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Life In The Mines With The Cast Of Turquoise Fever

The Otteson family reveals the process behind turquoise treasure hunting.

July 31, 2019

Everything has a story, your favorite turquoise jewelry included. A piece of turquoise goes through a lot before it can be put into jewelry, decor, or accessories, and no family knows more about that process than the Otteson’s, stars of INSP‘s new reality series, Turquoise Fever.

The Otteson family got their start in turquoise mining many years ago when Donna’s father-in-law got the turquoise fever in Manassa, Colorado. When he moved to Tonopah, Nevada, he took his love for mining with him, eventually bringing his family there to pursue mining full-time. Now, it’s a family affair, with several generations working together to find blue treasures.

We spoke with Donna, Tony, and Tristan Otteson about their family history, the mining process, and what it’s like to work with family.

How is Turquoise Formed?

Tony Otteson.

“Turquoise is a surface-forming mineral, and it stems from water trickling down through the soil and the water,” Tony says. “As it percolates through the soil, it picks up all the different minerals that it needs. There are something like 11 different minerals that make turquoise.”

As the water trickles down, the minerals it collects along the way mix together, forming the blue stone all cowgirls crave.

There are certain conditions necessary for the formation of turquoise. “It takes a really special area to be able to have all of those minerals available,” Tony continues. “Lots of metals, iron, aluminum, copper… Those metals all have to be in the ground for the water to dissolve that stuff out and bring it down to form into the turquoise. The reason there aren’t that many turquoise deposits around the world is because of the number of special minerals that you need to make turquoise, and they all have to be in the same spot at the same time and in the right conditions, or you get nothing.”

How Do the Otteson’s Determine Where to Mine?

Donna Otteson.

Because such unique conditions are necessary for turquoise to form, it can be tough to locate it. When asked about the most challenging part of turquoise mining, Donna Otteson simply answered, “Finding it.”

The Otteson’s start their search by looking for certain colors in the rocks; specific colors mark the presence of the minerals that combine to form turquoise. But, finding the right colors is just the beginning.

“It takes miles and miles of watching the hills,” Donna says. “To find deposits of the turquoise, we’ll actually push up to the surface in small amounts, and we actually call that ‘float,’ and so as the guys walk the sides of these hills, they’re prospecting. They’ll look for these deposits that have pushed up out of the ground and then they’ll follow those deposits up to the point where they’re actually coming out of the side of the hill and rolling down… That’s where they actually pinpoint where the deposit’s located.”

What’s a Typical Day in the Mine?

As you might imagine, mining isn’t exactly a walk in the park. You have to love it, and the Otteson’s definitely do.

Each generation of the Otteson family has a different purpose in the mines. The older generations hit the hills by six or seven in the morning, and make the plan for the day. Then, the younger generations handle the heavy lifting, the equipment, and the more demanding physical labor.

On any given day, the Otteson’s continue the work from days’ past, so they usually have a good idea of where to mine. Miners start by cleaning off the solid rock where they believe the turquoise is located. “They’ll get it all cleaned off, and then they might drill a couple of holes to loosen the ground so they can actually even dig it,” Donna explains. “Then, once they discover the deposit that’s in the solid rock, they’ll actually set a couple of charges off to break that loose without fracturing the turquoise, and then once they shoot it, then generally we’ll go in there by hand and see what we can hand-dig out.”

Once some turquoise is broken loose, the Otteson’s choose the pieces they want. “I think that’s the most important thing is that turquoise is not a process where we throw it on a conveyor belt and it goes through a process and sorts itself,” says Donna. “We still have to go in and hand pick all of our turquoise.”

And, there is always some family competition. “It’s just sitting there with dust blowing in your eyes trying to find the very best pieces of turquoise before your brother snatches them from you,” says Tristan.

Tristan Otteson.

Once they’ve blown the turquoise loose and have picked through it, they clean out the hole, removing dirt and rock as others watch for any pieces they might have initially missed.

What Do Miners Look for in a Piece of Turquoise?

Miners look for a few specific characteristics in a piece of turquoise. “It’s got to have the right color, the right hardness, the right color of host rock, and on top of that, it has to have a certain quantity,” says Tony.

Sometimes, miners are influenced by customers’ desires. “Is [the color] going to match what a specific customer is looking for? Even the host rock has to look a certain way,” says Tony. “If it’s a gray-colored rock and a customer wants this color of stone with a black host rock, we may find out that everything we’re mining from this pit’s not going to work.”

How is Turquoise Mining Similar to the Mining of Other Materials, and How is it Different?

“We’re clean miners,” says Donna. “We don’t use any kind of leeching systems or chemicals, or anything like that. We know that turquoise is a non-renewable resource, just like all the other deposits of minerals in the world, so we try and protect that part of it.”

The Otteson’s, like larger companies, are required to put up reclamation bonding on federal claims, meaning that any land they disturb, they must pay for. “In that way we’re a lot like the big miners, just on a smaller scale,” Donna says.

“Another thing that is different than the other operations is that this is all hard rock mining, so we do have to use explosives,” adds Tony.

What Goes into Mining that People Might not Know About?

“I think that most people look at us and think that it’s easy,” says Donna. “I don’t think people understand the work that goes into producing this product and I think that what the show is going to do for the turquoise industry is really educate people about how we get it out of the ground.”

Donna also emphasizes the scarcity of turquoise miners. “There are so few of us still out there mining full time that it’s really becoming rare, and I think the show is really going to portray that to the public and they’re really going to get educated about how valuable the turquoise, especially from here in the U.S., is becoming,” she says.

How Does a Piece of Turquoise Go from the Mine to a Piece of Jewelry?

Any single stone goes through a long process from rock to jewelry setting. “From the time that a piece of turquoise comes out of the ground…until it’s ready to be set into a piece of jewelry, that single stone is handled 23 different times,” says Tony. “That’s 23 different steps just to get it ready; that’s not including all the steps that the jeweler has to go through, from melting the silver, the gold, all the way to the final finished piece. My guess is every piece of jewelry is probably around 45 or 50 different steps that it’s handled by a human hand before it’s ready to sell.”

What Do You See in the Future for the Otteson Family?

“Lots of turquoise,” says Tristan.

“I see a lot of holes in the ground,” says Tony, laughing.

As the family legacy lives on, Donna believes the Otteson’s will continue to improve in their craft, expanding their reach to other locations. “We have a lot of mining properties that we really haven’t even scratched the surface on… I believe the kids will be doing this long after I’m gone and I think they’ll get better at it than we did, because they’ll have more things available to them than we had.”

Tony Otteson reveals that turquoise is becoming increasingly rare, and the family may not mine forever. “As the generations go on, I do honestly believe that the turquoise mines themselves will be played out, so I can see our family getting more into the final product of the turquoise,” he says. “The turquoise is never going to leave your blood. You get that turquoise fever in your blood.”

What Is The Most Important Thing For Turquoise Fever Viewers To Know?

“To me, I think the most important thing that I’d like people to understand is everybody sees turquoise every day, whether you realize it or not,” says Tony. “What nobody knows is how it got there and every single stone that is set in every piece of jewelry… there’s a story behind that stone. There’s a person that had to pack their bags to leave their family and another person that cut his thumb open and bled for it, and another person that help cut it. There’s a story behind every single stone out there.”

See the story behind the stones with the Otteson family in Turquoise Fever, premiering August 14th at 9:00pm EST on INSP.

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