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.
However, 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 a Native American craftsman. As the IACA committee observes on a yearly basis, mislabeled turquoise continues to filter into the Southwest market.
According to the New Mexico Attorney General Consumer Protection Division buyer’s guide, turquoise comes in three classes: natural, stabilized and treated. Natural stones—those that are unaltered and come directly from the mines—are 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.
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 turquoise—region, state, mine—informs buyers about its rarity. Ask where the stone is from and how many pieces the mine has produced (i.e., 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 (i.e., 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 (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…poured 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 partway 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.”
Turquoise has a long history—and 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 hardened—in other words, altered—by craftsmen.
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 color imitation.
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 events—not 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 swaia.org.
Santa Fe Indian Market Aug. 12-18
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 business.”
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 law—enacted in 1974—pledged 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 violation.
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, The 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 Mexico—yet 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 hands.
“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 jewelry.
Handcrafted, according to the AG buyer’s guide, refers to a piece assembled from pre-existing 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 soldering—bending 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.
Connie Coriz, a Santo Domingo artist also in the Program, further explains that the process of chiseling the stone from the mother rock—and then shaping, cutting and polishing it—increases 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 personal stamp.
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.
Ortega’s 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 the best.”
In recent years, Indian Market has seen an increase in contemporary Native American jewelry and a decrease in traditional design.
“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 authenticity—a legal document guaranteeing that if the buyer discovers fake turquoise, then the seller can be written up and potentially fined under state law.
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 mine—and 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 exterior.
“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 want.”
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.