Blue gold

I encourage myself to try new things. And that doesn’t always mean going to extreme haunted houses in Ohio, seeing Lady Gaga in Puerto Rico or getting a random tattoo in Las Vegas (although I’ve done all those). It can be simple, like exploring a local art gallery I’ve walked past a hundred times. Or trying a new coffee shop or wearing a ridiculous she-wolf T-shirt in public.

Recently, I found myself helping a friend sell jewelry at the annual Indian Market in Santa Fe. I couldn’t help feeling a little nervous in a setting so unfamiliar.

My friend, who has established himself as an expert in the craft of silver and turquoise, is the youngest in the field. Although his Native American affiliation is with the Creek Tribe, in Oklahoma, his style comes from his connection to time spent in the Southwest, primarily his home of Prescott, Ariz., as well as Durango. His work resembles what can be defined as “old style” Navajo jewelry from the early-mid 1900s. With a passion for Southwest archaeology and a Masters Degree, his knowledge of the past shows in his work, and more and more people in the industry are beginning to recognize it.

 “Yes, those are tufa cast. And notice the amazing matrix in that carico lake.” I tried to pick up the jargon for the next four days of working the booth packed with bracelets, earrings and bags of rocks. In addition to the pounds of Royston, Kingman and Sleeping Beauty turquoise, our booth just happened to be selling high-grade Bisbee from a batch of rough that had surfaced from an old collection. It had been cut and polished just before the show. I quickly learned that this particular turquoise, a by-product from an abandoned copper mine near Bisbee, Ariz., is a sought-after material that’s becoming difficult to obtain. And costing upwards of $80 a carat, one sale of a couple pebble-sized pieces could yield thousands of dollars.

 Word spread fast through the plaza. Highly respected jewelers from across the Southwest were coming to take a peek. Nodding their heads and studying the stones’ spider web complexities weaving through the deep blue, they were impressed. Some said they hadn’t seen anything like it in 30 years.

 Around these professionals, the term “blue gold” is no joke. The miner who cut the precious Bisbee, which my friend happened to be the middle man for, is also the star of a new reality show called “Blue Gold,” set to launch on the National Geographic channel next year. I got to meet a few of the main characters of the show, which follows a family of miners in Nevada and the turquoise they distribute around the globe.

During our time at the market, I got to witness the miners selling directly to the artists, selling directly to the dealers, selling directly to the consumers. And a bit of trade in between, of course. I felt like we were stepping into a turquoise mafia. Each night we would pack all the silver in a large pack and all the Bisbee into a leather hand bag. Circling the neighborhood a few times, making sure we weren’t being followed, we’d hide the Bisbee in our studio rental before hitting the town with as much turquoise as we could wear – selling off our wrists if the opportunity presented itself.

The whole experience seemed surreal. I got a glimpse into part of the modern-day turquoise culture. And for many of the people in this circle, turquoise is an obsession. And often, once you get even a little taste, it becomes an addiction. Some people meandering the market were so covered with turquoise baubles – priding themselves in their glorious bracelets, squash blossoms and concho belts – I wondered how they could walk without falling over. Others were more modest, wearing one fascinating piece that most certainly held a story.

Turquoise has been collected and modified into jewelry and various relics by humans throughout history. Many ancient civilizations from the Egyptians to the Aztecs bedazzled themselves in the stone. And although the Native Americans have been using turquoise for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the Spanish arrived with their silver that new ideas really began to spark.

Silver-turquoise jewelry became an icon of the Southwest by the late 1800s and continued to boom well into the 1900s with an increase in tourism, specifically to the Grand Canyon. The Navajo, Hopi and Zuni produced tons of jewelry through the ’50s and ’60s as consumers got the itch.

According to the folks at the Durango Silver Co., by 1980 there were more than 200 active turquoise mines in the Southwest. But in 1985, American traders took a trip to China and returned with massive quantities of natural Chinese turquoise that flooded the market with ridiculously cheap prices. As a result, the market crashed and most of the American mines were closed.

But today, the production and consumption of American turquoise, which is seen as far superior and is harder to come by, is back on the rise, as is its price. And its demand reaches far beyond the Southwest. On the last day of the show, I thought business would slow down. That is until a Japanese dealer showed up with a backpack full of cash. A bracelet caught his eye. He stopped and took a closer look.

“Who made this?” he asked. I pointed to my friend and introduced him. This dealer, who owns a jewelry boutique in Tokyo and travels to the United States on a couple buying trips a year, was ecstatic as he shook hands with the artist. He knew the work and wanted it. Lots of it. With hundred dollar bills pouring from the backpack, the dealer made a large purchase at wholesale and set up a much larger order for a future buy. I imagine it won’t be long until we take a trip to Japan.

In the meantime, I like to explore the silver-turquoise treasures that blanket Durango. A world I only recently discovered, from the Toh-Atin Gallery to the Durango Silver Co. (which is closing its doors soon but keeping a business presence online). With numerous businesses up and down Main Avenue carrying silver and turquoise, the next time you walk by a shop you’ve never set foot in, why not stop in and try something on. But be careful, it’s addicting.

– Stacy Falk






In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows