluminum, phosphorus and water formed while ancient mountains and oceans grew and receded, its unique molecular structure allows for combination with other elements. The addition of these other minerals affect the color and hardness of the turquoise and account for its great variety from different locations, even within a single mine. If the mix contains a greater concentration of copper, the stone will tend toward the blue range whereas more iron will swing it toward the greens. More aluminum will move the color in the green to white range; while the addition of zinc promotes a yellow-green color.

For the Zuni people in New Mexico, blue turquoise represents the sky and the male, while the green stones represent the earth and the female. Having grown up forty miles from the Zuni village may explain my strong affiliation with the green side of the turquoise spectrum. Like a good Zuni woman, I prefer turquoise stones which reflect the earth; deep greens and blue-greens with brown matrix mapping miniature land masses and large bodies of pristine ocean, the very reflection of Mother Earth or perhaps a fantastical green world as yet undiscovered.

With warm regards,
Georgiana, Steve, Barry and the Team.

No comments: