It may not be a topic you'd think of as reality television fodder, but when you consider that millions of dollars could be at stake in the world of turquoise mining, digging for stones suddenly seems undeniably compelling.
"Turquoise has been in my family for at least three generations," says Trenton Otteson, one of the stars of INSP television network's "Turquoise Fever," in an email interview. "It has captured our lives, transformed our family, got us through some hard times, and has caused some hard times as well — but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."
The Otteson family has spent years unearthing the world's most sought-after stones, and the search isn't always easy — in fact, it can be downright dangerous. From their home base in Tonopah, Nevada, the clan has encountered everything from detonating explosives to unstable topography, not to mention the high-pressure demands of international buyers.
"My life as a turquoise miner has taught me to appreciate other miners and to always offer help when I'm needed. Mining turquoise and helping people understand the hard work and dedication that goes into this line of work has been a life-long journey that never sees a dull moment," explains Otteson.
Michael Garland, a fourth-generation art and jewelry seller in Sedona, Arizona, can probably relate. His family has worked with American Indian art for four generations, and the stone that ranges in color from sky blue to sea green has played a major role in their business. "Turquoise has a fascinating and unique history," he says by email. "This beautiful stone has captured human imagination all over the globe for thousands of years, from King Tutankhamun's death mask to Aztec and Mesoamerican art. Turquoise has been cherished and used by the Southwest Native American Indian tribes for centuries in trade, for ceremonial purposes, and to enhance their beautiful art forms — from sandpaintings to jewelry. Its rarity and beauty continue to make it a highly coveted stone."
So why is turquoise such a hot commodity, and why have families like the Ottesons and Garlands spent generations seeking out the stones?
What Is Turquoise, and Where Does It Come From?
Cultures all over the world have treasured turquoise for thousands of years, which is why the opaque mineral shows up in the history and modern art of communities across Africa, Asia, South America and North America. Chemists know the stone by the formula CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8·4H2O, aka a hydrated copper and aluminum phosphate.
"Turquoise is formed by a complex combination of aluminum, copper, phosphorus, water, and other local ingredients that may change the color or add matrix (host rock)," Garland says. "Turquoise is found at elevations between 3,000 and 8,500 feet (914 and 2,590 meters) and typically in dry, arid climates. Only certain regions on earth provide this recipe for turquoise to form. Turquoise mines in the Southwest United States are the most famous, such as Bisbee, Lander Blue, Number Eight or Lone Mountain. However, other areas in the world produce high quality natural turquoise such as Iran, Tibet, China, Egypt and Kazakhstan."
"Turquoise forms in dry arid regions of the world," Otteson adds. "The most common places known for good quality turquoise are Iran (Persia), Egypt, Northwest China, Mexico and the southwestern part of the United States. Although there can be mines found in many states, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada are the most common places where you will find them. Most of the turquoise mines throughout the southwest are all mined out with the exception of Nevada and a few in Arizona. Nevada has been the leading producer for American turquoise for some time. Turquoise is primarily made up of copper, so it's not a big surprise to find there are also a lot of copper mines in both Arizona and Nevada. The combination of arid climates and copper rich regions make these places hot spots for good quality turquoise."
The Value of Turquoise
"The value of turquoise comes from the quality and rarity of the stone," write Emerald Tanner and her dad, Joe E. Tanner Sr., via email. The duo are at the helm of Gallup, New Mexico's Tanner's Indian Arts, a family-run store that's been in business for over 60 years. "Some mines produced tons of material over numbers of years — others, only a hundred or so pounds and for a very short period of time. Turquoise can be as soft as chalk or as hard as a 6 or 7 on MOH's scale — the harder and more intense colors tend to be more valuable. Another variable in valuing turquoise is comparing all-natural turquoise to 'stabilized' or 'enhanced' turquoise."
Turquoise is generally a naturally soft, porous stone that sustains damage in the cutting process — only the truly rare, good stuff can be cut and shaped for jewelry without any kind of enhancement first. A 'stabilized' stone means soft, low-grade turquoise has gone through a special process that enhances its color and hardness. The process involves putting the stone under pressure so that it absorbs a type of clear filler, either made of epoxy or plastic. The result: a harder stone that can actually be manipulated and cut, but because it required all that help, it's not super valuable.
There are other types of cheap turquoise that you may have spotted in gift shops. Reconstituted (or chalk) turquoise is made up of fragments of stones that are crushed into a powder and mixed with epoxy. This results in harder blocks that can then be cut into slabs or stone shapes. Then there's the fake stuff: Block or imitation turquoise is usually made of dyed plastic or produced by manipulating another stone like howlite so that it looks like turquoise.
"Over 90 percent of the 'turquoise' on the world market has been stabilized, treated, or tampered with to enhance the color or harden the stone," the Tanners write. "Some of the 'turquoise' on the market isn't even turquoise at all, but an imitation material that has been dyed or colored to look like the stone. We always encourage anyone looking to purchase turquoise or turquoise jewelry to ask questions about the stones and forever say 'if you don't know your turquoise, know your turquoise dealer.' Natural gem quality turquoise is one of the most rare and collectable natural commodities of our world. It is indeed a special stone and one to be collected and celebrated."
According to Otteson, the grade makes all the difference in determining the stone's overall value. Like other gemstones, turquoise is graded according to criteria including the 4Cs — color, clarity, cut and carat weight — but it also has other unique factors to consider, like the location of its origin. "On average, less than 25 percent of turquoise mined at our mines or any other mines, are used in jewelry, and only the top 4-5 percent of that turquoise is considered 'gem grade," he says.
"'Gem grade' is a term commonly used among high-grade turquoise buyers and collectors to describe the heavily silicate, deep blue, spider web turquoise. As a miner and a cutter, I have quickly learned to never get my hopes up too high when mining, because it's hard to tell how good it is until it's cut. Gem grade turquoise will take your breath away and send your heart rate off the charts."
Despite the apparent abundance of turquoise, high quality stones are actually quite scarce — so scarce in fact that in recent years, the best turquoise has been deemed "more valuable than diamonds."
"Due to the fact that most mines have run dry and are now closed, compounded by government restrictions, and the high costs of mining; it has totally impeded the ability to find gem grade turquoise," Otteson says. "All of these factors play a role in the value and appreciation found in a good turquoise nugget, and that's what makes it so coveted."
Otteson says that not only is really top-notch turquoise considered more valuable than diamonds, but it can be worth much more than other types of precious stones and metals that are often considered the most coveted jewelry staples. "High-grade turquoise is worth three times the price of gold because it truly is that rare," he says. "Most of the high grade mined in the '60s and '70s continues to trade hands between collectors and jewelers that truly understand its real value. Growing up in a mining family, I have learned to appreciate the difficulties of mining turquoise and the excitement of finding it."
The Three Factors That Determine the Value of Turquoise
"The biggest factors for valuing turquoise are: 1. Hardness of the turquoise, 2. Aesthetic beauty, and 3. Rarity," Garland says. Here's how each factor contributes to the stone's overall value:
- Hardness: "Only a small percentage of all turquoise mined is naturally hard enough to be used in jewelry," Garland says. "In some cases, as much as 90 percent of the turquoise mined is chalky and soft and would need to be stabilized in order to be used. The top-level of turquoise that is naturally hard enough to be used is called 'natural' or 'untreated' turquoise. Within this top tier of natural turquoise, there are further categories such as 'high-grade' and 'gem-grade' that describe the absolute best and hardest natural stones."
- Aesthetic beauty: "The depth of the stone's color and the presence of matrix or host rock can both add value. Deeper, darker colors are generally more expensive. Tight webbing in the matrix (called 'spider webbing') can also add value to turquoise." According to the Tanners, that spider webbing can be controversial. "There is an ongoing debate regarding value in the turquoise world: matrix vs. clear gem turquoise," they write. "A gemologist will tell you the more clear, the more perfect the stone, and the more valuable. Collectors and Native American jewelers may deem the more matrix with intense and beautiful webbing, the more valuable."
- Rarity: "Rarity is a huge factor in price, specifically as it relates to the turquoise mines," Garland says. "A fantastic example of this is the Lander Blue turquoise mine in Nevada. Lander Blue was considered a 'hat mine,' meaning the entrance to the mine was so small you could cover it with a cowboy hat. High-grade Lander Blue turquoise can sell for as much as $500 per carat. To put that in perspective, that's more than $1.1 million per pound. Why is it so expensive? Because it is considered to be some of the hardest and highest grade turquoise ever discovered. On top of its quality, it was an extremely small deposit — only about 100 pounds was mined before the deposit completely ran out in the 1970s. The rarity, combined with the quality of the stones and their aesthetic beauty, makes Lander Blue the most expensive turquoise mine in the world."
So how much money are we talking when it comes to truly high-quality turquoise? "Unlike gold or diamonds, no two pieces that are going into high-end jewelry are exactly the same — period!" Otteson says. "Turquoise of this quality is unique and extremely rare. For every 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of turquoise mined, only about 25 pounds (11 kilograms), or 25 percent, are considered jewelry quality, and of the 25 pounds, only about 1 pound (0.4 kilograms) is considered high-grade or gem quality. It's not uncommon for this grade of turquoise to sell between $40-$200 per carat. In a direct comparison, gold sells at $1,425 per ounce and there are 16 ounces in a pound, so that equates to 1 pound (0.4 kilograms) of gold selling on the market for $22,800. For the same pound (roughly 1,200-1,500 carats) of gem grade turquoise, on the low end, it would sell for $50 per carat x 1,200 carats for a total of $60,000 per pound — roughly three times the price of gold. On the high end ($200 per carat) ... well let's just say it's a lot higher ... you do the math!"
The Spiritual Significance of Turquoise
"Turquoise is a sacred stone to many of the Native American tribes of the American Southwest," the Tanners write. "The unique appeal of turquoise comes from its color kinship to the sky and compatibility to water, which is the most precious thing in the Southwest."
"Nearly every Native American tribe has made some use of turquoise, whether for healing or aesthetic purposes," Garland says. "Perhaps due to its reminiscence of sky and water — two sacred elements here in the Southwest — this rare blue-green gemstone carries spiritual significance for many of the tribes in this region. The Southwest has many different native tribes (Arizona alone has 21 federally recognized tribes). Each tribe has their own unique belief system and perspective on the significance of turquoise."
But perhaps the tribe best known for celebrating the sacred beauty of turquoise is the Navajo. "Turquoise took on special meaning for the Navajo people, specifically, as one of the four sacred stones of the Navajo tribe," Garland says. "Along with white shell, abalone and jet, these stones are associated with the Four Sacred Mountains, which form the traditional boundaries of Navajoland."
Turquoise is not only known to hold spiritual significance for many native tribes, but it's also been applied practically for therapeutic purposes as well. "Each tribe will have their own unique perspective on this," Garland says. Navajos in particular used crushed turquoise to perform their beautiful sand painting healing ceremonies."
"Often revered as a healing stone, turquoise is believed to encompass a power of healing and wellness," Joe E. Tanner says. "My grandfather was a turquoise miner for many years at the Arizona and Colorado properties, so my family has a longtime love and kinship with the stone. My mother would always say she would never make one of life's difficult choices without first rubbing her turquoise."