Tantalizing Turquoise

The brilliant blue-green gemstone, prized by admirers from ancient times to our own, commands a booming, billion-dollar market

"Turquoise," writes Joseph Harriss, "even if it is produced in a few other countries around the globe, is an integral part of our New World culture. It has been for more than a thousand years." Harriss traveled to the Southwest in search of the stories behind the gemstone we recognize as the signature element in Native American jewelry — the Zuni bracelet, Navajo concha belt or squash blossom necklace, for example — prized for legendary artistry.

Turquoise (actually a felicitous compound of hydrated copper and aluminum phosphate) was mined in the Cerrillos area of New Mexico well over a thousand years ago. Native Americans dispatched the stone, to be used as elaborate ornament, down trade routes as far as the great Mayan city of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán.

Contemporary designers are drawing on this ancient tradition for the American Indian art market, the primary component of the turquoise industry. Acclaimed Native American artisans, including Ray Tracey and brothers Alvin and Brian Yellowhorse, are updating centuries-old techniques and producing sought-after bracelets, rings, necklaces and belt buckles. "My designs," says Alvin, "are inspired to some extent by the prehistoric drawings done by my Anasazi ancestors." It is this unique amalgam of artistry and living tradition that has created a $2 billion to $3 billion market annually.

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