Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning will remain on exhibit through May 2, 2016, at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; open Mondays from Memorial Day to mid-October. General admission $9, New Mexico residents $6, ages 16 and younger no charge, students with ID $1 discount; NM residents over 60, free on Wednesdays; NM residents, free on Sundays. 710 Camino Lejo (Museum Hill), Santa Fe; (505) 476-1269;

I was scarcely hip high, no older than five, when my blue eyes first met the blue-green gaze of a turquoise-studded concha belt. Slung elegantly around the slender hips of my beloved aunt Pauline, the belt spoke to me in a mysterious patois, brilliant stones beckoning, repeating, from every silver hand-stamped oval that encircled her. How was I to know then that its blue nuggets and shell shapes held echoes of sky and water? Or that its flowing design merged the materials and imaginations of worlds old and new? All I knew was that Aunt Pauline and her adornments were spellbindingly beautiful.

Her turquoise jewelry collection was vast, her style simple and refined. The Santa Fe Fiesta Queen of 1947, Pauline Irene Padilla y Montoya de Martinez had a graceful confidence and singular beauty that stirred the air around her. Clad in turquoise bracelets, beads, earrings, or belts, she emanated an organic energy, a natural blue force. Eventually, through her influence, I began my own jewelry collection, and a love affair with turquoise that continues to this day.

Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but I say forget their flawless facets. I desire a full and fleshy turquoise stone. A deep green rock with a coppery matrix is the amiga I most adore.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the title and first line of the first published work by esteemed poet, novelist, and artist N. Scott Momaday impart the substance and spirit of turquoise.

Appearing in the New Mexico Quarterly in 1959, “Earth and I Gave You Turquoise” instantly grounds readers in the cultural and geographical landscape of the American Southwest, a land of turquoise where the young Kiowa writer was raised and would plow his literary terrain. Momaday’s mention of the rare and precious stone in his mournful requiem of love and loss conveys the tenuous thread between life and death. From the vital blue-green hues of laughter, story, and song to the abrupt black mountain of death, the poet reminds us, Earth gives and Earth takes away.

In 1969, Momaday rose to international prominence with a Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, House Made of Dawn. Now 80, still living and writing in New Mexico, Momaday builds upon a prolific literary oeuvre inspired by the land, language, and cultural identity of Native peoples of the Southwest. With his earliest turquoise lyric, he spoke to the heart of that identity.

“For many Native peoples, turquoise symbolizes the point of origin,” says Maxine McBrinn, the curator of Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning, a new exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. “It’s an extremely powerful element within the culture, so powerful it can reflect the soul of a person. But the power is not so much the stone, it’s the color. The color carries the meaning.”

Water, sky, life: These are the themes woven into McBrinn’s unique examination of turquoise as stone, color, and cultural symbol. The exhibit mines the subject with emphasis on the stone’s relationship to Native peoples, highlighting hundreds of classic examples of turquoise jewelry, plus Native pottery, painting, and other turquoise-related works. From turquoise mythology and geology to issues of authenticity and supply, the exhibition illuminates the historic lore and lure of the fabled blue gem and provides illuminating context for the cross-cultural popularity of the iconic Southwest stone today.

When we think turquoise, we think blue. In fact, Earth gives us turquoise in variations of blue and green whose cast and veiny character spring from the creative alchemy of water and stone. Technically classified as hydrated copper aluminum phosphate, a semiprecious stone, the hard-fought mineral formation takes millennially slow, yet persistent, shape in lands of little rain. Even the slightest precipitation fosters the process, as trickles of water move through crevices of a host rock to connect with copper, aluminum, iron, and other natural elements.

Through time and varied environmental conditions, moisture and minerals transform into material and meaning. More copper builds more blue. More iron or aluminum goes green. Zinc yields hints of yellow. The bluest, best-quality turquoise appears near the land’s surface, reflecting a same-colored sky. As the metals saturate and converge, a matrix spreads across the stone, like birds’ eyes or spiders’ webs, like vessels pumping blood to the heart. The more one wears turquoise, the bluer, the greener, the richer it gets; the more it comes alive.

In the oral histories of the Pueblo peoples, turquoise is the color of creation. “Sky-stone” is what the Zuni call turquoise, a linguistic nod to the capacity of the heavens to protect and provide. The divine Navajo/Diné earth deity, She-Who-Changeth, is made of turquoise, and her people use the stone for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Diné newborns receive their first beads at birth, and rituals with whole and crushed stones help and heal the child through every stage of life. In Chacoan culture, the stone’s protective properties carried through to the afterlife; two prosperous individuals were laid to rest with 56,000 pieces. And rather than seek a pot of gold at the end of life’s rainbow, the Apache hope for a heap of blue-green stones.

“Turquoise, with its allusions to water and sky, embodies all that is needed to have a healthy, happy life,” McBrinn says. “The fact that it forms only in places where water is scarce makes it even more precious and powerful.”

The early history and import of turquoise extends to other arid lands. In ancient Egypt, King Tutankhamun’s gold funeral mask was set with the stone. In turquoise-rich Tibet, locals call the sky the “turquoise of heaven.” Iran is home to 6,000-year-old turquoise mines, the world’s oldest, known for the “robin’s egg blue” stone, a valuable global trade item. The French obtained the Persian stone in Turkey, mistakenly calling it pierre turquoise, or Turkey stone. The name stuck.

Turquoise was being mined, plied, traded, and venerated by Southwestern tribes as early as 1,500 years ago. Local landscapes were rich with the resource, and up to 200 mines operated all across the Southwest, including the mammoth Mount Chalchihuitl, near Cerrillos. Native miners used hand-hewn stone hammers, mauls, and adzes to coax the soft yet pliable stone from hard rock. They traded the stones for Mesoamerican luxury goods and ceremonial items, including parrot and macaw feathers, seashells, and copper bells. They also became expert in the lapidary arts, processing, cutting, and polishing the stones for jewelry.

Just as Native potters expressed reverence for water with images of fish, turtles, ducks, tadpoles, and the Avanyu water serpent in clay, Native jewelers affirmed the life-giving spirit of turquoise through meaningful jewelry designs. The core of Turquoise, Water, Sky is a breathtaking survey of historic and contemporary Pueblo and Navajo jewelry—necklaces, pendants, bracelets, belts, rings, and earrings—that illustrates turquoise’s aesthetic and symbolic value to the tribes. Turquoise-studded silver boxes, buttons, salad sets, watchbands, collar tabs, and ketohs (archers’ protective armbands), as well as hand-carved turquoise fetishes, round out the display.

A span of Pueblo examples of shell pendants with turquoise overlay demonstrate the 1,000-plus-year practice of combining turquoise and shell as a metaphor for water. Among these is an exquisite carved-shell-and-turquoise necklace, likely made at Santo Domingo Pueblo between the 1920s and 1930s, whose prominent bird pendant links the materials to water and sky. A traditional style of earrings described by the Hopi as “Blue Corn Stacked Up,” made by Hopi jeweler Washington Talayumptewa in the mid-20th century, represents turquoise’s opposing themes of scarcity and prosperity. Vertical squares of turquoise and abalone are inlaid on the backs of cottonwood, perhaps the thirstiest tree in the Southwest. Like blue corn growing in nature, they reach skyward nonetheless.

The making and wearing of turquoise jewelry enhanced its real and ritual value, though the rarity of the nonrenewable resource was realized early on. Devotees sought to enhance the stone’s economic potency by improving its blue-green hues. Diné jewelers soaked the stone in sheep’s tallow, while Native traders who believed that saliva intensified color marinated the stones in their mouths. About 800 years ago, the importance of the rare and costly material was such that craftspeople started making fakes, coating wooden pendants in green, malachite-based paints.

The cultural currency of turquoise inspired a major industry of labor-intensive toil and trade in the stone that continued to the 16th-century Spanish incursion. The Spanish introduction of silver led to the Native adoption and adaptation of new jewelry techniques and designs, many of which now define turquoise’s signature Southwest style. The Diné, who quickly proved themselves master silversmiths, were particularly struck by Spanish motifs. These, in turn, took inspiration from Moorish culture, which permeated Spain from AD 711 to the end of Muslim rule, in 1492.

Many now-classic designs reflect the refashioning of Muslim and Spanish patterns, which often were set by Diné jewelers with turquoise as new expressions of the plentiful and the beautiful. The crescent-shaped naja on the Navajo squash blossom necklace evolved from Moorish half-moon motifs whose integration into Spanish culture inspired the silver crescent embellishments on the fanciful horse gear of Spanish soldiers. Pomegranate blossom shapes that bring the necklace to full flower also represent the translation of a common Moorish motif to the traditional arts of Spain. Meanwhile, the shell-inspired silhouette of the concha belt has its roots in Spanish equine culture. The concha-bedecked bridles on the steeds of the Spanish invaders projected their sterling power and wealth.

From the mid- to the late 19th century, the Santa Fe Trail and the railroad enticed tourists, miners, and entrepreneurs to the Southwest. Turquoise jewelry slowly transcended Native culture to become part of the Native-Hispano-Anglo mainstream. Regional turquoise mines—such as Bisbee, Cripple Creek, Kingman, Sleeping Beauty, and Cerrillos—drew prospectors hoping to cash in on the General Mining Act of 1872, which authorized prospecting on public lands to encourage expansion of the West. When a chunk of Cerrillos turquoise won a gemstone award at the 1878 Paris Exposition, a group of New York investors purchased the mine that produced it.

Among the buyers was a Tiffany & Company gemologist, who convinced company jewelers to integrate the bluest stones into one-of-a-kind Tiffany designs. “Tiffany Blue” was touted for its intensity and its rarity, selling for the unheard-of sum of more than $1,000 a carat. Tiffany’s successful marketing skyrocketed demand for all Southwestern turquoise. Supplies fell as mines were depleted. Attempting to revive the waning local jewelry industry around 1915, Arizona’s Hubbell Trading Post began importing Venetian glass. Its blue-green hue appeared to tourists and jewelers alike to be real turquoise.

It seemed too good to be true when, in the late 1950s, an area containing highly desirable turquoise was accidentally discovered in Nevada. The lush, black, spiderweb Lander Blue stone featured bright blue pin dots of color that call to mind a starry night. Two years and some 108 pounds of the rare stone later, the mine went dry.

Today, turquoise mines all across the Southwest have nearly been exhausted. The vast majority of the newly mined turquoise on the market is from China.

“We are at a crisis point,” McBrinn says. “Not a lot of mines are producing, which is why we have more fakes. There is always a question of when we’ll run out.”

In a 1991 painting by Diné artist Shonto Begay, The Shaman, which launches Turquoise, Water, Sky, a medicine man stands ankle deep in a pool of water, eyes cast upward into the glow of a sunlit sky. Radiant blue stones adorn his neck and ears, anchoring him to Earth like roots to soil. He is a sacred vision immersed in turquoise hues, the embodiment of all the energy and mystery of the precious blue.

The image brings to mind my aunt Pauline. Descended from a long line of New Mexican Hispanos, she was neither Native nor a poet. Yet she, too, understood the epic spectacle and struggle of the Southwestern landscape. A child of New Mexico, her soul was intimately entwined with the elemental spirit of turquoise. Like the stone itself, her rarity was her gift.

Aunt Pauline died in 2011. Some years before, a burglar stole all of her jewelry. The loss broke something in her, and she never replaced her prized blues. I think of her now whenever I discover a new turquoise treasure, or fasten my turquoise-and-silver concha belt around my hips. Earth gives and Earth takes away. But the essence remains.