Mineral, Currency, Talisman
Turquoise is a blueish-green stone that has been treasured by various cultures for thousands of years. In Egypt, the tombs of nobility, including King Tutankhamun, were decorated with this stone,1 in ancient Mexico, it was so sacred that no mortal was permitted to wear it,2 and in the Southwestern United States, turquoise was an important charm for the protection of the body and spirit.3 What is turquoise, and why is it so special?
Historically, turquoise has been found in many different parts of the world. In ancient times, turquoise was found and mined in the modern countries of Mexico,4 Egypt, Iran, China, and the USA.5 Some of those deposits, especially the deposits found in Egypt, were once so thoroughly mined that they are now almost entirely depleted.6 Today, most of the world’s turquoise comes from the southwestern portion of the United States, with Arizona leading the states in production and quality.7
Turquoise’s color can vary dramatically from region to region.8 It forms from a reaction involving copper, aluminum, and phosphate, and variations in the standard proportions of these materials will have a significant impact on the stone’s original color.9 The presence of other materials can also change the color of the stone; for instance, the addition of iron will create a green color,10 and zinc will add a yellow color.11 Turquoise can also change its color. Substances such as acids, perfumes, and skin oil can all change turquoise’s original color, and dehydration and exposure to too much heat will have a similar effect.12 Turquoise is also, comparatively, a soft stone with a hardness of 5 or 6 out of 10 on the Mohs scale.13
The value of an individual piece of turquoise fluctuates in a similar way to its color. It can cost as little as $.01 per carat (a meager $6.35 an ounce) or as much as $1,000 per carat (an impressive $150,000 an ounce).14 Top quality turquoise can be worth more than pure gold, although there are many different thoughts as to what constitutes the most valuable types of turquoise.15 Some basic criteria that affect turquoise’s value are the size, source, intrusions, hardness, and color.16 Traditionally, the most valuable turquoise would be the Persian blue, which was a robin-egg, light blue color,17 but this value is not standardized among collectors today.18 Genuine turquoise’s high cost has created a profitable market for turquoise that is either synthetically created, stabilized, or color-enhanced by dyes.19 While these forms of turquoise might look beautiful, natural turquoise is still far more valuable.20
Turquoise served many distinct functions in the ancient Southwest. For the Puebloans, one of turquoise’s main roles was as jewelry. Thousands of ancient turquoise beads have been found from in the southwestern United States,21 which demonstrates its popularity as an ornament. Puebloans wore turquoise for several different reasons. One reason they wore turquoise was for its obvious beauty; wearing turquoise could make one appear attractive to others in the community. The Pueblo people would also wear turquoise because it was seen as a “prestige” item, meaning that turquoise could be worn to display the wealth of an individual.22 A final reason the Southwestern people wore turquoise was because it was associated with certain supernatural attributes.23
Turquoise was often used by the ancient Puebloans as grave goods. Like the Egyptians and Aztecs,24 when an important member of the Pueblo died, they would often be buried with turquoise.25 Archaeologists have found that some of the turquoise given as grave goods were full pieces of jewelry or ornaments and some pieces were simply scraps from the manufacturing process.26 This indicates that whatever function or purpose the turquoise served in the burial, it was not the quality of the turquoise that mattered but only the presence of the material itself.27 In a similar way, turquoise could be given as an offering at the local kiva (a male-only underground chamber for rituals), but it was only the substance, not the object itself that mattered.28
For Pueblo society, turquoise also served as a form of currency.29 When a Puebloan farmer was able to create surplus food, he would invest his leftover goods in turquoise30 to avoid theft by other members of the community.31 The acquired turquoise could then be worn, used as grave goods, given as an offering, or traded for another item.
Turquoise was also highly valued because of the belief that turquoise has many different spiritual powers.32 One common belief about turquoise is that it will protect its wearer from falls.33 The Persian people firmly believed this,34 and they would attach turquoise to their horses to keep them from stumbling.35 Another power commonly associated with turquoise was that it aided in divination and generally helped communications between humans and the supernatural world.36 People around the world have also thought that turquoise can warn its wearer of impending danger. Some stories say that the stone could take an injury in place of its master, and others say that the stone could break to warn them.37 A color change was supposed to indicate the presence of danger or disease.38
While the different Native American tribes of the Southwest generally agreed about the value of turquoise,39 their stories and myths about it varied extremely. The Hopi thought that turquoise is the excrement of the lizard who travels from the “below” to the “above” and that the earth was only able to free itself from the constricting ocean by turquoise’s special ability to hold back floods.40 The Zuni associated blue turquoise with male attributes and the sky while green turquoise was associated with female attributes and the earth.41 The Apache tribe thought that turquoise could be found in the moist earth at the end of a rainbow,42 and that turquoise found in this manner could be attached to a bow to make the user aim more accurately.43 The Acoma thought that the creator god gave it to them to make them attractive and beloved.44 There was a Navajo belief that turquoise thrown into the water or air could help one to connect with certain deities.45 They also believed that one of their goddesses first appeared to them as a drop of turquoise or a turquoise female figure.46 While the Southwestern people did not necessarily believe the same things about turquoise, the varying legends about it show that it was of immense importance to these people.
Cultures from all over the world have appreciated turquoise for thousands of years. It was buried with our predecessors and carried special meaning to many of them during their lifetimes. Different cultures constructed different objects47 and jewelry out of turquoise, and many different legends and myths arose about it. People may no longer appreciate turquoise for its ritualistic importance or supernatural powers, but its natural beauty is still appreciated throughout the world.
Written by Jireh Nelson, Undergraduate Research Fellow
El Paso Community College, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP