Turquoise, Water, Sky
Two Years of True Blue
BY CINDRA KLINE
TURQUOISE REQUIRES WATER TO form,” explains Maxine McBrinn, curator of archaeology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC). “In areas where so little water exists, the underlying understanding that turquoise is formed by the action of water only adds to its aesthetic appeal.”
McBrinn stands before a painting, The Shaman, by Navajo artist Shonto Begay, that for her is a touchstone of the new exhibition at MIAC, Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning. This 1991 work of Begay’s incorporates the three elements in the title: the shaman, surrounded by water, and wearing turquoise, gazes up at the sky. “For me, as a young child, I was always told that turquoise is a concentration of thunderclouds,” explains Begay. “It means ‘moisture,’ therefore we wear it to call rain and fulfillment of promises, hope and celebrations. We wear it while planting crops, especially the sacred corn.” Begay wears his turquoise as “a ring, a pin, bracelet, or ketoh.”
High-grade turquoise is often referred to as “gem quality” and, like diamonds, priced by carat weight. While never faceted like diamonds, it’s multifaceted as a topic. Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning ambitiously embraces everything turquoise, beginning with a brief overview of the use of turquoise around the globe—from Tibet to Sudan—as well as old and new, fake and true. “We even touch upon prehistoric use and admiration,” says McBrinn (see sidebar, pp. 46–47).
Objects and art depicting turquoise, both the color and the stone, are included among the nearly 400 pieces of jewelry in the exhibition. Major collections are coming out of the curatorial closets, including those of the archaeologist H. P. Mera and the poet Witter Bynner. Bynner amassed a great collection of turquoise in the early twentieth century. Mera, a doctor and a collector of a wide range of Native American material, was the first curator of the Laboratory of Anthropology and wrote two excellent books on Native American jewelry; he also designed the New Mexico state flag based on the Zia sun symbol. In addition, the exhibition also features the recently
acquired estates of Dr. Don Pierce and that of Maurice and “Pat” Eby. McBrinn says the Pierce and Eby collections “do a nice job of filling in the gaps for our contemporary examples.” There’s a little something for everyone, from tourists to toddlers: an interactive teaching room provides children’s puzzles for hands-on understanding of “inlay” and an informative video. Curious about identifying “natural” turquoise? Mines and terminology will be explained. In addition, the two-year endeavor will support a plethora of off-site activities, including mine tours, lectures, and monthly events.
Turquoise possesses a multitude of purported meanings for admirers, including health, protection, sustenance, success, serenity, good hunting, friendship, fertility, wealth, joy, blessings, even chakra vibrations. The use of turquoise paint on window frames and doorways in the Southwest comes from a Native American belief that the color prevents witchcraft and evil from entering.
In the United States, only a few pieces of turquoise have been found from sites that date before the Common Era (also referred to as “AD”), and it wasn’t until about a thousand years ago that it became more widely available; Mesoamerican Classic-period turquoise remnants have been found, but it was not until the tenth and eleventh centuries that interest in, and access to, turquoise began to increase. Turquoise-encrusted eleventh- and twelfth-century baskets unearthed at Ridge Ruin, Arizona; and excavations at New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, at Pueblo Bonito, have similarities. In fact, the Pueblo Bonito site shows profound appreciation of turquoise: tens of thousands of items containing turquoise, including raw material, have been discovered (see Mathien, this issue).
Opinions today differ on turquoise exchange between Mexico and the American Southwest along trade routes—to, or from, Mexico? Or, was there any appreciable trade at all?—but turquoise has long been loved in both regions. An olla (water jug) from when Chaco was inhabited, AD 1000–1100, is on exhibit for its painted designs. The olla displays “hachure,” a decoration found on early pottery where delicate diagonal lines symbolize the color blue-green, indicating water and/or sky.
The first “modern” discovery of turquoise in the United States—noted as green, not blue—was in 1858, attributed to the Cerrillos mine in New Mexico. In Santa Fe that year, researcher W. P. Blake noted “green turquoise in use for necklaces by some of the Pueblo Indians, [previously] the occurrence of turquoise in America had not been announced or known.” The Southwest isn’t the sole source of American turquoise, however. Copper mining yields turquoise as a by-product, hence discoveries in a surprising array of states, such as Michigan and New Jersey, although mines in New Mexico, Nevada, California, Arizona, and Colorado are the most prevalent.
A FAMILY’S FASCINATION
Maurcena Eby Wells, only daughter of Maurice and Ida May Eby, donated her parents’ jewelry to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture after her mother’s death in 2004: “I remember her always wearing turquoise bracelets,” she says.
Maurice Eby was a respected photographer, and Ida May, also known as “Pat,” became known for her creative skills. “My dad didn’t see things artistically,” explains Wells. “He was more of a technical photographer.” Hence her mother’s aesthetic sensibilities were welcomed. “They bought jewelry together,” she says, “and it was the turquoise they were drawn to, not so much any particular style. We favored the look of Morenci and Bisbee” (two highly regarded mines yielding distinctive stones).
From childhood, Wells recalls “Indian jewelry” being integrated into the Eby household. Maurcena has an indelible memory of her namesake father and his vintage gun, with Zuni inlay on both handle and holster: “I was nine or ten years old,” she says, “and we were still living in Kansas. The gun had a hair trigger. One day he slipped on a throw rug, carrying the gun, and it fired. The bullet ricocheted around the room and hit him in the head. Mother and grandmother were in the kitchen making dinner. Well, they called an ambulance of course, and at the hospital they dug out the bullet, and he had it made into a keychain that he carried for the rest of his life. He liked to show it off and say he was a ‘hard-headed person’ because the bullet was flattened on one side from going into his skull.” The gun, given to Maurice “by a Texas Ranger,” will not be displayed but is now in the New Mexico History Museum’s permanent collections.
“Dad wore a lot of turquoise—cufflinks, belt buckles, bolo ties,” remembers Wells. “After he passed away, Mother had his two buckles made into box lids, as a remembrance.” Maurice died in 1967 at the age of fifty-five after a life of being weakened from a childhood bout with tuberculosis.
“Health reasons—primarily needing the better climate— brought us to New Mexico in 1946,” Wells explains. “We started in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he had a professional photography studio.” She remembers being with her father in their darkroom and laughs. “I can still navigate around in the dark pretty well.”
His work in Las Vegas segued into work in Las Cruces, where, among other projects, Eby was involved with rocket launches at White Sands. His pictures, including one of a launch, were featured on the cover of magazines throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
He also became known for widely published photographs of “Maria.” Known by then for portrait photographs in addition to his technical work, Eby was hired to take pictures of famous San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez and her son, Popovi. “His images, initially, were to promote them and their gift shop,” explains Wells. “But over time, many were published for other reasons, and one image in particular was very popular on postcards.” Recognizing how important her husband’s prolific career was to the history of New Mexico, Pat donated thirty thousand photographs to the university archives at New Mexico State, in Las Cruces. By that time, her own accomplishments had been highlighted in articles in New Mexico Magazine. “She was known locally for making beautiful dresses,” Wells says. “But she also did restoration on pottery. She always wore turquoise—she bought a lot from trader Tobe Turpin in Gallup—and wore her hair back in a bun, with turquoise hairpins.”
Those hairpins are featured in the exhibition, as is a dramatic necklace that will be shown “front and center,” confirms McBrinn. The necklace, a breathtaking arrangement, laid out on black fabric but never completed in silver, boasts fifty-seven sizeable Morenci nuggets. “We picked out the turquoise together,” Wells recalls. “I told mother that I wanted it to just ‘drip turquoise.’ My birthday’s December 22nd, and turquoise is my birthstone.” Another necklace, showcasing eighteen large, high-quality Morenci stones and engraved “February 14, 1971”—her Valentine’s gift—is included.
The 1970s saw extreme popularity in turquoise and Native American jewelry. While turquoise never goes out of style, for the majority it has remained a regional preference: dealers in vintage material have long counted on bracelets and squash-blossom necklaces coming “out of grandma’s dresser drawers” after being purchased on Southwest vacations and then languishing, unworn, in areas where silver and turquoise take a backseat to pearls or gold. But celebrities and rock stars of the late 1960s—think Jim Morrison in his concha belt— paved the way for renewed appreciation of Indian jewelry and, subsequently, turquoise. Issues of the magazine Arizona Highways became go-to guides for turquoise; 1970s issues are sought after for their abundant color photographs and focus on mine attribution.
Wells chose to keep her mother’s copy of Alice Marriott’s classic book, Maria: The Potter of San Ildefonso, into which her mother glued countless photographs of, and notes from, Maria. So precious was their friendship that upon her death, Pat’s ashes were placed into a vase made by Maria.
A TRUE COLLECTOR
Dr. Don Pierce, a pathologist, discussed loaning pieces for display prior to his passing in October 2013 at age seventy-four; thereafter his collection went to MIAC. Pierce’s cousin and executrix of the estate, Erline Bynum, says, “Frequently when he’d buy things, or give gifts, he’d say, ‘That’s museum quality,’ so we just understood that’s where it would go— the museum. We donated everything. He had no kids, never married—there wasn’t anyone to pass it along to.”
McBrinn describes the doctor as “an intelligent presence with a mischievous spark.” Pierce’s father was an entomologist, so intellectual curiosity and attention to detail ran in the family.
Bynum recalled an event “about four years ago” when Pierce happened to be wearing a bracelet made by [Native American artist/painter] Tony Abeyta. “It turned out to be the first piece of jewelry Tony ever made,” recalls Bynum. “Tony had Don take it off, and he was having a wonderful time showing it to people. He even enjoyed showing Don all of his mistakes.”
While Pierce grew up in Mississippi and lived there for a time as an adult, “he knew he wasn’t going to stay in Mississippi.” Bynum says, “We grew up with Roy Rogers and that kind of fascination with the West. In his travels, he always sought out Indian jewelry. There wasn’t a time when he wasn’t interested in that stuff.”
“That stuff” led Pierce to purchase property in New Mexico in the 1980s, build a home, and relocate to Santa Fe when he retired in 1995. “He loved his rings, and bracelets and necklaces,” says Bynum. “He had one, probably a ladies’ necklace, that he’d let me wear. He also had a buckle by Cippy CrazyHorse . . . . Cippy only made two. One sold to Jimi Hendrix, and the other to Don.” (Cippy is the son of master silversmith Joe H. Quintana, of Cochiti Pueblo; Quintana made Jim Morrison’s famous concha belt, purchased in about 1967.) Bynum recalls how, as Parkinson’s disease impinged on Pierce’s health, he “would get up in the night and play with his jewelry pieces, admire them like a child with a toy. He couldn’t sleep when he got so sick, and they brought him comfort. He was a true collector.” Sad as the diagnosis was to Pierce and his family, Bynum said it at least gave ample warning to “get everything in order.” Bynum and Pierce were close cousins, three years apart, and she visited frequently. “I can’t remember when I didn’t know him.”
KEEPING IT REAL Superior, natural, domestic turquoise is scant today. In a 1975 article in Arizona Highways, Joseph Stacey wrote, “Less than 10 percent of any mined quantity will qualify as virgin, pure, super-fine or gem quality. Approximately 15 percent will be judged as top grade to better than average and good. The other 75 percent make up the general commercial grade with most of it lacking the color and density of the top 25 percent. . . . It is no secret in the trade that most of the 75 percent of commercial grade turquoise is treated or stabilized.”
That Stacey’s observation was made in the mid-1970s, at the apex of turquoise jewelry’s popularity, is noteworthy because supplies have depleted in the decades since. Hearing “stabilized” should not be a deal breaker, however—stabilized stones are more forgiving for artists to work with, and their use allows more turquoise to come to market.
Turquoise forms from a chemical reaction that occurs when water encounters copper deposits. Rain sinks through soil and rock, and when the water evaporates, the remaining copper melds with aluminum and phosphorous. In this way turquoise forms in host rock (which, when cut, becomes the “matrix”) or replaces the original rock. Turquoise is quirky in its quick and diverse color variations: a range of tones occur within one mine, and sometimes one vein.
While matrix characteristics are helpful identifiers, it is difficult to definitively declare mine origins unless one knows the provenance or was present at the time of unearthing. Popular posters and tourist postcards pairing stones to mines fuel confusion, and asking a handful of sellers, “What mine is this from?” often, frustratingly, brings a handful of opinions.
Confusing the issue even further are the countless ways color and matrix can be created or intensified. The terms natural, stabilized, enhanced, reconstituted, and “block” all mean different things, and evaluating jewelry through such a variety of labels, often misused, is a daunting task.
For as long as it’s been around, turquoise has been altered in some fashion. Frequently chalky in appearance and quick to crumble, it invites the jewelry maker to bolster both its shade and strength. Methods of messing with turquoise vary with the time period. The application of animal fat and saliva are ancient, temporary techniques to deepen color. More recently, paraffin and plastic have been used to enhance appearance, along with complete reconstitution of pale, powdered turquoise into a form still called “real.” Records from the American Southwest detail the staining of stones with “Prussian blue” dye in 1886, which could be removed via alcohol and ammonia to return the turquoise to its natural color. And in the late 1950s and 1960s, “Much of the chalk-soft (oiling) turquoise went in large quantities to Idar-Oberstein in Germany . . . technicians of that town treated it, adding color, and often cut it into spheres, the specialty of that town.” In 1975 Arizona Highways lamented plaster beads “coated with turquoise colored blue lacquer,” which sold for $800—alas, deceit strolls hand in hand with desire.
Just as the popularity of Native American–made jewelry for public consumption gained and waned throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so too did the focus on, and use of, turquoise. Lone Mountain turquoise, prized today, was apparently a tough sell even prior to the Great Depression: Maisel’s, a major player in the marketing of “Indian motif” jewelry, was the only interested buyer in 1928. Since Maisel’s did employ Native silversmiths in addition to cranking out machine-pressed items, the hard stone caught on and, according to David Neumann, writing in El Palacio in 1973, “became a favorite of the Zuni lapidaries.”
Persian turquoise, traditionally set in gold outside of the Southwest, is held up as a “gold standard” of turquoise for its spectacular blue hue. Persian was imported from present-day Iran for early bracelets, but a piece of porous Persian can turn as “greasy green” as the color typically attributed to turquoise from the local Cerrillos mine; Cerrillos stones are prevalent in older Native American–made silver, as well as thin “tourist” pieces mass produced by early curio companies. The infusion of body oils and exposure to elements over time can alter a stone’s appearance, frequently accounting for the color variations in vintage pieces with multiple stones. While stones are sometimes replaced, more often it’s a case of evolution: originally, the turquoise likely matched. Well-worn necklaces display deeper color and sheen around the neckline.
Local jewelry designer Douglas Magnus hugs his best turquoise with gold bezels. “Given the scarcity of remaining high-quality stones, from any mine, I treat them to gold,” he says. “Top-grade turquoise is rare and special, and just deserves eighteen carat to highlight its value and nature.” Magnus attests to the frustrating practice of matching turquoise to mines: “I have a Kingman nugget that’s green in the corner, then becomes ‘spiderwebby’ blue, then aqua—it’s a riot of color, all in one stone,” he says. “The subject of color is one of the key points. Whatever was in the water that caused it to form affected the color, matrix, and inclusions that make turquoise mysterious and wonderful.” As present-day owner of the historic Tiffany and Castilian mines, in Cerrillos, Magnus says, “The great quantity from the Cerrillos hills would’ve been green, that color sought after in ‘old pawn,’ but there’s ‘Persian blue,’ too. That’s part of the appeal—the mystery of it”
“Fake” turquoise complicates understanding even further, but “Hubbell glass” is a key exception. The Hubbell Trading Post reputedly imported glass as an economical substitute for turquoise, but when (late 1890s? 1920s?) and from where (Czechoslovakia? Italy?) are disputed, due to lack of verifiable records. “Hubbell glass” entices today because Native Americans, favoring its pure color, owned and traded for pieces containing the glass. While some examples have faux matrix, others are solid-colored, softly blue, and opaque.
Hubbell glass is valued by collectors more than are contemporary substitutes posing as turquoise. (For this author, “block” is a brick of “blech.”) The glass was coveted and worn by Navajo and Pueblo peoples. That’s a very different thing than when, today, a novice buyer pays too much money for something presented as “genuine” turquoise.
Shonto Begay expressed that wearing turquoise means “growing into my best— blooming forth.” Running through May 2, 2016, Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning provides ample opportunity to explore what turquoise genuinely means to you.
Cindra Kline is the author of Navajo Spoons: Indian Artistry and the Souvenir Trade, 1880s–1940s (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2001) and recipient of the Southwest Book Award. A long-time member of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, former research associate at the School for Advanced Research, and Southwestern Association for Indian Arts jewelry judge, she guest-curated the Wheelwright Museum’s exhibition, A Stirring Story, and has published numerous regional and national articles in, among others, New Mexico Magazine and American Indian Art.
Stuart A. Northrop. “Turquoise.” El Palacio 79 (1, 1973).
David L. Neumann. “Notes on Turquoise.” El Palacio 79 (1, 1973).
David H. Snow. “Prehistoric Southwestern Turquoise Industry.” El Palacio 79 (1, 1973).
Joseph Stacey. “Indian Jewelry & Trading Posts.” Arizona Highways 51 (3, March 1975).