December Birthstone - Turquoise

December 2009

By Janet Deleuse of Deleuse Jewelers, Tiburon, California

What other gem has been collected, traded, worn and treasured with so much passion for thousands of years as the vibrant turquoise?

What other gem has been collected, traded, worn and treasured with so much passion for thousands of years as the vibrant turquoise?

Turquoise is not just a rock, it is a rare gem with a magnificent color which has been treasured by civilizations since antiquity. The oldest turquoise jewelry found to date are beads dating to approximately 5000 B.C. from ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).

In ancient Egypt turquoise was the stone of choice and was worn prior to the first dynasty. Egyptian turquoise beads and jewelry that dates to 4000 B.C. has been found at El-Badari.

Passages from the Koran and Persian proverbs were engraved or gold gilt was inlaid directly into the stones during the seventh century A.D. and were treasured as amulets. Turquoise was also the prized gem of the lost civilization of ancient Mexico The Incas carved beads and figurines and made beautiful inlay jewelry with the stone. Siberian jewelry dating from the sixth century B.C. was set with multiple turquoise stones. The ancient Greeks and Romans engraved turquoise for signet rings Turquoise is clearly a global treasure.

During the middle Ages the Europeans used turquoise for decorating vessels and the covers of manuscripts. In the Renaissance period in Florence, there was a saying that 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 as it has not been changed for as long as our written history and oral legends have been told. Pliny writes that the term “kalos lithos” means “beautiful stone” in Greek and this was the name for turquoise transformed to ‘callais’ in ancient Greece. In the old French language the word “tourques” means ‘turkey stone.“Persian turquoise was imported from the Sinai Peninsula and entered Europe by way of Turkey. The Venetian merchants brought turquoise from the Turkish bazaars and called it ‘pierre turquoise’ which also translates to”stone of Turkey.“Another version of the name Turkey stone refers to any stones coming from the Orient, indicating the stones were foreign. The Turkish people called Persian turquoise by the Persian name “firuse.”

Turquoise rocks are found in arid dry regions where the rocks such as sandstones are heavy with copper deposits and a source of alumina and phosphorus, (volcanic lava). The copper may come from minerals such as malachite, azurite or chrysocolla. Turquoise has been found only in one location in distinct crystals of the triclinic system in 1912 in Lynch, Virginia, U.S.A. The normal formation consists of a cryptocrystalline aggregate with the crystallites so fine that the material may be considered to be practically amorphous, which means the rocks are very porous. The chemical composition of turquoise is that of a hydrous copper aluminum phosphate with some iron, the composition varies from stone to stone. The sky blue color is known in America as ‘robin’s egg blue’ is because of the higher percentage of copper versus iron. If the stone has a higher percentage of iron than copper the color will be bluish green. American turquoise color will fade faster than the Persian turquoise because it has a higher porosity and is more absorbant. The rarest and most valuable color is the intense sky blue without any trace of matrix, or web like lines often found in the stone. Turquoise with matrix may be less valuable, but of the matrix variety the “spiderweb” is the most desirable.

Egyptian sun god Ra and Scarab, ornamented with lapis lazuli and turquoiseThe turquoise mines in New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California are the most abundant mines in the Southwest United States. In California turquoise is found mainly in the Mohave Desert, where the mines have been worked for over 1,000 years by the Pueblo Indians. The production of turquoise today in the southwest United States is mostly as a byproduct of copper mining. Many of the specialized turquoise mines have now become depleted, especially in the vibrant green variety and only ten percent of all turquoise mined is of gem quality.

Turquoise is a soft stone with the hardness less than 6 on the Mohs’s scale. The gem quality stones are generally not faceted but cut in a cabochon shape. The opaque turquoise stone can be polished to give a beautiful wax sheen luster. Turquoise stones can also be cut very flat and thin which makes it easy to use for inlay decorations. Because Turquoise is a soft stone it can be easily cut and has been used for carvings and engravings in all cultures throughout the centuries.

Tibetan green turquoise has been highly prized and written about for many years. However, Tibet does not have turquoise mines and the stones were probably brought to Tibet originally by the friar Francesco Orazio della Penna di Billi in 1730 from China. Written by Laufer, he also states 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; but exact locations were not given and have not been known. In Tibet the green turquoise is called “gyu” and the name may have been derived from Chinese since the name “yu” means green jade in Chinese.

According to recent archaeological finds in China, turquoise has been known for over 3000 years. Marco Polo wrote of the 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 of turquoise until the Mughal Period of the fourteenth century. The Mughal name for turquoise was kiris.

The most important source of turquoise both historically and commercially is the Egyptian turquoise from the Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian turquoise is more often a greenish blue color than the sky blue color from Persia. The mines of Magharah and Serabit el Khadim were the source in Egypt over 4000 years ago. Malachite, azurite and chryosocolla were also found in the same mines. Turquoise was used for ornamentation in the Egyptian Old and Middle Kingdoms as early as the Baderian period. The surviving documents of King Semerkhet, 2923 B.C. records the extensive mining operations which employed thousands of laborers until about 1000 B.C. The Egyptian name for turquoise was “majkat”, early translations was transcribed as malachite, which is why the name of turquoise was not in ancient Egyptian writings. In 1947 the site of the port through which the Egyptians brought the turquoise for the Pharoahs and the royal family to use for adornment was found in Merkhah, approximately 100 meters from the Gulf. The turquoise district of Sinai lies along the south western coastlines of the peninsula bordering the Gulf of Suez. An ancient temple dedicated to Hathor, the Goddess of Turquoise, is located south of the famous turquoise mine at Serabit el Khadim.

Temple of Hathor, Egypt

The Native Americans from the south western states of U.S.A. supplied the turquoise to the Aztecs of Mexico and the Toltec’s who preceded them. The Aztecs used turquoise for decoration by inlaying the stones into a wooden base with wax or gum (used as glue). An incredible example of this type of work is currently on display in the British Museum. The front of a human skull is completely covered with a mosaic of turquoise and lignite with the eyes of polished pyrites and the teeth in white shell.

Natural Turquoise and Pearl Bracelet designed by Janet Deleuse

The Pueblo Indians of the American south west also used turquoise as inlay work. One of the oldest known artifacts with turquoise inlay patterns is a bone scraper that was found during the 1896 Hyde Expedition in Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canon, New Mexico.

The Apache Indians called turquoise duklij. It was valued as a talisman with the powers to aid the warrior and hunter by assuring the accuracy of his aim, the turquoise was tied to the bow to insure a straight shoot to its mark.

Turquoise has been found in burial sites in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Mexico Central America and the southwest United States. Over 9,000 turquoise beads and pendants were found near one single grave in New Mexico.

Since turquoise has been prized for so many centuries it is not surprising that it is one of the first gems to be imitated. One of the earliest imitation materials known was used before 4777 BC and was still used during the Roman period until about 51 BC. This 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 many imitations of turquoise has been used, more commonly glass, enamel, stained chalcedony and porcelain. Pressed and bonded pieces of turquoise with plastic or resin has been commonly used since 1957. Some of these imitations can have faked cracks and a color of true turquoise. Artificial products that are sold as turquoise are, Viennese Turquoise, Hamburger Turquoise and Neolith. Synthetic turquoise has been produced and marketed in France since 1970. 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. Turquoise which is oiled, waxed and made stronger by impregnating the material with silica and resins are all acceptable methods of stabilizing the soft porus stone for jewelry purposes.

Recorded in the thirteenth century by the Persians, horsemen who carried turquoise on hunt or war would be protected from falling from their horse” the stone became known as a horse amulet. 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.” Interestingly the Hindus had a similar belief of “an individual could look at a new moon and immediately after look at a stone of turquoise, great wealth would surely follow.”

The Navajo peoples believed that if a stone of turquoise was thrown into a river while a prayer to the rain god was being spoken this would ensure the blessing of rain.

Additional information and photo Credits:

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

Archeology Treasures edited by Alberto Siliotti, VMB Publishers 2006