If you're interested in Native American jewelry, it's important to know what stabilized turquoise is and how it's different from natural turquoise. This is a subject surrounded by much confusion and misinformation. With this post, we hope to shed some light on the subject. For a true expert on the subject, we recommend reading Turquoise Unearthed: An Illustrated Guide by Joe Dan Lowry. For an even deeper dive, check out Turquoise: The World Story of a Fascinating Gemstone also by Joe Dan Lowry.
When Turquoise is mined, it comes in a spectrum of quality. A turquoise stone's quality is determined by its hardness, color, and mine source. High-grade turquoise is hard and vibrant in color. Low-grade turquoise is soft, chalky and pale in color. Every turquoise mine produces a gradient of quality, with the vast majority of turquoise mined being low-grade. Without treatment, low-grade turquoise is not usable in jewelry as it will crumble when cut, it is not durable, and it does not hold a polish well. View the image below to see the different natural turquoise grades produced by four mines from low-grade (left) to high-grade (right). (This image comes from Turquoise: The World Story of a Fascinating Gemstone by Joe Dan Lowry.)
Photo: Natural Castle Dome Turquoise from Arizona
What is stabilized turquoise?
Why is turquoise stabilized?
What are the different types of altered turquoise?
- Stabilized or Enhanced: An epoxy or a plastic filler is added via pressure to the stone. If the stone naturally formed with holes or pits, they can be filled with epoxy for a smoother surface area. Some stabilized turquoise is color enhanced.
- Reconstituted or Chalk: Fragments of turquoise are crushed into a powder form, which is then mixed with epoxy to make harder blocks that can then be cut into slabs or stone shapes. We do not sell, nor do we recommend buying, reconstituted or chalk turquoise.
- Block or Imitation: Synthetic material (dyed plastic) or the manipulation of another stone (such as the Howlite) made to look like turquoise, but with no actual turquoise stone in it at all. We do not sell, nor do we recommend buying, block or imitation turquoise.
Why is natural turquoise so much more expensive?
The price of natural turquoise is associated with its rarity. When turquoise is mined, the majority is too soft for use in jewelry. This inexpensive low grade material must be stabilized before it can be used in jewelry. It’s estimated that as much as 90% of turquoise on the market today has been stabilized or enhanced. The lower grade the natural turquoise is, the more treatment it needs to become useful for jewelry. And generally speaking, the more the stone has been changed from its natural state, the less value it has.
Photo below: Natural "Waterweb" Kingman Turquoise from Arizona.
Should I avoid buying stabilized turquoise?
It’s important to distinguish the fact that buying stabilized turquoise isn’t buying a fake stone. Stabilization is a necessary process to make lower grade turquoise hard enough to be shaped.
The cheapest forms of "turquoise" are block and imitation. These types of "turquoise" are made from synthetic materials - usually plastic. We caution buyers against purchasing block or imitation turquoise and we do not sell any in our stores.
Is there a difference between American turquoise and non-American turquoise?
Natural turquoise is natural turquoise -- no matter where it is pulled out of the ground. Other areas of the world can offer high quality turquoise; most notably China and Iran ("Persian" Turquoise). Some high grade Chinese or Persian stones can be quite valuable and expensive to work with. In the case of Persian turquoise, the majority was imported to the U.S. before sanctions were imposed on Iran by the U.S. Government in the late 1970s.
Quality American turquoise stones from the Southwest fetch higher prices. Folk lore and history may play a role but this is largely due to scarcity. Many of the best American turquoise mines have been mined out and are closed.
In recent years, prices of American turquoise have skyrocketed. This has led to an increased use of non-American turquoise by Native American artists. Often, it's a more affordable way to work with natural stones.
"Years ago when I first started doing jewelry, the cost of Chinese was like a tenth of what the American was. Even though it was natural.
Some of the stones of the Chinese Turquoise are fantastic. I mean they look like Bisbee, they look like Lander Blue. I mean, just excellent looking turquoise. But people looked down on them because it was Chinese.
But now you go out there into the market, you see a lot of high end American turquoise and the price is amazing. Sky high. Now people are looking to the Chinese turquoise. Natural."
What accounts for the price differences between turquoise mines?
Hardness, appearance, and rarity are three major factors when valuing natural turquoise. The hardest turquoise stones are considered "gem grade". Appearance is a matter of personal taste; the color and matrix will vary drastically between different mines. Generally speaking, darker color and a tighter matrix are considered desirable traits. Rarity refers to how much turquoise a mine produced and how much is still available for use.
Most collectors develop a preference for particular turquoise mines, and for the color and appearance it produces. The Lander Blue mine in Nevada (now closed) is widely considered to have produced the most expensive turquoise per carat.
Major American Turquoise Mines:
- Blue Diamond
- Blue Gem
- Blue Moon
- Broken Arrow
- Carico Lake
- Castle Dome
- Cripple Creek
- Indian Mountain
- Ithaca Peak
- King's Manassa
- Lander Blue
- Lone Mountain
- New Lander
- Number Eight
- Orvil Jack
- Pilot Mountain
- Red Mountain
- Sleeping Beauty
- Turquoise Mountain
Popular Non-American Turquoise:
Curious for more information about Turquoise? Read about the History and Chemical Makeup of Turquoise