What is Turquoise?
Turquoise is an opaque mineral that occurs in beautiful hues of blue, blue-green and yellow-green. It has been
treasured as a gemstone for thousands of years. Isolated from one another, the ancient people of Africa, Asia,
South America and North America independently made turquoise one of their preferred materials for producing
gemstones, inlay and small sculptures.
Chemically, turquoise is a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum (CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8·5H2).
Its only important use is in the manufacture of jewelry and ornamental objects. However, in that use it is extremely popular - so popular that the
English language uses the word "turquoise" as the name of a blue-green color that matches the stone. Very few minerals have a color that is so well known, so characteristic and impressive that the name of the mineral becomes so commonly used. Only three other minerals - gold,
silver and copper have a color that is used in common language more than turquoise.
Blue minerals are rare and that is why turquoise captures attention in the gemstone market. The most desirable color
of turquoise is a sky blue or robin's egg blue that is often called "Persian blue" in the gemstone market. The name "Persian blue" is often used even if the
specimen being described was mined in another location.
After blue, blue-green stones are preferred, with yellowish green material being less desirable. Departure from a
nice blue color is caused by small amounts of iron substituting for aluminum in the turquoise structure. The iron imparts
a green tint to the turquoise in proportion to its abundance. Turquoise, especially the more porous varieties, can discolor
with exposure to prolonged sunlight, heat, cosmetics, perspiration and body oil.
Some turquoise contains inclusions of its host rock (known as matrix) that appear as black or brown spider-webbing or patches
within the material. Many cutters try to produce stones that exclude the matrix but sometimes it is so uniformly or finely
distributed through the stone that it cannot be avoided. Some people who purchase turquoise jewelry enjoy seeing the
matrix within the stone, but as a general rule, turquoise with heavy matrix is less desirable.
Some turquoise localities produce material with a characteristic color and appearance. For example, the Sleeping Beauty
Mine is known for its light blue turquoise without matrix. Much of the turquoise from the Kingman Mine is bright blue with
a spider web of black matrix. The Morenci Mine produces a lot of dark blue turquoise with pyrite in the matrix. Much of the
Bisbee turquoise has a bright blue color with a chocolate brown matrix. People who know turquoise can often, but not always,
correctly associate a stone with a specific mine.
Physical Properties of Turquoise
||sky blue (most desirable as a gemstone), blue, blue green, yellowish green, often with brown, black or metallic matrix spider-webbing through the material
||waxy to subvitreous
||5 to 6
||2.6 to 2.9 (variable because of porosity)
||decorative stone, gemstone
Turquoise is rarely found in well-formed crystals. Instead it is usually an aggregate of microcrystals. When the
microcrystals are packed closely together, the turquoise has a lower porosity, greater durability, and polishes to a
higher luster. This luster falls short of being "vitreous" or "glassy." Instead many people describe it as "waxy" or
"subvitreous." Porous turquoise is sometimes treated by soaking it in melted wax or impregnating it with polymer
plastic to improve its characteristics.
Turquoise forms best in an arid climate, and that determines the geography of turquoise sources. Most of the world's
turquoise rough is currently produced in the southwestern United States, China, Chile, Egypt, Iran, and Mexico.
In these areas, rainfall infiltrates downward through soil and rock, dissolving small amounts of copper. When this
water is later evaporated, the copper combines with aluminum and phosphorus to deposit tiny amounts of turquoise on
the walls of subsurface fractures.
Turquoise can also replace the rock in contact with these waters. If the replacement is complete, a solid mass of
turquoise will be formed. When the replacement is less complete, the host rock will appear as a "matrix" within
the turquoise. The matrix can form a "spider web," "patchy" design, or other pattern within the stone.
Turquoise Jewelry and Art
The earliest record of turquoise being used in jewelry or in ornaments is from Egypt. There turquoise has been found
in royal burials over 6000 years old. About 4000 years ago, miners in Persia produced a blue variety of turquoise with
a "sky blue" or "robin's egg blue" color. This material was very popular and traded through Asia and into Europe. This is the source of the popular "Persian Blue" color.
In North America the earliest known use of turquoise was in the Chaco Canyon area of New Mexico, where the gem was used
over 2000 years ago. Ancient artists produced beads, pendants, inlay work, and small sculptures (see photos in
the right column).
Rough turquoise and turquoise objects were held in high regard by Native Americans and were traded widely. This spread
North American turquoise across the southwest and into South America. These early Native American jewelry designs were simple, and the turquoise
was not set in metal findings.
In the late 1800s, Native American artists began using coin silver to make jewelry. This work evolved into the turquoise
and sterling silver style of Native American jewelry that is popular today.
The demand for turquoise and turquoise jewelry rises and falls over time. In the United States there was a surge in demand
that began in the 1970s and declined in the 1980s. Demand for turquoise jewelry is always highest in the southwestern
states where turquoise mining and Native American artists make turquoise part of the local culture.
Synthetic and Imitation Turquoise
A small amount of synthetic turquoise was produced by the Gilson Company in the 1980s, and some of their material was used
to make jewelry. It was produced in a sky blue color, sometimes with a gray spider webbing. It was a ceramic product
with a composition similar to natural turquoise.
Synthetic turquoise, and turquoise simulants have been produced in Russia and China since the 1970s. They are prolific producers. The material is used to make cabochons, beads,
small sculptures and many other items. A photo in the right column of this page shows some synthetic turquoise cabochons
made in Russia.
There are many different glass, plastic and ceramic materials with an appearance similar to turquoise. Many of these can
easily be distinguished from turquoise by testing their hardness, specific gravity or other properties.
Howlite and magnesite are light gray to white minerals that often have markings that resemble the spider webbing seen in some turquoise.
They can be dyed a turquoise blue color that makes them look very similar to natural turquoise. These dyed stones fooled many
people when they first entered the marketplace and still are mistaken for genuine turquoise by unfamiliar buyers.
These dyed stones have damaged the market for genuine turquoise. They have been purchased with the thought that they were turquoise by many people and
have produced uncertainty in the mind of jewelry buyers. This causes some people to avoid turquoise jewelry.
Today dyed howlite and magnesite are still used to make mass-produced beads, cabochons, tumbled stones and other turquoise look-alike
items. They are almost ubiquitous in the marketplace. The dye generally does not penetrate deeply into the material. Scratching
the back of a stone with a pin will often reveal a white interior. When heavily dyed, a stone must be scratched deeply or be broken to
reveal the light interior.
A few minerals are sometimes confused with turquoise by people who are unfamiliar with turquoise. These minerals include:
variscite, larimar, blue-green chalcedony, lapis lazuli and chrysocolla. Simple tests will usually differentiate these
materials; however, some of the tests are destructive and are usually not suitable for use on finished jewelry items.
Contributor: Hobart King
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|A collection of Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) turquoise and orange argillite inlay pieces from Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. These pieces date from about 1020-1140 CE and show the typical materials used in the ancient Chacoan bead and inlay industry. Public domain image from the National Park Service.
|Turquoise cabochons from many parts of the world, showing the great diversity of color and matrix. Image © iStockphoto, IrisGD.
|A collection of Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) turquoise beads from Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. These pieces date from about 1050-1100 CE and show the typical materials used in the ancient Chacoan bead and inlay industry. Public domain image from the National Park Service.
|Cabochons made from synthetic turquoise made in Russia. These stones are 7mm x 5mm ovals.