A variety of native turquoise jewlery lay out on small stones

How turquoise became synonymous with New Mexico

Sacred to Indigenous people, beloved by collectors, one blue-green stone has huge cultural cachet in the “Land of Enchantment.”

Indigenous artisans in New Mexico are known for their turquoise jewelry (such as these pieces at Santa Fe’s Shiprock gallery). The story of why the stone is synonymous with the state involves Navajo silversmiths, pickaxe-wielding miners, and a host of curio shops.
Photograph by Wendy McEahern, Shiprock Santa Fe

In New Mexico, turquoise is seemingly everywhere.

Bright blue paint covers city buses, light posts, and the wooden doors of adobe houses in Albuquerque, the largest city in this so-called “Land of Enchantment.” An hour’s drive northeast in the state capital of Santa Fe, Navajo and Zuni craftspeople sell handmade turquoise jewelry under the awnings of the 16th-century Palace of the Governors. All around the state, silver bracelets studded with aqua stones are paired with everything from button-downs to ballgowns to ceremonial Hopi garb on feast days.

“But for the Indigenous community, turquoise is not just a rock, it’s a sacred being,” says Porter Swentzell, a professor of Indigenous Liberal Studies at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts. “Mining it and working with it take on deeper meanings.”

Turquoise in New Mexico has long danced between culture and commerce, between Indigenous communities wearing and sharing the stone. “For artisans working in—and selling—turquoise, this state is the center of gravity,” says Mark Bahti, author of several books on Indigenous jewelry makers and owner of Santa Fe’s Bahti Indian Arts Gallery. “Santa Fe was always a crossroads for traders, and that’s helped make the stone ubiquitous in this region.”

Here’s why one stone ended up being synonymous with a whole state, plus how to explore its role in Indigenous culture and crafts around New Mexico.

Where does turquoise come from?

Turquoise occurs in spots where acidic water comes into contact with copper, forming veins or nuggets of stone. This solidified hydrated copper aluminum phosphate has been found in Russia, China, and Iran as well as across the Southwest United States in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, southern California, and New Mexico. (It takes its name from the French turqueise or “Turkish stone,” though there is little of the mineral found in that country today.)

The resulting turquoise ranges in color from chalky white to uniform, robin’s-egg blue (common at Arizona’s Sleeping Beauty mine) to spider-webbed blue green (found at New Mexico’s Los Cerrillos mine). The stone is ranked between a 5 and 6 on the Gemstone Institute of America’s (GIA) Mohs hardness scale, meaning turquoise can be easily carved but isn’t as hard as, say, a diamond (a Mohs 10).

For a crash course in how and where the mineral forms, visit Albuquerque’s exhaustive, quirky Turquoise Museum with its walk-through “mine,” hands-on education activities, and heaps of blue rocks.

How is turquoise mined?

As early as the sixth century A.D., the Ancient Puebloan people of what’s now the Southwest U.S. mined the mineral, extracting turquoise with simple tools and carving it into beads, pendants, and nose plugs. Since 1896, archaeologists have discovered more than 200,000 pieces of such turquoise at northern New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, including beads and small sculptures from the mysterious “Room 33,” a tiny, treasure-laden tomb for 12 a dozen people tucked into one of the stone pueblos.

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Travelers won’t see that turquoise amid the structures at the UNESCO-designated Chaco Culture National Historical Park; the artifacts are held in collections including the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Researchers have used isotope tracing to prove that some of those ancient Chaco stones came out of the earth at Los Cerrillos, a tiny, picturesque mining village located about halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe on what’s now known as the Turquoise Trail. “But it’s more of a contemporary scenic byway that recognizes an ancient north to south trade route,” says Swentzell. “You won’t necessarily find much turquoise anymore.”

Today, much of the turquoise in New Mexico—including the majority of deposits in Los Cerrillos—has been mined out. Some operations closed in the early 20th century when the gems were depleted, others simply converted to more profitable copper mining. (The Cerrillos Turquoise Museum showcases vintage photos and mining equipment from the gem-hunting boom days plus a trading post and petting zoo.)

Jewelers and retailers now trade in turquoise that was mined decades ago, and New Mexico-based Indigenous artists are as likely to work in local stone as in rocks from Arizona, Nevada, or Russia. “More turquoise comes out of Mexico and China today than New Mexico,” says Joe Don Lowry, the founder and curator of Albuquerque’s Turquoise Museum. “The craft was always centered here far more than the mining.”

What turquoise means to Indigenous New Mexico

There are 23 Indigenous tribes in New Mexico, including members of 19 pueblos, three Apache tribes, and the Navajo Nation. Their artisans have been using turquoise in jewelry and objects for hundreds of years. Applications were myriad: Kewas carved the stone into disc-like heishi beads, Zunis inlaid it into shells.

Adornments and objects were created to wear on feast days, use in ceremonies, or to trade with others. “If you’re Indigenous, turquoise is part of your heritage, it’s predetermined,” says Morris Muskett, a Gallup, New Mexico-based Navajo jewelry maker and weaver. “In Navajo ways, it’s for spiritual protection and blessings.” 

Spanish colonists brought silversmithing to the Southwest in the 16th century. This meant Indigenous people merged new methods and materials with traditional ones. The results were dazzling: vine-like, sand cast silver Navajo bracelets set with blue nuggets, Zuni turquoise mosaics on silver earrings.

When the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway connected the Midwest to New Mexico in the mid 19th century, a new audience of tourists and fortune seekers was exposed to Indigenous turquoise and crafts, giving rise to a bustling souvenir business.

“People started traveling West, and they’d notice things like Navajos wearing silver and turquoise bracelets or belts,” says Swentzell. “It blossomed into the curio trade, which helped jewelers be able to carry on their traditions.”

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To explore how Indigenous turquoise crafts and trade evolved, visit Santa Fe’s Wheelright Museum of the American Indian, with its outsize gallery of Southwestern jewelry. Highlights include 19th-century silver and turquoise “squash blossom” necklaces, 20th-century nugget-studded bolo ties, and a contemporary cicada-shaped brooch in blue stone by Navajo/Washoe artist Liz Wallace.

In the museum’s basement, the Case Trading Post recreates the type of general store-meets-curiosity shop that travelers and traders encountered a century ago, with creaky wooden floors and Indigenous crafts from turquoise beads to Pueblo pottery.

Indigenous art, modern commerce

In the old towns of Santa Fe and Albuquerque and in smaller cities like Gallup and Taos, shops and galleries function a bit like modern trading posts. They’re loaded up with everything from inexpensive turquoise baubles to a $7,000 backgammon set, its round playing pieces cut from turquoise.

“Contemporary Indian jewelry is so compelling today, because you’ll first see a dazzling combination of metal and stones, and then realize it references old motifs—corn kernel shapes, hand cut beads,” says Susan Pourian, who purchases and sells Southwestern jewelry as the director of the Indian Craft Shop at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.

Many artisans—and buyers—prefer “natural” turquoise, meaning stones that haven’t been treated to improve their hardness or color. Natural turquoise sales are regulated by law, but buyers should ask for a receipt guaranteeing that. Improved stone isn’t fake, but natural stone is considered more valuable and authentic. 

“The natural rock is more connected to mother earth, with no middleman,” says Muskett. “The stone’s softness can affect how I cut it, but even if it breaks, I grind the turquoise up and use it in prayers.”

(Why Oaxaca, Mexico is reviving its “pottery of the night.”)

Travelers hunting for turquoise souvenirs in New Mexico and around the Southwest generally come seeking authenticity, both in materials and makers. Though the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 is meant to protect against “Santa fake” Indigenous artifacts, it’s hardly ever enforced.

There’s no central organization vetting Indigenous crafts, but shoppers can seek galleries and shops that post information about which artists from which Indigenous groups are producing their jewelry. Serious collectors turn up every August for Santa Fe’s Indian Market, which features hundreds of juried Indigenous potters, jewelers, and weavers on and around the historic main plaza.

Yet the most memorable way to purchase New Mexico turquoise might be to go straight to the vendors who set up every day outside Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors or in the courtyard of Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. All these vetted Indigenous artists can share information on both their techniques and traditions.

“People come to New Mexico and see how natural things are interwoven into our culture, and they want a piece of that,” says Muskett. “Buying these bits of the earth for adornment might bring them peace and tranquility.” 

Jennifer Barger is a National Geographic Travel senior editor who grew up in the American Southwest. Follow her on Instagram.

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