IT ALL STARTED IN an antique store on Central Avenue in Albuquerque. I peered into a glass case at an old ring with a fine rope of silver surrounding a green teardrop of turquoise. A tag around it read Cerrillos turq. I wondered, how do they know that the turquoise is from Cerrillos, a small village just south of Santa Fe? The answer: They didn’t know. It was just a guess.
But I was intrigued, because that stone represented an alchemical process. Water filters down through rocks, dissipating and evaporating, dissolving minerals as it goes. When the water is gone, after eons of work, veins of blue-to-green stones are left behind. Magic.
So I bought the ring, and used it as a spark to set out on my own turquoise trail, a journey that would take me from halls filled with minerals and gemstones to the soft golden hills of Cerrillos. New Mexico, its history, and its people are tied together with a ribbon of blue and green, so I sought out the source: the people who raise it up from the ground.
THE PEOPLE PERSON
“I don’t love turquoise, I love people,” Joe Dan Lowry says. “My fascination with turquoise is about people first.” To him, each piece of turquoise is a microcosm of hopes, beliefs, and human perceptions of value—the stuff of life.
Lowry is the owner and curator of the Turquoise Museum in Albuquerque’s Old Town. It’s in a strip mall with a small storefront that opens up into rooms full of the precious stone. There’s a simulated turquoise mine tunnel, raw and polished specimens from mines the world over, and history enough in books and memorabilia to fill your mind with dreams of lost jewels and ancient trade routes.
Lowry understands the role mystique has played in the history and popularity of turquoise. Like any gemstone, turquoise is graded by cut, clarity, color, and rarity, but most people aren’t looking at that. They’re looking at jewelry, the turn of a silver feather beside a blue oval, the shining raindrops of a finely set Zuni needlepoint bracelet. “It’s defined by art before grade,” says Lowry. The museum’s shop carries high-grade blue Tyrone turquoise from the deep southwestern corner of New Mexico. Alongside it are Hachita stones tinged with cyan amid golden-brown streaks of matrix (dark veins that run through the stone). Rare turquoise, from Lowry’s own Lost Mine of Enchantment near Ruidoso, glows with a delicate green hue. Lowry’s quest is to educate the visitors to the museum, so that they leave with an understanding of the origins and varieties of turquoise, and its place in the history of art and culture worldwide. But he never loses sight of the people factor. “I call it the people’s gemstone. If somebody has a piece of turquoise on, they are approachable,” says Lowry. Indeed, in my travels, I often use turquoise jewelry as a conversation starter. You wouldn’t go up and ask someone about their diamonds, but turquoise always comes with an interesting backstory, a shared shining thread between strangers.
THE ROCKHOUND CONNECTION
It’s autumn in Albuquerque when I step inside a nondescript building at the Expo New Mexico fairgrounds, and into the Technicolor world of the fall gem-and-mineral show held here every year. Dinosaur fossils, glittering geodes, fool’s gold, and rainbows of beads fill the space. And, of course, there is turquoise. I walk from booth to booth, asking the origins of the nuggets and necklaces on display. The answers range from Arizona to Nevada to China—or it is simply unknown. Then, I meet Nancy Bailey and Bruce Williams, married rockhounds from Silver City. Their turquoise pieces and jewelry are each painstakingly labeled. “We always like to buy as close to the source as possible so that we can ensure our jewelry has high-quality stones that are accurately labeled,” says Bailey.
I find a silver wire-wrapped necklace with a large piece of Hachita turquoise, which has a delicate harvest-gold matrix spreading through it like a chain of islands. Bailey describes it as a “lunch-box rock,” meaning it exited the mine tucked into a worker’s pocket or lunch box. It was obtained from a retired miner who worked in a southern New Mexico copper mine, and gathered stones from around the region. “We know where it came from. It’s from the source,” she says. I wear it knowing it hasn’t been colorized or stabilized with plastics. It’s a pure piece of New Mexico. “Natural turquoise is becoming so rare and valuable because there’s just not a lot of it on the market anymore,” says Bailey.
THE COLOR-BLIND MINER
Philip Chambless is a bit of an anomaly: He’s a color-blind turquoise miner. He can see blues pretty well, but the green range is elusive. He stakes his claim in the Hachita area near New Mexico’s southwest boot-heel, and is now the main conduit for stones from this historic mining region. It’s a sandy world of rattlesnakes and scrub brush where the browns and golds of the landscape hide the veins of striking green and blue below.
Chambless describes himself as an academic miner. “I look at it technically, for the matrix,” he says. “When I see friends, I get them to describe the color.” Chambless pours a bag full of cabochons (polished gems ready to be set into jewelry) onto the table. They are all from Hachita and range from blues the color of Bahamian seas to greens so dark they verge on brown. He polishes and sets his own stones, specializing in jewelry with mosaic inlay. (His work can be found on Etsy.com under the shop name SouthwestGem.) He tosses the small blue scraps outside his house in a nod to turquoise folklore. It’s said to keep evil spirits away. When asked to explain his decades-long fascination with New Mexico’s state gem, he says, “For me, it’s the mojo. It moves you on a metaphysical level.”
BACK TO THE MINES
That mojo is all around as I stand on a hill a few miles north of the village of Cerrillos. Broken wagon wheels and scrubby green piñon trees hold close to the land. Santa Fe jeweler Douglas Magnus has met me here to show me the famed Tiffany-associated mines that he stewards. “The Tiffany company is responsible for getting turquoise noticed and giving it value. They increased respect for both the material and the American role in design and production,” he says. Magnus looks like he stepped out a modern Western, like a turquoise-mining Sam Elliot. A string of silver skulls circles his wrist.
From the late 1800s into the early 1900s, miners sorted through the rocks here, seeking perfect clear robin’s egg blue gems to match Tiffany’s signature color. Most weeks, a cigar box full of rough stone traveled by train from Cerrillos to back east and into the hands of jewelers trying to meet the demand of a burgeoning market. “It’s been an enormous honor in my life experience to be associated with these mines,” Magnus says.
A tunnel leads inside the main mine, which emerges at a room that opens up to the sky far above. The remains of two tarantulas lie on the floor. A stone maul left behind by early Native American miners sits as a tribute to the labor of the people who extracted the stone with hand tools in prehistoric times. Later miners switched to more drastic methods of reaching the valuable gem, the walls showing the jagged edges left over from dynamite use.
Outside, in the warm golden sun, Magnus bends down and picks up a speck of blue stone, the color of the New Mexico sky as it shifts towards sunset. Power tools and dynamite are passé. Instead, he sifts through the rocky piles of mine tailings, choosing workable stones from the rubble of the old mining operations. “Only one in ten stones I find are suitable for jewelry purposes. Maybe less,” he says. The turquoise that passes muster becomes part of Magnus’s fine-art jewelry, combining a sense of whimsy with traditional motifs such as thunderbirds and skulls. He often bucks the trend of matching turquoise with silver, instead setting it against the luminous glow of gold. (Find his work online at douglasmagnus.com or at Malouf on the Plaza in Santa Fe.)
I head into the village of Cerrillos, a quiet square of adobe buildings just off of Highway 14 that was once a rollicking mining community with a couple dozen saloons. It’s also one of the centers of modern turquoise mining in New Mexico. Mining claims hide in the golden scrub-brush hills all around the village. It must be a zoning requirement to position an artfully rusted old Chevy truck beside every house. The Casa Grande Trading Post is tucked away at the back of the village with a small museum of rusted mining artifacts, a petting zoo with goats eager to be hand-fed, and a large stock of locally mined turquoise, both raw and set into silver necklaces and earrings. Stepping inside is like walking into your great aunt’s attic, if she had been a pioneering rough-and-tumble Southwestern miner in the early 1900s. Dreamcatchers dangle from the ceiling, keeping watch over boxes of Civil War bullets, shards of unpolished minerals, and an impressive fireplace made with chunks of turquoise mined nearby.
Todd and Patricia Brown run the trading post, and mine their claims by hand. “Todd found a little sliver that opened up into a great find,” says Patricia, in a bit of an understatement. I pick out a slender pendant from the couple’s Little Blue Bell mine, attracted by the way the color shifts across its surface, from light cerulean to moss green. Todd shows me his workshop, settled in back among buckets of raw stone. He polishes a bright blue fragment of turquoise, water sluicing over his fingers as he works. “It reminds people of the ocean,” he says. “The green is the Atlantic, and the blue is the Pacific.”
A PARTNERSHIP, EVOLVED
South of Cerrillos, Highway 14 is the main drag of Madrid. The town boomed around coal mining in the late 1800s, busted into ghost-town oblivion, and boomed anew as an oasis for artists starting in the 1970s. Today, the Victorian-era mining cabins and stores are restored, painted in bright colors, and full with eclectic shops and galleries specializing in everything from vintage cowboy boots to modern art.
Riana Newman runs the Trading Bird Pottery Gallery and Gypsy Gem, two stores stocked with turquoise jewelry made with stones she mines at her Carlita claim, which is hidden away in the hills beyond the town. “Cerrillos turquoise has so many different colors and such brilliance to it. It stands out amongst other American turquoise,” she says. The turquoise here traces back to ancient volcanic activity and flows of water that left copper and iron-laden minerals behind, nudging the stone into blue or green spectrums, respectively.
Newman’s father, Waylan Peaker, was a turquoise miner with a talent for elaborate overlay work, setting stone tiles onto skulls, masks, and jewelry. She was inlaying turquoise by the age of 12, and still carries on his legacy, overlaying onto shells and inlaying silver jewelry. She is also a link for supplying the rare local stones to Native American jewelers. Santo Domingo artists set the stones onto traditional shells. Zuni carvers create fetishes, often in the form of bowing bears with streaks of bright blue running through their backs. She buys back the work to offer in her stores. “I’m really honored to be a steward of this land, and to get this turquoise back in the hands of Native Americans, whose ancestors mined it,” Newman says.
TOUCH THE SKY
Kenneth Johnson is a Muscogee and Seminole artist from Oklahoma who has lived in Santa Fe since 1988. There, he creates eye-catching jewelry that melds modern designs with traditional sensibilities. His creations range from stylized silver spider cuffs to a ceremonial gorget for the chief of the Muscogee Nation. In 2005, he won a Santa Fe Indian Market Standards award for the most creative use of stampwork, along with many other accolades.
Johnson has worked with Tyrone and Cerrillos turquoise sourced from trusted local dealers. “Turquoise has its own personality. I like the stones that have character,” he says. Johnson creates unique pieces, but he also designs for the American West collection for cable television retailer QVC, in partnership with Relios, a manufacturer of silver jewelry in Albuquerque that is best known for its Carolyn Pollack line. “Designing for the QVC audience is very gratifying. Those pieces are able to get out to the general public much beyond my own ability to put things down on the table at a show.” Johnson muses on what attracts people to New Mexico turquoise in particular. “There are people from here who want something from home. There are people who traveled here and had great experiences, and they want a touchstone to remember them by,” he says. For him, the source is vital. “If you look at it culturally, it’s like touching the sky. That’s why it’s important where it’s from.”
THE STATE STONE
Whenever I travel outside of the state, I take a piece of New Mexico with me. Yes, it’s in my heart, but I also literally take a piece of the land everywhere I go. When my fiancé and I were discussing engagement rings, I had three stipulations: 1. No diamonds. 2. Turquoise. 3. Make that New Mexico turquoise.
When this state adopted me, I never expected to fall for its hot chile sauces or chunky jewelry. Now, I make my own red chile sauce and stir it with a hand wearing a little green slice of Hachita turquoise. It came from Chambless’s claim and was set by Duane Bargar, Todd and Patricia Brown’s son-in-law. These sorts of connections emerge all the time when you start to swim in the blue world of New Mexico turquoise. “Turquoise is petrified water,” Douglas Magnus says. “It’s very primal. It’s emotional. It’s special stuff.”