Long treasured by Native people and valued as a traveler’s keepsake, turquoise is an icon of Southwestern style. Melissa Liebling-Goldberg appraises the semiprecious stone’s past and why it’s become fashion’s sentimental classic
When summer temperatures routinely crossed the 100-degree mark during my childhood, my mother turned to every indoor activity she could think of — including lots of time spent playing dress-up with her jewelry box. Inevitably, I’d toss aside the sparkly costume jewelry for the pieces that she’d collected during a late ’60s stint in Tucson, Arizona. In particular, I was always trying to make my teeny fingers balance a massive dome ring of a constellation of bezel-set turquoises, deeply veined with black spiderwebs. That ring set my imagination alight, offering up shimmering desert mirages of Native American tribes, white pueblo houses and all those kachina dolls my mother had also collected (which never failed to scare me in the nighttime shadows). As I grew up, the turquoise pieces fell out of my rotation as I gravitated toward whatever was trendy and available at the local mall, but I never stopped having a deep affection for and affinity with the deep-blue stones.
Turns out that I’m not the only one who associates loving turquoise with her childhood. Marin Hopper, founder and creator of Hayward, a luxury fashion line, points to “wearing it and collecting it during the summers I spent with my dad [actor Dennis Hopper] and our extended family in Taos, New Mexico. My cousin, Duane Hopper, had a great jewelry store in the Taos Plaza dedicated to turquoise jewelry and the artistry of Native American Indian designs.” Hopper recently had the jewelry designer Anna Sheffield design an exclusive array of repurposed Southwestern turquoise pieces for her flagship store in a townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — a far cry from the sands of Santa Fe. The collection benefits the Future Heritage Fund, which works with the New Mexico Community Foundation to support artisans working in traditional crafts.
In fact, turquoise has been popping up everywhere from French Vogue to W magazine to the upper echelons of the red carpet. With turquoise taking its place amongst the iconic metallic pyramids of the Valentino Rockstud collection and remaining a constant in Ralph Lauren’s Southwestern-inspired collections, the stone has clearly cemented its place in high fashion 3,000 years after the ancient Egyptian rulers started to wear it. Named after its route into Europe from Turkey in the 13th century, turquoise is actually an opaque mineral, a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum. And while we might all be able to look at the sky-blue stone and call it one name, Native American tribes legendarily had as many words for turquoise as there were languages spoken. For contemporary art jewelry designer Mark Humenick, it all begins with the color. “I was always drawn to turquoise, the color of the sky — in the Southwest, at least,” Humenick says. “Turquoise is a spiritual, religious color to me — a special, natural color.”
The connection to the Native Americans of the Southwest might be the strongest association with turquoise for most Americans, with rich legends of healing and strengthening properties attached to the stone. For example, an Apache shaman could not be properly recognized without his turquoise, while the Navajo used it to help summon rain with sacred sand mandalas. The Apache believed attaching the turquoise to the bow of a warrior improved his aim. “I hold dear and deeply believe that turquoise is a protector,” says Jen Marlow, silversmith and owner of Sweet Leaf Silver. “It wards off bad juju and it is believed that if you own a piece of jewelry with turquoise and the stone begins to crack, it has warded off evil and protected you.”
The first turquoise mines in the Southwest are believed to have begun more than 1,000 years ago to feed the cultural obsession with the stone, but thanks to a long mix of government regulations, over-mining and high costs, most turquoise is now found as a byproduct of copper mining.
Luckily, there is a movement afoot to remake existing turquoise pieces into new, more modern jewelry without having to mine additionally. “I felt [Anna Sheffield] was a great inspiration with her ability to take vintage pieces from the past and celebrate them by restoring and resetting missing pieces in modern designs with repurposed diamonds and the like,” Hopper says.
Marlow has amassed over 25,000 followers on Instagram for her mix of reworked and vintage pieces, which are primarily turquoise and silver. “The stone has so much deep respect and is so uniquely distinct that it has not been able to fade away,” Marlow notes. “I’ve noticed with turquoise jewelry that it is largely passed down among families or close friends. Each piece has so much history and character following it throughout the years, it’s hard not to appreciate these fabulous pieces.”
Humenick echoes the emotional connection his clients feel to his pieces, calling them life markers. “When and where they purchased it and the memories associated with it, what occasion they celebrated and whom they were with, [they are] all memories and stories [that] the piece of jewelry represents.”
But if you aren’t buying a new or contemporary piece, making traditional turquoise feel modern can represent a challenge. Marlow suggests a more-is-more aesthetic, that echoes much of the recent street-style take on turquoise. “I like to mix vintage chunky silver rings among my larger turquoise rings, and you better believe every finger is covered! Nowadays I have seen a surge in girls piling it all on, wrists, necks and fingers! It’s awesome!”
So whether you’re piling it on or choosing one statement piece to carry your whole look, there’s no right or wrong way to wear turquoise. What is clear is the emotional attachment to the stone, often stemming from childhood — all the jewelers we talked to pointed to their youth as the aha moment for them with turquoise. “I read that turquoise is the most popular stone in the world, crossing all cultures,” Humenick says. “It has also been stated that it is the only stone that complements all skin tones — truly a magical stone.”
What else would you expect of a stone that was once believed to appear in the damp ground at the end of a rainbow? As for me, I’m planning to immerse myself in my mother’s jewelry box once more, with all the magic that childhood love can muster.