Friday, February 8, 2013

New Mexico: Of Turquoise, Coral, and Spiny Oysters

Ruidoso Downs, Cowboy Symposium 2012

A know-nothing disclaimer

Me offering a discourse on stones that Native Americans of the Southwest use to make jewelry is pretty presumptuous, since I know barely anything about it.

On the other hand, I'm a consumer of jewelry made by Indians of the Southwest, therefore I have standing to publicly fumble and bumble my way up a learning curve.


You'd think turquoise would be a straightforward matter. Special kind of blue with black veins spidering through it. Got it, right?

If only.

Here's a list of names for turquoise:
  • "Natural" turquoise
  • Turquoise "treated" to stabilize the stone
  • Turquoise enhanced to add color
  • "Reconstituted" turquoise (sometimes includes turquoise "trash" and sometimes has no turquoise at all) 
  • Substituted turquoise (uses a real stone, but one that is enhanced to imitate turquoise or that is sold as turquoise, falsely)
  • Fake stone (e.g. made from plastic or polymer clay)

There's nothing inherently wrong with any of the above as long as the seller is honest about his product, allowing the buyer to make an informed decision about his purchase. 

Here is a clear and concise discourse on the subject of turquoise. The Turquoise Guide also offers a good overview. Reading both will give you the best picture. 

Information that surprised me

  • I used to think turquoise was plentiful, but it isn't. Indeed, most of the turquoise mines, worldwide, have been tapped out. 
  • Very little turquoise jewelry is made of so-called "natural turquoise," that is, turquoise virtually untouched by any sort of processing before being made into jewelry. And there's good reason for this - natural turquoise can fracture easily, and because it's very porous, it is susceptible to discoloration, stains, and fading. So treating the turquoise can extend the life and beauty of the stone.

So the important tip about buying turquoise is to ask the seller to tell you about the turquoise she's selling.

Red coral aka precious coral. Credit: Oceana


I used to hold three contradictory beliefs about coral. I "knew" it was a stone and I also "knew" it was the remains of a formerly-living marine animal. And because I always associated it with Southwest Indian jewelry, I held the unexamined belief that coral was "somehow" indigenous to the Southwest, from prehistoric seas perhaps.

Of course, now I know I didn't really know anything.

The color red has always been prized in Native American jewelry. Before Europeans introduced coral to Indians about 600 years ago, they often used spiny oyster shell for the desired red. Spiny oyster had been used for centuries in North America, believed to be traded north from as far away as Ecuador. 

The red coral we usually think about in Indian jewelry doesn't come from the shallow coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia or the Belize Barrier Reef. Rather, it comes from the deeps of the sea. For centuries, such coral could be found off  in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Italy.

But red coral is now scarce because of over-harvesting. Some jewelers no longer sell jewelry made with red coral because it encourages the depletion of remaining red coral. Some artists only use coral salvaged from old pieces of jewelry.

As with turquoise, there's coral and then there's "coral." 
  • Red, precious, blood, or oxblood coral (endangered and regulated)
  • Bamboo coral or "apple coral," often dyed to replicate red coral
  • Sponge coral, often dyed to replicate red coral

As with turquoise, nothing is intrinsically wrong with bamboo or sponge coral being treated to appear as red coral, as long as you know this is what you're buying.

Spiny oyster. Credit: Wikipedia

Spiny oyster shell

I love spiny oyster shell. I like the name, I like the variegated color, and I like that such beauty comes from something so prosaic as a shell. 

I'd never heard of spiny oyster til I was in Hannibal, Missouri, for a weekend some years ago. My travel companions and I popped in and out of some stores, and one was a jewelry store, where I saw this ring:

The owner explained that he got his jewelry from the Southwest, and as with the odd mythical beliefs I had about coral, I also had the confused idea that spiny oyster was also indigenous to the Southwest. In fact, some sources say it exists only in along Baja California; other sources say it is also in South America.

I wish there were more information on spiny oyster shell, but sadly, I'm unable to find much. But the colors range among red, orange, and purple.

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