Turquoise has captivated the Eqyptian, Asian, Persian, and Native American cultures with its alluring natural beauty and supernatural properties for more than six millennia. The fascination with this mesmerizing blue stone later extended to Western cultures and it has experienced several waves of popularity ever since.
Today, like in the 1970s and early 2000s, turquoise jewelry is making another comeback. This is due, in part, to the rise in consumers’ appreciation for handmade goods in the age of large merchandise retailers like Amazon and Walmart. There is also a better awareness of the different types of turquoise stones and mines that exist around the world, which has led to a greater variety of styles and designs for turquoise jewelry.
In this guide to turquoise jewelry, we will describe the nature and properties of turquoise, introduce you to the different stones, mines, and turquoise jewelry styles, and explain how to clean and care for your turquoise jewelry.
While most commonly associated with the bright blue hue of the same name, turquoise jewelry comes in a wide array of colors. From vivid greens to deep, sea blues, the color is determined by the metal content in the mine where the turquoise was found. Generally, a high copper content results in a bluer stone, while a high iron content results in a greener stone.
Turquoise jewelry stones measure between a five and a six out of 10 on the Moh’s Scale, where low-grade ‘chalk’ turquoise is rated a five, and high-quality stones are rated a six. Compared to a diamond, which is considered a 10 on the Moh’s Scale, turquoise is quite a soft gemstone. This means that it can be easily scratched and dented through daily wear. Softer turquoise is, therefore, often treated or ‘stabilized’ to help maintain its luster and prevent breakage.
In gemology, a matrix refers to the thin veins that run throughout the interior of a gemstone, creating a web-like pattern on the surface of the stone when it is cut. These veins are created by deposits of the host rock in which turquoise is found, which interweave with the gem material and contrast with the blue and green coloration.
Apart from its signature color, the matrix is one of the most recognizable characteristics of turquoise jewelry. Matrices are also as unique as an individual’s fingerprints since the patterns differ from one stone to the next.
It should also be pointed out that some matrices are considered more desirable than others, such as the rare and highly sought-after silver matrix found in turquoise stones from the Kingman mine in Arizona.
Today, the majority of active turquoise mines can be found in Iran, China, and the American Southwest, which includes the states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Nevada. Here is a list of some of the most well-known turquoise mines in the United States:
Though now depleted, the #8 mine in Nevada once yielded some of the biggest turquoise nuggets ever found, including a hefty 150-pound stone that was the largest in the world at the time of its discovery.
The turquoise from the #8 mine is also one of the most coveted types among turquoise jewelry collectors. This is due to its rarity and impressive spider-web matrix that contains gold and various shades of brown and black, which contrasts beautifully with the light, blue-green turquoise.
Furthermore, each piece of turquoise that has been excavated from the #8 mine is individually unique since they were found in a variety of host rocks, including quartz, shale, and chert.
Located on the outskirts of Globe, Arizona, the Sleeping Beauty turquoise mine is one of the world’s best-known producers of turquoise. The stones found here are typically sky blue in color with little to no matrix, making it one of the most easily identifiable types of turquoise.
Once extremely popular among Native American artists due to its low cost, even color, and high availability, Sleeping Beauty turquoise has since increased in price due to the closure of the mine in 2012, making it one of the most sought-after and valuable types of turquoise on the market today.
One of the most prolific turquoise mines in the American Southwest, the Kingman mine was once responsible for producing nearly half of the world’s supply of turquoise. It was also the most common type utilized in Native American jewelry.
Kingman turquoise ranges from brilliant blues to blue greens, with much of the gem material featuring a white matrix that is often dyed black for better contrast. Most quality natural Kingman turquoise is a medium blue hue with a ‘water web’ matrix that makes it easily distinguishable from other types of turquoise. The best Kingman turquoise, however, is a vivid blue containing a black matrix.
One of the rarest and most remarkable types of turquoise is produced by the Boulder turquoise mine in Northeastern Nevada. Also known as ‘Royston Ribbon’, Boulder turquoise features a brown or rust-colored host stone shot through with a dazzling strip of turquoise. The natural, earthy tones in combination with the sky blue or light green streaks produce a stunning impression that is coveted by turquoise jewelry collectors. Also, given that no two stones from this mine are alike, each jewelry piece made with Boulder turquoise is completely unique.
Known for producing some of the highest-quality stones in the American Southwest, the Bisbee mine in Southeastern Arizona yields a unique type of turquoise that is difficult to find anywhere else. The gems that are unearthed here are typically deep blue in color with either a dark brown or black matrix and are among the densest turquoise found in the Southwest. This makes it both more durable and valuable than other types of turquoise, making Bisbee turquoise jewelry popular among knowledgeable collectors.
Turquoise is an excellent medium for lapidary work due to its relatively soft and pliable nature. This means it can be cut or carved into a variety of shapes, ranging from rough and irregular to small and narrow. The stones can also be drilled with holes to be strung on necklaces, or fashioned into pendants or earrings. The variety of options available for grinding, cutting, and shaping turquoise jewelry means that it can be used in a wide range of styles and processes, which we cover in more detail below.
Stringing is a centuries-old technique used by Native American artists in turquoise jewelry making. It involves shaping turquoise stones into beads and drilling a hole through the center for placement on a string, cord, or chain. Many Native Americans of the Southwest, such as the Navajo and Zuni, have unique styles and methods for stringing beads of different shapes, sizes, and materials.
‘Inlay’ describes a type of jewelry style where the stones are usually set flush with the surface of the jewelry piece. There are two types of inlay work, namely, channel and mosaic. The former refers to a sequence of stones that are set end-to-end in a single row, while the latter describes a geometric cluster of stones. Both types of inlay work require a significant amount of skill, as seen in pieces by various Native American artists. One of the advantages of this kind of style or setting is that it affords the stones some extra protection from everyday wear and tear.
Overlay is another one of the most popular and traditional styles for turquoise jewelry. It involves layering two metal sheets on top of each other with the aim of either creating a stencil into which a cut stone can be set or a design with an oxidized background. This technique can often be observed in Navajo stamped bracelets and the elaborate inlay work of the Zuni.
A bezel setting is a type of mounting in which the gemstone is fully enclosed inside an unbroken metal rim, which holds it securely in place. This type of stone-setting technique is ideal for turquoise since it is a relatively soft stone that requires a bit of extra protection from scratches and dents.
We already know turquoise jewelry comes in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. However, it is important to note that most of the products marketed as turquoise have been treated to some degree. This is done for a variety of reasons, but the four primary treatments for turquoise that we will cover below are imitation, reconstitution, stabilization, and enhancement.
As the name suggests, imitation turquoise jewelry contains no turquoise at all. Instead, it has been made out of synthetic materials such as plastic, glass, and ceramics. When made by a skilled artisan, imitation turquoise jewelry can be almost impossible to distinguish from natural turquoise.
Reconstituted turquoise refers to a substance that is made by crushing and mixing turquoise with other inexpensive gemstones to form a mineral paste, which is then heated, dyed, and shaped for use in jewelry making.
Stabilization is a process used to treat low-grade turquoise that is soft and porous, making it more durable and visually appealing. It involves covering the turquoise in an epoxy and then heating it at a high temperature. This process not only improves durability but also enhances the color, resulting in a more attractive gemstone that holds up better against wear and tear.
Similar to stabilization, the enhancement process involves filling the turquoise pores with vaporized quartz. This results in harder and more uniform stones that better resist wear and tear. Out of all treated turquoise, enhanced turquoise jewelry is considered the closest to high-grade, natural turquoise.
Compared to other precious gems like diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, turquoise is a fairly soft and porous stone that needs a fair amount of care to prevent breakage, staining, and lightening. Check out our tips below on how to look after your turquoise jewelry to ensure it lasts for years to come:
The best method for cleaning your turquoise stones is by gently dabbing them with lukewarm water and then patting them dry with a lint-free cloth like a chamois. The use of mild soaps and other cleaning agents is both unnecessary and harmful. Additionally, you should never submerge your turquoise jewelry in water since there is a chance that you won’t be able to dry some of the harder-to-reach surfaces inside the setting, which can permanently damage your jewelry. If your turquoise jewelry piece is heavily soiled, you can always take it to a professional jeweler to have cleaned. Lastly, store your turquoise separately from your other jewelry, where it will not be scratched or bumped by harder gems.
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