Gem of the water and the sky, turquoise bedecks babies, bodies and buildings from Cerrillos to China.
Native Americans worked with the sacred stone for some 1,200 years before the arrival of the Spanish. The oldest turquoise mines in the world, operated for thousands of years, are in Iran. The Egyptians added it to King Tut’s burial mask. Even the name of New Mexico’s favorite stone spans continents and time zones. It’s archaic French for “Turkey stone.”
“Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture offers highlights from the museum’s extensive collection with more than 400 pieces of jewelry spanning the year A.D. 1200 through contemporary masters. The cases spill over with necklaces, bracelets, belts, rings, earrings, silver boxes, concho belts and bow guards, as well as turquoise-studded objects from across the globe.
Throughout the course of the exhibition, which runs until May 2, 2016, the museum will host monthly talks, including visits with identification experts who will try to pinpoint stone origins, as well as three buying seminars.
Turquoise forms in dry places as water trickles into the Earth’s cracks and crevasses, usually near the copper that alchemizes its famous color. In New Mexico, its evolution extends from the prehistoric burial grounds of Chaco Canyon to the contemporary, sculpted stylings of award-winning artists like Charles Loloma (Hopi Pueblo), Angie Reano Owen (Kewa Pueblo) and Michael “Na Na Ping” Garcia (Pascua Yaqui).
Fakes abounded from ancient times. An artist splashed wooden pendants dating to A.D. 1200 with malachite paint to mimic the precious stone. Anasazi pottery, decorated with parallel, diagonal lines, signaled the viewer to imagine blue-green where none existed. To bolster the blue, the Navajos soaked turquoise in sheep’s tallow.
“I don’t think these were made with the intent to deceive,” says Maxine McBrinn, MIAC curator of archaeology. “They don’t really care if it’s chemically turquoise. The point is the color.
“It’s a color that speaks of sky and water,” McBrinn continues. “Your crops will grow. Your children will have enough to eat.
“Traditionally, you hid turquoise at the entrance of your house and you painted the windows turquoise.”
Necklaces pairing turquoise with shell offer “what I call the double water whammy,” she adds, because of the water symbolism. “Even (turquoise) debris has power. We find it as dedicated offerings in kivas.”
Joined with silver
The Navajos grind turquoise into a powder used as medicine – protection from illness and even snake bite. Babies wear turquoise jewelry from the first hours of their lives as a form of protection. Farmers turned to it to encourage rainfall.
Archaeologists discovered thousands of the stones at Chaco Canyon. They were more than nuggets; they had been worked.
The stash included beads, pendants and other jewelry forms. Diggers also unearthed tessera, individual tiles used to create mosaics. The Chacoans used turquoise both decoratively and ceremonially. By the 1800s, the stone landed in other ancient pueblo kivas.
Native Americans began working with silver in the 1860s after learning techniques from both the Spanish and Mexicans.
The squash blossom evolved from the crescent Moorish symbols of the Spanish conquistadors. Navajo silversmiths turned the crescent into the naja that dangles from the end of the necklace.
Similarly, they lifted the Spanish pomegranate motif to form blossoms or petals dangling along the length of the piece.
It wasn’t long before artists added the stones to rings, bracelets and earrings.
Zuni Pueblo artists – known as the master carvers – began learning lapidary work, creating clusters of stones that evolved into the pueblo’s famously fine needlepoint. The legendary Leekya Dayuse pioneered necklaces encircled with fetish carvings of animals such as frogs and bears.
Navajo ketohs or bow guards often featured the re-use of turquoise pendants, with the drill hole still visible or filled in with silver.
By 1900, artists at what was then called Santo Domingo Pueblo were drilling turquoise into beads for necklaces.
“This is when we see the pairing of turquoise and shell,” McBrinn says. Artists also used spiny oyster, jet and coral to contrast with the blue stone.
The tourist trade exploded with the churning of the railroad in the 1880s-90s. A Tiffany gemologist helped fuel the turquoise fever when he declared it a gemstone of worldwide value. Hence the naming of the Tiffany Mine in Cerrillos.
By the 1970s, a heishi traffic jam flooded the market; a Vogue cover featured a model draped in a squash blossom necklace. Turquoise became a blue symbol of the back-to-nature peace and love movement and prices soared.
Considered the father of contemporary Native American art, Loloma set a rainbow of vertical, sculptural stones of turquoise, jet, coral, sugalite and even pearls into towers of wearable art. A hidden design often lurked in the back, a secret known only to the wearer.
“He’s using lots of gold,” McBrinn says. “You see a lot of contemporary jewelers still influenced by Loloma.”
To distinguish herself from the heishi hordes, Reano Owen crafted intricately inlaid cuffs curving atop mother-of-pearl backings. She merged the old (cottonwood-backed bracelets and earrings) with the new – a black matrix outlining each stone in her mosaics.
Across the globe, the people who found turquoise, mined it, polished it and wore it believed it emboldened them with the promise of safety, health and plenty.
In the Southwest, most artists pair it with silver. In the rest of the world, they frame it in gold.