Articles by Richard McCord
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.
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 substanceas 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,
According to museum director Lowry, the ranking of turquoise,
from the highest to the lowest, goes like this:
* Large natural gemsThe 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 colorThough
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
* StabilizedBeginning 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 stabilizedAlthough 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.
* ReconstitutedWhereas 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 treatedThere are myriad ways to enhance
the look of low-quality turquoise temporarilyand 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.
* ImitationThe 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.
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 nothingnothing"
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
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 substancenatural,
altered or fauxis just waiting for you. But as you go looking,
never forget that it's a jungle out there. A turquoise jungle.
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.
Articles by Richard McCord