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Identifying Southwestern Turquoise Jewelry & It's Interesting History

Tanzy Ward

Turquoise, a mineral created from copper and aluminum over 30 million years ago, is one of the most commonly used natural stones in southwestern jewelry. It is believed that turquoise was first mined and used in North America around 200 B.C. In North America, turquoise can be found in historic active mines such as the Kingman Turquoise mine and Morenci Turquoise mine in Arizona. Ancient tribes also mined their turquoise in the Cerrillos and Burro Mountains of what is now New Mexico. Some of the ancient tribes that used turquoise were the Hohokam and Anasazi people. Ancient turquoise beaded necklaces have been discovered by archaeologists at these ancient mines, which indicate that turquoise was commonly used to make jewelry in the Southwest long ago. Although these ancient tribes likely called the mineral by another name, the word 'turquoise' is derived from the French word 'turquois',which means Turkey. This is due to Europe being introduced to turquoise through Turkey, which was mined in Khorasan of Persia. 

The Native American tribes in the Southwest region of North America developed and mastered the skill of cutting turquoise stone, inlay work, and bead making. Some of the different southwestern tribes that are specifically related to certain designs are the Zuni, Santo Domingo, Navajo, Tewa, and Acoma. Historical southwestern turquoise jewelry designs includes mosaic inlay, flower stamping, and turquoise heishi beading. By the mid 1800's, many native tribes in the Southwest region of North America ,such as the Navajo, began to create turquoise jewelry with lapidary silversmith skills learned from the Spanish. They began stone cutting with silver and creating jewelry for not just themselves, but for others as well. Southwestern turquoise jewelry became a highly sought after collectible for tourists coming in the area for the Grand Canyon via the railroad system. During the historical 'Fred Harvey' Era there was a genre of mass produced lightweight Native American jewelry for Anglo-tourists along the Santa Fe railroad lines. The Fred Harvey Company, created by entrepreneur Fred Harvey, established  jewelry spots for tourists vising the areas. The jewelry was created by specialized machinery and also by hand as well. Today, Fred Harvey era jewelry is one of the most highly collected and sought after Native American jewelry. 

(Pictured Above is Atsidi Sani, credited for being the first known Navajo silversmith who taught his four sons the trade, and in return they taught many others)

Antique and vintage turquoise native to the Southwest region of North America come from a variety of mines. Each mines are distinctively known for their specific turquoise aesthetic. Colorado turquoise mines include King Manassa, Cripple Creek, and Villa Grove. Arizona turquoise mines include the Kingman, Brisbee, Morenci, and the Sleeping Beauty turquoise mine located in the Global-Miami mining district.In Nevada turquoise mines include the Number 8, Lone Mountain,and Lander Blue. In New Mexico, turquoise mines include the largest known turquoise deposit in North America, the Cerrillos turquoise mine. Other New Mexico mines with a substantial amount of Turquoise is Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon. 

(Example of a variation of turquoise stones, with natural matrix lines. Zanathia Jewelry Collection) 

Antique and vintage southwestern turquoise jewelry includes a variety of different styles depending on the artist or tribe that created it. Highly collected southwestern turquoise jewelry includes the Navajo squash blossom necklace, turquoise fetish necklaces with petit point and needle point designs from the Zuni, and the Santo Domingo turquoise heishi necklace. When collecting, It is important to know and understand the difference between Native American crafted turquoise jewelry and southwestern jewelry pieces that may not have been created by Native Americans. Not every jewelry piece in the Southwest is created by Native Americans, but many talented artisans use the turquoise mined stones in these regions to create beautiful turquoise jewelry. Therefor, it certainly helps to know the characteristics and types of Native American jewelry designs. As an antique dealer and collector, if I'm aware that a turquoise jewelry piece is native to the Southwest region or created in a 'southwestern' style, but not necessarily an authentic tribal Native American piece, then I just classify it as 'southwestern'. Therefor, tribal Native American jewelry and southwestern jewelry are not necessarily interchangeable. 

Southwestern turquoise jewelry is a highly collected piece of history and is important to preserve. In modern times, there is still an immense fascination and growing  admiration with southwestern turquoise jewelry that I predict will not go away or fade anytime soon. The historic significance and importance of preserving southwestern jewelry has been emphasized with time and is certainly a interesting glimpse into the sentimental stories of the people who created these historical treasures. 

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