THE TURQUOISE JUNGLE

By Richard McCord

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Just as all that glitters is not gold, not every lovely looking gemstone that beckons you with mystical aquamarine allure is true-blue turquoise. Not by a long shot.

"Only 10 percent of the turquoise being mined today is gem grade," says Joe Lowry Sr., proprietor of the Turquoise Museum in Albuquerque and an authority on the subject. Therefore, a full nine-tenths of the turquoise going into jewelry and pottery has been altered in one way or another.

And when outright fake turquoise, which is nothing but colored plastic, is factored into the equation, only the tiniest fraction of what is presented as "turquoise" in the marketplace is the genuine, natural, untreated real thing.

Not all of this is bad, however. There is a proper place for every form of turquoise and turquoise-seeming substance—as long as it is openly and honestly represented. Moreover, the sharply lower prices of the altered stones can make handsome turquoise items accessible to countless buyers who could never afford the cost of a natural gem.

The price differential is indeed significant. Highest-quality natural gems, already cut and polished, might sell for more than $1,500 per pound in a jewelers' supply store (in this form, however, they usually are sold by the carat). Even in the rough, encased in impure rock that must be chipped and ground away, gem-grade natural turquoise can cost $350 a pound or more. By contrast, lower-grade stones that have been "stabilized" might bring from $40 to $250 per pound. And a pound of manufactured plastic, sold in chunks called "block turquoise," can go for as little as $10.

The problem is that many unscrupulous vendors sell altered or fake products to gullible first-time buyers at inflated prices, promising all the while that, "Yes, ma'am, this is genuine, gem-grade, all-natural turquoise."

According to museum director Lowry, the ranking of turquoise, from the highest to the lowest, goes like this:

* Large natural gems—The most highly valued turquoise pieces are large, bright blue stones, formed hard enough by nature to hold their shine and color all through the years. Because each stone is different, cost might be affected by the matrix pattern, the name of the mine, the beauty in the eye of the beholder and other factors. Such gems are quite rare, however, and few artists can afford or find them.

* Lesser natural gems with good blue or green color—Though not big enough for, say, bolo ties or concho belts, these pieces are fine for rings or inlaid jewelry. They come in varying degrees of hardness, however, and all but the hardest may over the course of time absorb oil, which changes the stone's color. Therefore, items made with such stones must be kept away from dishwater, hand lotion, baby oil or anything else that might get into the turquoise.

* Stabilized—Beginning in the 1960s, highly technical processes were devised for "stabilizing" low-grade natural turquoise, called "chalk" in the industry because often it is almost white in color and quite soft. When these stones are treated under high pressure with a clear plastic resin, they absorb the solution and emerge as bright blue or green stones almost indistinguishable from high-quality natural gems. This is a permanent treatment, thus the turquoise never fades and is impervious to oils and other liquids. Though not as prized as natural gems, stabilized is considered a fully legitimate form of turquoise-as long as the alteration is acknowledged. Many of the finest turquoise artists, Indian and non-Indian, work with it to make beautiful items that sell at non-collector prices.

* Dyed stabilized—Although clear plastic brings out a stone's "natural color" when absorbed, some stabilizers add dyes to the solution to create a deeper, darker blue. Most dealers and artists do not care for dyed gems, which have an artificial look. But some buyers prefer these colors, and so turquoise altered in this way continues to be produced.

* Reconstituted—Whereas stabilizing permanently hardens large pieces, the "reconstituting" process begins with tiny chips of turquoise, mixes them with epoxy, then treats them under pressure to create nicely colored chunks big enough to make into jewelry. Although a permanently treated form of turquoise, reconstituted is lesser in rank than stabilized.

* Temporarily treated—There are myriad ways to enhance the look of low-quality turquoise temporarily—and numerous shady characters are eager to do so long enough to make a sale. Anything that turquoise absorbs can deepen its color: oil, paraffin, lacquer, polishes, powders, pulverized abrasives, silicon carbide, aluminum oxide, even water. Methods for applying these agents include rubbing, soaking, tumbling, boiling on the kitchen stove or baking in the oven. The durability of these treatments varies, from days to months. But eventually the color will fade, leaving a bleached and unattractive stone that once gleamed bright.

* Imitation—The bottom rung of the turquoise ladder is held by material that is not turquoise at all, but plastic imitations of it. Although colors and even matrix patterns can be approximated, plastic turquoise can melt, scratch, lose luster, fade and generally cease to be attractive not long after it is bought. But there are tons of it on the market, and too-trusting buyers are frequently fooled.

To further complicate the picture, plastic turquoise is often used in machine-stamped silver jewelry manufactured in places like Taiwan or Korea, or made in New Mexico by non-Indian workers, then sold as handmade Native American.

This vast influx of fake or altered turquoise has been heard about by the buying public, but the subject is too complex to be readily understood. Consequently, recent years have seen a growing apprehension in the marketplace.

"There is a knock-off factor in every aspect of Indian art," says Santa Fe dealer Bill Hawn, noting that shoppers were less wary a few years ago."If there were no pitfalls, the business would still be very strong. But there are pitfalls, and fake turquoise is one." And today's buyer needs to be wary to avoid getting taken. Generally speaking, street vendors and truck stops are more likely to misrepresent their turquoise than are established stores in tourist centers like Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque. But deception is where you find it.

A week-long investigative report in 1994 by KOAT-TV in Albuquerque found altered and phony turquoise being sold as natural stone by Native American vendors, by clerks in shops, even by owners of well-known trading posts. The report stressed that such practices are violations of both state and federal laws. But even after the expose, the responsible authorities "did nothing—nothing" to crack down on misrepresentations, says KOAT-TV investigative reporter Larry Barker.

The primary reason more is not being done is a simple lack of manpower, responds Roberta Joe,an assistant attorney general in New Mexico's Consumer Protection Division "Our entire division has only one investigator," she sighs. "With these limitations, it is difficult to go out and drum up cases. So we take them one at a time, usually after a complaint. In most cases, however, we do succeed in getting a voluntary refund when a complaint is made."

Ultimately, then, the best safeguard against getting taken in the turquoise game is the oldest rule of all: caveat emptor. "In this business it's be wise or beware," says Bob Ward, a longtime Indian art dealer in Santa Fe.

Even a little knowledge goes a long way in avoiding the most common pitfalls. And it can be quick and cheap to acquire. Albuquerque's Turquoise Museum offers daily half-hour seminars, at a nominal cost, to teach consumers how to proceed with confidence.

The cheapest plastic turquoise is easily spotted, museum director Lowry says, because it simply does not look real. Most temporarily treated stones are also detectable, because they have an oily look. For higher-cost pieces that are not openly identified as stabilized, he recommends getting an expert opinion, even if only from another shopkeeper. In nine out of 10 cases, he says, the altered can be spotted only by an expert.

The mere appearance of knowledge on the part of the consumer is a powerful tool itself. When questions are asked about a stone's authenticity, unscrupulous sellers know that false answers can leave them open to fines and prosecution, and so they are more likely to respond honestly.

Somewhat ironically, an item's price is in most cases a fairly good indicator of the value of the material in it. Earrings selling for $6 or bracelets going for $10 cannot possibly be of high-quality turquoise, no matter what the vendor claims. And for any item over $35, Lowry insists, the buyer should ask for a written description of the gem's quality, as required by New Mexico law. A seller refusing this request should not be dealt with at all.

In the end, however, the surest way to know exactly what grade of turquoise you're getting is to deal with shops and artists of high reputation and institutions of unquestionable integrity, such as Santa Fe's annual Indian Market.

Whether your budget is $5 or $5,000, whether you demand natural gems of rarest quality or would happily settle for nicely treated stones at one-sixth the cost, whether you seek a stunning heirloom or a cheap memento, the perfect piece of alluring blue substance—natural, altered or faux—is just waiting for you. But as you go looking, never forget that it's a jungle out there. A turquoise jungle.

In addition to the sources cited in the report above, the writer wishes to acknowledge the assistance of others who provided knowledge that was invaluable and greatly appreciated. They are: Cornelius "Kase" Klein, professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of New Mexico; Joan Caballero, president, Southwestern Association of Indian Arts; and turquoise processor Gary Werner, head of Gary Werner Mining and Processing Co., Albuquerque.

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