How the Quality of Turquoise Affects Its Use in Jewelry

An article by Lee Anderson

What is the best turquoise for jewelry? The answer is, “it depends on the type of jewelry you desire.”

Gem Grade and Rare

If the piece is to be one-of-a-kind, competition, top-investment-quality, the turquoise should be gem grade and rare. The stone should compliment the artist and the gold or silver work. The cost can exceed $40 per carat.

Gem Grade

Very high quality jewelry, also suitable for investment, requires gem-grade turquoise — but not necessarily rare stones. Such stones are beautiful but not as costly ($10 to $20 per carat). They are equal to one-of-a-kind stones in every respect but one — rarity. A breathtakingly beautiful spider web cabochon of Chinese or Tibetan turquoise can cost considerably less than a gem-quality piece of Lander or Lone Mountain turquoise, for example.

Very High  to High Grade

In some cases, the goal is to produce, in quantity, high-quality jewelry at a price that the top 25 percent of the market can readily afford. For this goal, a very-high-grade to high-grade turquoise, properly selected for color, matrix balance, etc., is appropriate. This turquoise should cost about $5 to $7 per carat.

Jewelry Quality, High Quality, and Investment Quality

Most natural turquoise jewelry is made from stones classified as jewelry, high, and investment quality. These stones are good, they have nice luster, but they are not hard enough to preclude long-term color change. They are too good to stabilize and should please nearly everyone. Their cost will be $2 to $5 per carat.

Good Quality (Stabilized)

Jewelry made from many matched cabochons or pieces of inlay nearly always uses good quality turquoise that is stabilized so the color will not change. A beautiful inlay or needle-point necklace will loose its appeal if the turquoise near the wearer’s neck begins turning green while the remainder remains sky blue. This color change may occur as the turquoise absorbs skin oils. Good, stabilized turquoise is usually sold by the pound since so much is wasted in cutting and grinding. In this case, the value of the turquoise is simply part of the value of the artwork and overall material cost for the piece.

Good to Average, Mine Run, and Stock Qualities (Stabilized)

These stones are used for carving and craft shop jewelry. By and large, this is an extremely valuable area economically. It is estimated that over 70 percent of Indian craftspersons, either individually or as shop workers, use this type turquoise. The result is a beautifully balanced piece that is priced remarkably low for the craftsmanship involved. This is the quality of turquoise that created the Indian jewelry market as we know it today. This stone typically sells for approximately $80 per troy pound, but better color can double this cost.

Low Quality (Stabilized)

The lowest qualities —chalk, chip stock, and bulk — must be stabilized to be used. Often this turquoise is “color shot”— in other words, artificially colored. Much of it is used for assembly-line manufacturing, machine stamped work, etc. It, too, has a place in the market: It is sterling silver, it is turquoise, and it portrays the “Santa Fe look” at a remarkably low price. Many collectors get their start here; they like the look and become interested in the whole field. As they learn more, their tastes change, almost always upward. This type of turquoise costs $20 to $30 a pound.

Fake and Synthetic

This turquoise is often found in “Indian” jewelry made overseas. It, too, is available in the U.S., and is used by some Indians. It has a place in the market also, as long as you view it from the standpoint of art and craftsmanship. Look at the jewelry as you would a painting. Don’t look for material value…only the value of the art…the creation. Fake and synthetic turquoise costs about the same as chip stock or bulk stabilized turquoise.

As you can see, turquoise values range dramatically, and it’s not always easy to apply a value… even though it is easy to establish a cost. In other words, value often exceeds cost because of the artwork and craftsmanship involved. Sometimes we must view turquoise in the same way we view an oil painting. The individual components have little or no value individually, but as a whole, the artwork has significant value.

References / Recommended Readings

John Adair, The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths, University of Oklahoma Press, 1944

Margery Bedinger, Indian Silver, Navajo and Pueblo Jewelers, University of New Mexico Press, 1973.

M.G. Brown, Blue Gold, The Turquoise Story, Main Street Press, Anaheim, CA, 1975.

Larry Frank, Indian Silver Jewelry of the Southwest, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Westchester, Pennsylvania, 1990.

The International Turquoise Annuals, vol. I and II, 1975 and 1976 (only two published) Impart Pub, Reno, NV. Note in vol. I the article on pages 31–55 by D. Allen Penick, “Turquoise, the Mineral that’s an Accident.”

Carl Rosnek and Joseph Stacy, Skystone and Silver, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976.

Joseph E. Poque, Ph.D, The Turquoise, A report to the National Academy of Science, vol. XII, Second and Third Memoir, 1915. Reprinted in 1974 by Rio Grande Press, Inc., Glorieta, NM. (This reprint includes a foreword and details on Southwestern turquoise mines by Rex Arrowsmith and an excellent reference list. )

Stuart A. Northrop, Turquoise and Spanish Mines in New Mexico, University of New Mexico, Press, 1975.

Stuart A. Northrop, David L. Newman, David H. Snow, Turquoise, reprinted by General Printing and Paper Co., Topeka, KS. A reprint from El Palacio, vol. 79, No. 1, 1973, Museum of New Mexico.

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