The History of Turquoise

An article by Lee Anderson

Although turquoise has captivated man’s imagination for centuries, nobody knows when it came to our attention. Archeological and literary references to the stone predate the Christian era by five millennia. The four bracelets of Queen Zar, found on her mummified arm, date back to the second ruler of the Egypt’s First Dynasty, approximately 5500 B.C. Although not specifically mentioned in the Bible, scholars believe that the robe worn by the high priest Aaron was adorned with turquoise. Aristotle, Pliny, and others refer to stones that must have been turquoise. After the 4th or 5th century A.D., many of the writings that appeared discussed the stone.

Explorers such as Marco Polo took time to write about it.

Turquoise was likely found and used by early man. Certainly, the prehistoric peoples of the Western hemisphere knew about turquoise; pieces have been found in burial and archeological sites throughout the two continents. The Anasazi and Hohokam mined turquoise throughout our Southwest. There is absolute evidence that these prehistoric people mined turquoise at Cerillos and the Burro Mountains of New Mexico, Kingman and Morenci in Arizona, and the Conejos areas of Colorado. It’s apparent that turquoise was a popular trade item, as so much has been found in archeological sites many hundreds of miles away from sources. A prime example is the Cerillos, New Mexico, turquoise found with the Aztecs.

It seems clear that turquoise was always considered a stone of life and good fortune and it even had healing properties. Many people from around the world found uses for turquoise in numerous ways.

Egypt. The earliest known use of turquoise and the first mines on the Sinai occurred during this civilization. The ancient Egyptians believed it had mystical powers and used it in art, figures, and ornaments such as Queen Zar’s jewelry (5500 B.C).

Persia. The legendary home of the world’s finest turquoise is the mines at Nishapur. Turquoise became a major trade and barter item for the early Persians. Persian turquoise was found in ancient graves in Turkistan and, in the 1st to 3rd century A.D., in graves throughout Caucausus. Persian stones were much coveted in Afghanistan and as far north as Siberia. It was used in art, medicine, and in jewelry in India.

Tibet. This country also has its own source of turquoise — usually a green cast, very hard stone with a significant amount of spider webbing. Turquoise was a highly revered item to Tibetans, who ranked them in six grades, the most expensive valued well above gold. Every Tibetan wore or carried a piece of turquoise throughout life. Turquoise was used for currency in many areas of Tibet.

Mongolia. The Mongols’ knowledge of turquoise likely came from Tibet and China. It became immensely popular.

China. The history of turquoise in China dates back to the 13th century A.D. Although mining did exist, most stone came from trade with the Persians, Turks, Tibetans, and the Mongols. Much Chinese turquoise was used for carving and for creating other art and decorative items. It never became a precious stone for the Chinese (unlike jade, for example).

Japan. Turquoise was unknown until the 18th century in Japan.

Europe. Although turquoise was unimportant in early and medieval Europe, it became popular during and following the Renaissance. As Asian conquests of, and incursions into, Europe occurred, the European’s familiarity with turquoise increased.

North and South America. As mentioned earlier, turquoise was a very important item to the early inhabitants of North and South America. The stone was used in religion, art, trade, treaty negotiations, and jewelry. It was considered by some to be associated with life itself.

Turquoise has also been used for medical purposes. These uses varied from land to land and from age to age. Some thought it could prevent injury through accident, prevent blindness (by placing perfect stones over the eyes or ground into a salve) and cure stomach disorders, internal bleeding, and stings from snakes and scorpions, when ingested as a powder. Turquoise also found its way into the mystic arts. Its color could forecast good or bad, predict the weather, and influence dreams. It was good for nearly every ailment —including insanity. As a good luck talisman, it found usage in nearly every culture.

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.

This entry was posted in Turquoise Facts & History. Bookmark the permalink.