truth about buying turquoise jewelry
Some call it a blue stone, a green stone, a sky-stone;
some call it handcrafted, handmade or painted chalk from China.
The experts call it the Native's livelihood, the heart of the Southwest,
New Mexico's cultural identity. They refer to it as rare, raw, natural,
simulated, manufactured, stabilized and genuine. Thirty million
years ago, it was just water, aluminum and copper in what are today
rare mining sites in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.
In Santa Fe, turquoise is a trademark, and for
many years, its place in the Native American market has kept the
city thriving. Despite the proliferation of turquoise substitutes,
the enduring family-owned companies continue to educate crowds in
the art of stone authenticity. Today, the near-extinction of authentic
turquoise has created an unstable environment for consumers, and
unaltered turquoise is becoming harder to spy. When purchasing locally,
many experts warn: caveat emptor.
On Santa Fe's Canyon Road and downtown Plaza, most
customers don't buy from shops; they buy from galleries. For nearly
40 years, businesses such as Silver Sun Santa Fe, the Santa Fe Indian
Trading Company, Ortega's on the Plaza and the vendors at the Palace
of the Governors have depended on the national Indian Arts and Crafts
Association to monitor sales and educate buyers.
"Here in New Mexico, 'natural' is a legal term
for turquoise," says Cheryl Ingram, Silver Sun's gallery owner and
a member of IACA. Ingram, along with co-founder Deanna Olson, opened
Silver Sun on Canyon Road 33 years ago with the intention of selling
handmade Native American jewelry.
as the market grows and the supply of domestic turquoise dwindles,
sellers like Ingram and Olson have become more cautious of mislabeled
stones. In the market, mislabeling includes turquoise that is not
identified as altered and stones that are not set in jewelry by
Native American craftsman. As the IACA committee observes on a yearly
basis, mislabeled turquoise continues to filter into the Southwest
According to the New Mexico Attorney General Consumer
Protection Division buyer's guide, turquoise comes in three classes:
natural, stabilized and treated. Natural stonesthose that
are unaltered and come directly from the minesare more valuable
due to their increasing depletion. Some of these mines include Sleeping
Beauty in Arizona and the Cerrillos mines of Turquoise Hill in New
Mexico, just south of Santa Fe. The second kind of turquoise, called
stabilized, has gone through a process that involves filling porous
areas of the stone with epoxy to create shinier surfaces. Finally,
the least valuable variety of turquoise is termed 'treated,' 'colored'
or 'enhanced.' These pieces have artificial elements that keep lower-quality
stone from regressing to its brittle state.
Today, classifying turquoise into these three categories
is crucial to maintaining Native American markets. It also is a
legal requirement. While it's legal to sell stabilized and treated
turquoise, New Mexico's Indian Arts and Crafts Sales Act prohibits
mislabeling or withholding the nature of the stone from the buyer.
"Most turquoise in the world is going to be of
high quality," says Ortega's turquoise expert, James Baldwin. The
30-year-old downtown gallery sells some of the oldest and most valuable
Native American jewelry in the city. In pricing turquoise, Baldwin
says value depends on the scarcity of the mine's supply. A dome-shaped
natural stone from Arizona's Bisbee mine, for example, is valued
at $1,875 because the mine's production was limited to a mere 150
pounds of turquoise.
Tips for Turquoise Hunters
1. Pop the Question!
What exactly is in this turquoise? Is it natural (from the mines),
stabilized (filled with epoxy) or treated (enhanced)? Does it contain
some natural turquoise or is it what Mark Baldwin of Ortega's calls
"reconstituted," shaped and hardened dust?
2. Keep It Rich
Rebecca Lowndes of Packard's on the Plaza explains that if the turquoise
is small in size, hard in texture, rich in various colors and around
a price tag of $7,000 or higher, then it's probably a natural gem
and worth every cent.
3. Got Character?
The veinlike marks on turquoise, called matrices, are rare and highly
desirable, according to Baldwin of Ortega's. Additionally, Lowndes
of Packard's says, "A particular color, matrix, or unusual streak
can make it more valuable."
4. This Mine Is My Mine
The origin of the turquoiseregion, state, mineinforms
buyers about its rarity. Ask where the stone is from and how many
pieces the mine has produced, ie, large or small supply and whether
or not that turquoise is now extinct.
5. What's in a Name?
The artist's reputation is easy to come by in Santa Fe. Ask about
the artist's background and about their pueblo-specific techniques.
6. Do It by Hand
If jewelry is handmade, like pieces found under the portal of the
Palace of the Governors, know that the price will be higher.
7. It's the Law
After a turquoise transaction, ask for a written receipt that includes
the artist, mine, state of turquoise (ie, natural or stabilized),
place of purchase and date of purchase. Under New Mexico's Indian
Arts and Crafts Sales Act, the seller is required to disclose the
types of materials used. Failure to disclose may entitle the consumer
to a repayment of purchase price upon return of the item. For more
information, call 1-800-678-1508 or consult nmag.gov.
Still, Baldwin argues that other varieties of turquoise
also have their place in the market.
"Stabilizing is not that bad," he says. "What you
don't want is reconstitution, which is powder, basically dust
into a mold then formed into a stone shape." The resulting concoction
becomes too altered to be called turquoise.
Stabilized stones, however, offer a more affordable
alternative for both buyers and sellers.
"Stabilize the hardness, stabilize the color, and
stabilize your pocketbook," Ingram jokes. Today, only 3 percent
of natural, mined turquoise is hard enough to set. The rest, pulled
from the mine's remnants, is stabilized and sold in bulk. Linda
Dressman of Santa Fe Indian Trading Company admits that the stabilized
variety is more practical, and as a result is commonly sold in local
galleries. The exceptions are antique collections, such as the 19th-century
Harvey House pawn in Ortega's.
"We really pride ourselves on natural turquoise,"
says Ortega's employee Denise Mills. "Until the '60s, or part way
into the '70s, there was no such thing as stabilized. Whatever you
buy from before is going to be a better buy, because you don't have
to question the stone."
has a long historyand not just in the Southwest. Peggy Gnapp,
another Ortega's employee, says ornamental turquoise has been around
"since the Egyptians." The rare stone was prized among Native Americans
in the Southwest.
According to Ingram, it became increasingly popular
in the 1960s, among hippies who believed it had supernatural qualities
and could bring peace and serenity.
But as demand swelled, natural turquoise became
increasingly rare, and mines were depleted.
In response, miners returned to their tailing piles. Gathering the
remnants of the semi-precious stone, they produced brittle turquoise
that would later be hardenedin other words, alteredby
Eventually, even the tailings became scarce. This
opened the market to a new player: China.
But Chinese turquoise was a different animal. Unlike stones in the
West, Ingram explains, the Chinese turquoise was waxy and prone
to fading. Jewelry-makers responded by stabilizing the lower-quality
stones and then bringing them to the US market.
"This is how you save an industry," Ingram says.
"The trick is, just tell people."
Often, however, that didn't happen. By the 1970s
and '80s, approximately 80 percent of the US turquoise market consisted
of stabilized stones from China that were cast into silver by Native
Americans. Though the stone was just as colorful, it wasn't the
same as a bona fide natural stone, and the value of domestic turquoise
climbed. In many cases, the rising prices left local craftsmen unable
to compete with the comparatively cheap Chinese product.
This, in turn, scared some vendors into letting
buyers assume that a Chinese stone was domestic and natural, Ingram
explains. To make matters even more complex, stabilized turquoise
wasn't the only thing coming out of China. There was also an even
lower-quality turquoise called "chalk," which Dressman says became
hard to distinguish from the stabilized variety because of its effective
The Santa Fe Indian Market, hosted by the nonprofit
Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), is one of the
city's most famous and venerable cultural eventsnot to mention
an excellent place to learn about and purchase turquoise and other
Native arts and crafts. Each August, a weeklong festival celebrating
"Native film, literature, music, fashion and visual art," according
to SWAIA's website, overtakes the city, culminating in the popular
weekend market. For more information and a full schedule, visit
Santa Fe Indian Market
Times and locations vary; for more information, visit swaia.org
"For heaven's sake, it was an unprotected market,"
Ingram says. "Quick-buck people almost put the Zuni people out of
In response to what the IACA called the growing
number of "knockoffs and imported goods," the association pushed
for significant changes to a 1935 law governing Native crafts. They
succeeded, and the new lawenacted in 1974pledged to
"promote, preserve and protect authentic American Indian arts and
crafts." Today, penalties for misrepresenting or failing to disclose
the nature of a turquoise piece include fines of up to $250,000
for an individual and $5 million for a business, depending on the
value of the misrepresented property and whether it is a first-time
The state of New Mexico also took initiative to
combat its own growing scandals. In 1978, the AG's Consumer Protection
Division advocated for the Indian Arts and Crafts Sales Act, which
established clear definitions for natural, treated, reconstituted
and synthetic craft materials. According to that law, failing to
disclose the material of a Native American product results in charges
of up to a fourth-degree felony.
Despite state and federal efforts, consumers still
fell prey to subtle mislabelings. Before long, news of Southwest
cheaters went national. In 1986, New York Times ran a story titled
"Shopper's World: Buying Silver and Stones in the Southwest." The
article warned readers of the "cheap imitations" and "simulated
turquoise" diluting the market. This article, along with local articles,
implied that though helpful, the laws were not foolproof.
In a 2011 report from the Government Accountability
Office to the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources,
data analysts admit that the extent of such misrepresentations is
unknown because "estimates are outdated, limited in scope or anecdotal."
As of 2006, reports to the committee included only two filed accounts
of misrepresentations in New Mexicoyet a 2011 international
survey found that more than 20 percent of 649 complaints taken between
2006 and 2010 originated from the Southwest.
Today, many gallery employees have taken the matter into their own
"We've had decades to deal the jerks out of the
deck," Ingram says. "We don't buy from unscrupulous dealers." And
while legal ramifications have helped, gallery employees also make
a point of educating prospective buyers about, for instance, the
price and definitional differences between handmade and handcrafted
Handcrafted, according to the AG buyer's guide,
refers to a piece assembled from preexisting pieces. A manufactured
gem, for example, set into a machine-produced cast is considered
handcrafted. Handmade jewelry refers to pieces crafted without using
machines in any phase of the process.
Fourth-generation Navajo silversmith Everette Toledo,
selling under the Vendors Program of the Palace of the Governors,
explains that the process of handmaking jewelry entails cutting
a stone and then setting it in brass, copper or gold by solderingbending
metals to a teeth-like grasp on the stone. The stone, Toledo explains,
can be bought precut, but the Vendors Program requires that the
process of setting be done by the artist's hand. Toledo's silversmithing,
adopted from his parents and grandparents before him, is exemplified
in his sheet-silver bracelets, earrings and rings.
Coriz, a Santo Domingo artist also in the Program, further explains
that the process of chiseling the stone from the mother rockand
then shaping, cutting and polishing itincreases a piece's
value. Her jewelry, separated by the bluer turquoise from Arizona
and the greener turquoise from Nevada, includes an engraving of
her family's name called the artist's stamp.
"In our culture, the mother teaches her daughters,
and the father teaches his sons," Coriz says. Because her father
was a silversmith, Coriz admits that she wasn't able to learn from
him, but she and her six siblings "were blessed with all the cultures
of pottery, weaving and basket-making," and a few of them continue
to work their craft in Santa Fe.
Today, vendors like Toledo and Coriz depend on
earnest sales and buyers who acknowledge handmade crafts. For 40
years, the Vendors Program has provided artists of pueblo heritage
a market, catering especially to third and fourth generations of
the various pueblo communities throughout New Mexico. To guarantee
authenticity, the program committee requires that the artist's pueblo
be registered, that crafts are handmade, that the artists use untreated
stones in their jewelry, and that the crafts display the artist's
Employees at Ortega's say looking for an artist's
stamp is a good first step to verification. The name, once registered,
can be used to validate tribal affiliation and history of craftsmanship.
In Dressman's Indian Trading Company, for example, the third-generation
artist Tony Aguilar brands his work with his father's stamp. His
work, which imitates the traditional Hopi beadwork and silversmithing,
is a branch of his father's design, so he's legally entitled to
use his father's stamp. Once artists like Aguilar and his father
are well-established, their names are featured in art catalogues
and can be recommended by IACA.
gallery also displays works of well-known artists like Mexican-born
Federico Jimenez, but Baldwin says most of their artists are Native
American. Many are winners of Santa Fe's annual Indian Market's
Best of Show award, which Baldwin says means "they're the best of
In recent years, Indian Market has seen an increase
in contemporary Native American jewelry and a decrease in traditional
"We're kind of in a funny place," Dressman says.
"[The price of] silver went too high, so old-timers aren't really
doing it anymore." Additionally, due to mine depletion and intense
competition, Dressman explains that it can be tempting for craftsmen
to think that "shortcuts sometimes help."
So what must buyers do to guarantee a genuine sale?
IACA suggests asking for a certificate of authenticitya legal
document guaranteeing that if the buyer discovers fake turquoise,
then the seller can be written up and potentially fined under state
James Baldwin of Ortega's also points out that
elements like the uniformity of the matrix, the veins in the natural
stone, or the color of the turquoise can say a lot about the rarity
of the mineand hence the validity of the price.
"If you're going to spend money on a piece, you'll
want to know what it is," Baldwin says.
"It helps," Ingram adds, "when you can separate
the stones by their original mines." Silver Sun displays include
an artist biography, photos and fact sheets identifying the stone's
origins. Many galleries also offer demonstrations of the mother
rock's rough surface against the smooth surface of stabilized turquoise.
Short of cracking open the stone, sellers suggest scrutinizing the
"What you do with fraud is, you teach your customers
and give them as much information as possible," Ingram says. "This
gives them the weaponry they need to buy what it is they really
Charlotte Martinez is a creative writing and film
major at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. A native Santa Fean,
she aspires to share stories of the city's historic identity and
follow the influences that are shaping its future.
Buy It Here
Galleries mentioned in this story
|Ortega's on the Plaza
101 W San Francisco St.
|Silver Sun Santa Fe
656 Canyon Road
|Native American Vendor Program
Palace of the Governors
105 W Palace Ave.
|Santa Fe Indian Trading Company
56 Lincoln Ave.