The Indians of New Mexico have been making jewelry for thousands of years, though the familiar forms seen today date only from the mid-19th century, when the Navajo of western New Mexico pioneered silversmithing and taught it to the Pueblo Indians. The most iconic piece of Southwestern jewelry is the turquoise-and-silver squash-blossom necklace, a large crescent pendant decorated with flowerlike silver beads. Actually derived from Spanish pomegranate decorations, rather than native plant imagery, it’s readily seen in every Santa Fe jewelry store. Look also for shell-shape concho belts (also spelled concha), silver “shells” linked together or strung on a leather belt, and heishi, tiny disks made of shell and threaded to make a ropelike strand. The Zuni carve small animal fetishes—bears, birds, and more—often strung on necklaces with heishi. In addition to turquoise, opals are a popular decorative stone, along with brick-red coral, lapis lazuli, and black jet and marble. Whatever you buy, the gallery or artisan should supply you with a written receipt of its components—which stones, the grade of silver (sterling, ideally), and so forth.
Shopping For Turquoise
Although New Mexico’s turquoise is all mined out, the stone is still an essential part of local jewelry making; most of it is imported from mines in China. It is available in shades from lime-green to pure sky-blue, and much of it has been subjected to various processes to make it more stable and versatile, which affects the price.
Rare gem-grade turquoise is the top of the line—a piece from now-empty mines such as Lander or Lone Mountain can cost $40 per carat. “Gem-grade” applies only to natural stones—those that have not been chemically treated in any way—and is based on the piece’s matrix (the spiderweb of dark veins running through it, which you should be able to feel in any natural turquoise, regardless of grade), luster, and hardness. Gem-grade turquoise pieces from still-functioning mines in China or Tibet will cost significantly less ($10–20 per carat) but will be of the same quality as some premium American stones. Slightly less splendid natural stones are graded jewelry-quality, high-quality, or investment-quality—but they are not quite hard enough to guarantee they will not change color through the decades. They cost $2–5 per carat. For any natural stone, the seller must provide you with a written certificate of its status.
Turquoise that has been stabilized, or submerged in epoxy resin to prevent color change, makes up the bulk of the market. Because good natural turquoise is increasingly difficult to come by and turquoise is such an unstable stone, stabilization is a perfectly acceptable way of making a great deal of the stuff usable. Because it’s less expensive, it allows for a little waste in the carving process, and good-quality stabilized turquoise is often found in expensive jewelry with elaborate inlay. Average-quality stabilized stone, the next grade down, is used by perhaps 70 percent of American Indian artisans—it can stand up to being carved and is very well priced. Though it ranks relatively low in the range of turquoise available, it produces an attractive piece of jewelry—perhaps not with the elaborate spiderwebbing of a rare piece, but with an overall good color and luster.
Below this are low-quality stabilized stones that have been artificially colored (often called “color shot,” or, more confusing, “color stabilized”). “Synthetic” stones are actually real turquoise—small chunks mixed with a binding powder of ground turquoise or pyrite and then pressed into shapes and cut. The result is surprisingly attractive, with natural spiderwebbing, but it should be clearly labeled as synthetic. Treated turquoise has been submerged in water or oil to make it heavier and shinier, a scam with only temporary results—best avoided, but by its nature, it’s seldom honestly labeled.
Aside from the treated stuff, don’t worry too much about getting “bad” or “cheap” turquoise—because each stone is different, the more important thing is to find a piece that’s attractive to you and is priced to reflect its quality. Just remember that the words “genuine,” “authentic,” or “pure” have no real meaning—only “natural” commands a premium. Shopping in New Mexico provides many opportunities to buy direct from the artisan—under the portal at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, for instance. Otherwise, just avoid shopping in too-good-to-be-true stores that are perpetually “going out of business” or “in liquidation.”
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition