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The Turquoise Crisis: Buyer Beware!

Turquoise minedYou know it by its color – blue as the Arizona sky. Sometime it’s jade green or lime, rich with copper veining. Whatever the shade, you know it as turquoise, once considered the property of kings. Or is it?

That’s the question in a market flooded with imitation materials mostly found in costume jewelry, and even in higher-end designs as well. The reasons behind the fakes are many, including competition by the Chinese jewelry industry, scarcity of domestic turquoise, and the rise of international trade in gemstones—turquoise being among the top ten in popularity.

Currently the most demanding customers are the Japanese. As a result, prices are up—nearly five times what they were ten years ago. For anyone buying or selling, these issues are critical. Native American jewelers have long used turquoise mined primarily in Arizona and Nevada from sources known for consistently high quality material. Mines exist in other states as well, like Colorado, California, New Mexico and Utah. Yet, according to John Hartman of Durango Silver Company in Colorado, a highly respected dealer/designer with 40+years of experience and part owner of three Nevada mines, the US market is temporarily crippled.

Real and Fake Turquoise“Out of the 180 mines once supplying product,” said Hartman, “very few are functioning at present, the most prolific being the Kingman Mine in Arizona. Hopefully, the current state of affairs will create a greater appreciation for turquoise, making it profitable to open more of the mines again.”

Meanwhile, independent mine owners are trying to cope with the onslaught of Chinese fabricators. Because the Chinese are now conserving product from their own mines, they’ve created a range of astonishing substitutes for export. These fake nuggets and beads look, feel, and often weigh the same as turquoise. Some are made of dyed magnesite or howlite, a chalk-like and softer natural material. Others are nothing more than plastic, resin, or dyed concrete; even the veining is added. These replicas are convincing, and at incredibly low prices, reason to be concerned.  

Santa Fe jeweler Doug Magnus, owner of the legendary Cerrillos Mine near Santa Fe, believes the future of the turquoise mining industry looks bleak. Sourcing and extracting product of any decent quality can only grow more expensive. The work is labor intensive and suffers from government restrictions regarding the opening of new mines.

“The mining process,” explained Magnus, “creates a great deal of poor quality product lacking hardness and character. Much can be made usable with the introduction of clear acrylic to stabilize the stone, improving color and workability. Therefore, a great deal of product today has been stabilized, a standard practice in stone finishing, and not entirely a detriment. The process involves submerging the stone into a stabilizing compound. The natural action of the stone’s capillaries draws the compound inside and often enhances the color.”

Martin Seidel of Golden Fleece Trading Company in Albuquerque, a stone cutting studio collaborating with talented Native American silversmiths and artisans, confirms there are still collections of high quality, old-stock rough material in the marketplace. Some raw turquoise mined from the 1950s through the 1980s can turn up unexpectedly, and in the right hands, what looks like a simple rock can be transformed into a precious turquoise gem. Currently, two of Seidel’s favorite sources, sought after by collectors, are Indian Mountain and Stenich, two mining locations in Nevada that at one time produced exceptional turquoise.

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How should a customer know what is good quality and not a poor imitation? Start by patronizing trustworthy suppliers. Learn the difference between real turquoise and fake. Natural turquoise in the earth, (an aggregate of copper, aluminum sulfites and iron), is often soft or porous. It hardens or agatizes when exposed to air. True turquoise has an opaque, waxy luster that may or may not include a matrix, depending on the type.

Learn to identify turquoise by mining location. Turquoise mines are found all over the world, and each produces stones with distinctive colors and markings. Various sources can help you identify stones from Iran, Africa, Afghanistan, China and Tibet, versus those mined in the USA.

Know how to care for turquoise. Don’t use soap or any other cleaning solution to clean or polish turquoise jewelry; only a soft, dry cloth to wipe off dirt or grime. Always remove turquoise jewelry before applying creams or oils because any type of oil can affect the color. To test turquoise jewelry for authenticity; put a hot needle on the stone. If it’s a man-made material, the needle will usually leave a mark. When buying or selling—always refer to the real thing as “natural.”

Craig Blanchard, owner of Bilagaanas Fine American Indian jewelry in Albuquerque believes, “Competition among consumers for turquoise will continue to increase prices, especially gemstone quality. I’m confident the current trends will continue and this beautiful stone with such depth of color and spiritual meaning to our indigenous people will become even more popular, taking its rightful place among the most sought after precious gems in the world.” 

—Corinne Brown


Photo Credit for image in Smoke Signals eMagazine:

Turquoise
Photo courtesy Bilagaanis, Albuquerque, NM

 


 


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Smoke Signals blows your way from High Noon Western Americana of Los Angeles, California, producers of the High Noon Antique Show & Auction for 25 years (1991-2014). Smoke Signals eMagazine was founded in 2010 from a desire to share thoughts and facts with the High Noon community and look at what is going on in the Western world while feeding our readers with great recipes and giving advertisers a chance to blow their own smoke.

And hopefully we educate along the way.

Linda Kohn Sherwood, Editor


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