Turquoise, blue topaz, and tanzanite—December babies are blessed with a trifecta of revered gems as birthstones.
Turquoise, to zero in on the most popular of the three, also plays a major role in the rich and rambling history of North America. More on that in a minute—but first, let’s time travel back to Ancient Egypt, site of the earliest evidence of turquoise!
According to the American Gem Society (AGS), elaborate jewels buried with the pharaohs date back to 3,000 BCE. King Tut’s iconic burial mask was covered in carved turquoise, and the oldest turquoise mines are in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula; the Maghara Wadi mines there are the oldest known source of turquoise and produced beautiful examples of the gem for roughly 2,000 years.
The Ancient Persians picked up where the Egyptians left off. Turquoise mines opened in Iran (then Persia) as early as 2,100 BCE, and bright blue Persian turquoise was considered the best in the world. Persians covered their palace domes in turquoise and wore it in their turbans and around their necks for protection—they believed the gem changed color when it sensed trouble or impending doom (and AGS notes on its website that turquoise can, in fact, “fade if exposed to sunlight or solvents.”).
Fast forward to roughly 1880, when Native American jewelry makers (Navajo tribes) first began adorning their sterling silver bracelets, conchas, and other metal pieces with turquoise, imported from mines in Colorado and Nevada. Artisans in the Zuni tribe perfected inlay techniques with turquoise and other colorful gems, and turquoise became valuable in Native American trade. For tourists of all backgrounds, buying a turquoise bracelet or brooch became an expected part of visiting the Southwest—and in turquoise retail hubs such as Santa Fe, N.M., it still is. But the North American turquoise mines were largely depleted and subsequently closed. Media and education site The Jewellery Editor notes that U.S. mines that still produce gem-quality turquoise “are actually mining copper, with the turquoise a precious by-product.”
These days most turquoise comes from mines in China, and it’s often enhanced for color, so is lesser quality than the turquoise once mined in the Middle East and North America. But the good stuff is still very much in circulation, through conservation-minded retailers such as Shiprock in Santa Fe, and on the secondary retail market courtesy mainly of high-end gem and jewel dealers including 1st Dibs and mom-and-pop jewelry shops all over the Southwest.
Designers with a bohemian bent have always loved turquoise, which comes in nearly all shades of blues and greens (the bluer the turquoise is, the higher its copper content, and the greener it is, the higher the gem’s iron content).
Here’s proof that the gem is actually evergreen, by way of a few exciting new styles using the ancient and instantly identifiable stone.