Turquoise – The Gemstone of Heaven and Earth

by Kat Paulick

The use of turquoise as a decorative stone dates back millennia and has been used so widely and prominently that most people are familiar with its appearance. One of the first gemstones to be mined, turquoise is an opaque stone naturally ranging in color from sea blue to green. It occurs in arid climates, and most turquoise can be found in Iran, the Sinai peninsula, and the American Southwest. Prized by ancient and modern people alike, its native regions’ cultural diversity has resulted in stunning and varied creations, from the heart of a dreamcatcher to the domed roofs of mosques to an Egyptian burial mask.

In the American Southwest, turquoise jewelry is as iconic as green chili. Paired with silver, it’s found in earrings, pendants, belt buckles, and bolos. The Navajo tribe has long cherished turquoise for its beauty, unique qualities, and metaphysical properties. Turquoise was hung from the ceiling to ward off evil, brought into battle to protect warriors, and tossed into rivers to summon rain. Estsanatlehi, or “Changing Woman,” is a Navajo goddess who began as a piece of turquoise. The Ojibwe weave turquoise into dreamcatchers to protect children from nightmares. A Hopi myth casts turquoise as the waste of the lizard who travels between heaven and earth. The stone was also prominently featured in Aztec culture, crafted into mosaics, masks, and jewelry.

The Sleeping Beauty Mine in Arizona has a reputation for mining some of the best turquoise in the industry. It discontinued mining in 2012, since when the price of Sleeping Beauty turquoise has increased dramatically. Much of the other American-mined turquoise is considered lower quality when compared to Persian turquoise.

Victorian Persian turquoise rings

Nicknamed “Heaven on Earth” for its divine blue color, Persian turquoise has graced sacred buildings and artifacts for thousands of years. The classification can apply to any stone found within what was once the Persian empire. Nishapur, Iran hosted some of the oldest known mines and was the main supplier of turquoise in the Old World for thousands of years, with the gem eventually making its way to Europe and Asia via the Silk Road. Nishapur mines are still active and produce some of the most highly sought-after turquoises in the world.

The Serabit el-Kahdim and Wadi Maghareh mines on the Sinai Peninsula supplied the ancient Egyptians with turquoise, likely predating the First Dynasty. One of the most famous turquoise inlay representations is the gold burial mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, where it accompanies carnelian and lapis lazuli.

Turquoise is admired for its unique ability to change color, a phenomenon that was historically given a metaphysical explanation. Ancient Persians saw the color as an indication of health and vigor, or of a woman’s faithfulness. A fading, cracked stone showed declining health or a woman’s infidelity. Gemologists have since attributed this characteristic to a chemical reaction to dust, skin acidity, cosmetics, or light. Changing color also earned it a reputation in Native American cultures as a living stone.

Turquoise is also one of the first gems to inspire an imitation. In the Americas, wooden pendants dating to 1200 AD were painted to resemble the stone. Egyptians also produced an artificial turquoise using glazed earthenware. Today, turquoise is imitated using plastic or by manipulating another stone, such as howlite or magnesite.

In modern Western culture, the sky-blue beauty is December’s birthstone. It is still used by spiritualists for its healing properties and represents good fortune, protection, and strength. As the Gregorian rhyme goes,

“If cold December gave you birth,

The month of snow and ice and mirth,

Place your hand on a turquoise blue;

Success will bless whate’er you do.”