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Turquoise Traditions

At Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the expansive history of western culture’s most beloved stone run deep

January 12, 2016

Hand-fabricated bracelet. Silver and turquoise. Navajo, prior to 1939. Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. 10622/12. Donated by Mrs. Phillip B. Stewart in 1939. Photo by Steve Thornton

A top Museum Hill in Santa Fe, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, a “laboratory of anthropology,” presides as an authority on Native American history and culture. On display at the Museum through May 2nd, 2016, is a new exhibit: Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning. The exhibit itself is a dazzling journey through the history of turquoise in Native American culture. Yet unbeknownst to many, beneath the main floors of the Museum, the Individually Curated Collections boast an equally impressive display of priceless works of artisanal jewelry. COWGIRL Magazine, along with photographer Steve Thornton, had the privilege of viewing and photographing some of the finest silver and turquoise jewelry from the mid-century, handcrafted by the Native tribes of the southwest.

The designs represent the kind of craftsmanship and technique used by the Navajo during the early to mid-20th century. Intricate silver work adorned with turquoise of varying hues and matrices were greatly valued by global audiences near the turn of the century, and acclaim for these beautiful pieces has continued to grow in the years following.

Hand-fabricated bracelet. Silver and turquoise. Navajo, 1920s or 1930s. Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. 10596/12. Donated by Mrs. Phillip B. Stewart in 1939. Photo by Steve Thornton

Though it is perhaps the most ubiquitous stone in jewelry boxes across the modern American West, turquoise did not find its beginnings with the manifest destiny pioneers of the West. Long before famous 19th century mines such as Kingman and Sleeping Beauty were established, turquoise was a keystone in the culture, spirituality and economy of Native American tribes—from as early as the 5th century AD.

The enigmatic mineral figured prominently in the lives and art of the Native tribes of the American Southwest. As Curator of Archeology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Maxine McBrinn explains that turquoise is “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.” The alchemy which takes place between water and copper in environments scarcely blessed by precipitation produces the iconic sky-blue hue, which echoes the fertile lakes and clear skies crucial to many Native American origin stories—the color of creation itself. Across various Native cultures, turquoise also came to symbolize wealth, luck, protection, power, and health.

Hand-fabricated bracelet. Silver and turquoise. Navajo, prior to 1939. Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. 10604/12. Donated by Mrs. Phillip B. Stewart in 1939. Photo by Steve Thornton

As the cultural landscape of the American Southwest changed, due to the conquests by the Spanish and the settlement of Anglo pioneers, turquoise’s role in culture, jewelry and art shifted to reflect new realities. Already accomplished lapidarians, Native Americans began incorporating silver imported by the Spanish into their jewelry designs.  The Moors’ culturally symbolic crescent moons and pomegranate blossoms evolved into najas and squash blossoms in the hands of Native jewelers.   The shell-like silhouette of the now classic concho belt takes its inspiration from Spanish equine culture.  While many Native tribes took to these new techniques and designs, the Navajo were especially skilled silversmiths, and became masters of retooling these Spanish and Moorish motifs into emblems precious specifically to the Southwest. Today, the Navajo still have the largest number of silversmiths, and are perhaps the best known jewelry-making tribe.

When the legendary Cerrillos turquoise mine was purchased by a group of American investors in 1878, one of the buyers happened to be a gemologist for Tiffany & Co. He was pivotal in convincing company jewelers to include only the bluest stones into their designs, coining the term “Tiffany Blue.” Demand for turquoise dramatically spiked after this brilliant marketing campaign, causing a major surge in the gem’s global popularity.

Hand-fabricated buckle. Silver and turquoise. Navajo, 1920s or 1930s. Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. 40278/12. Donated in 1954 by noted poet and writer H. Witter Bynner. Photo by Steve Thornton

Today, there is an especially high demand for the semiprecious stone, and contemporary artists from Native American cultures are still esteemed as some of the best turquoise jewelers in the world. Many of them express their exceptional skill by incorporating traditional values and symbols into modern design concepts and techniques. Artists like Angie Reano Owen, Na Na Ping, Darryl Becenti, Duane Maktima, Cody Sanderson, and Joe and Mary Ann Calabaza, among others, have pioneered inventive new ways of representing turquoise in jewelry design, reigniting a passion for Native jewelry around the world and reminding turquoise devotees of how richly steeped in culture and history this cerulean stone truly is.

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