Turquoise, its cold blue aptly suggesting the snows of December, is one of the most ancient gems of which we have record. It has been highly prized throughout the ages, and indeed, is the only opaque semi-precious stone of today which can aspire to rank as a precious gem.
Turquoise is not of a crystalline structure. It is found in small masses, generally surrounded by a brown, flinty matrix. As pieces of the gem suitable for cutting are seldom procured in large size, big turquoises are almost unknown.
”Turquoise matrix” is often used in medium-priced modern jewelry. The gem and the matrix being cut together, form a very happy color combination which harmonizes perfectly with gold settings.
The name turquoise, meaning Turkish stone, was derived from the fact that the gem was first introduced into Europe through Turkey. The stone is, however, of Persian origin. Today it is found in Asia Minor, Turkestan, Egypt, Arabia, Australia, and western United States, but Persia still produces the finest gems.
Turquoise of an azure or robin’s egg blue is most highly prized, but the gem is also found in apple-green and green-gray tints. It is almost invariably cut without facets, round, oval, pear-shape, or en cabochon (dome-shape) for use in rings. Occasionally it is cut with figures or designs.
|A fine turquoise specimen from Los Cerrillos, New Mexico, US,
at the Smithsonian Museum. Cerrillos turquoise was widely used
by Native Americans prior to the Spanish conquest.
A GEM OF HIGHEST VALUE
Centuries before the dawn of the Christian Era, the turquoise was regarded as a gem of the highest value in Persia and Egypt. It was the gift of kings, and, because its color suggested the blue of the heavens, it was the holy gem, the gem of the gods. For the same reason it was also the religious gem of the Aztecs, ranking in importance with the emerald, the gem dedicated to their rain-goddess.
In the tombs and sarcophagi of old Egypt, turquoise is often found in the forms of amulets and talismans. It was used extensively by the Aztecs for the same purpose and for the decoration of objects of religious veneration. While the methods of gem-cutting which were employed by the Aztecs were crude, some of the examples of workmanship by these natives ably attest their skill and their keen artistic perception.
- Ceremonial Colors of The Navajos
KNOWN TO GREEKS
The turquoise became known to the Greeks by its occurence in spoils brought home by Macedonian soldiers from the Persian campaigns. Goblets, dishes, and armor were commonly inlaid with precious stones in that age. The extent to which such decoration was resorted to is shown by one example from antiquity – The sheath of the sword of Mithridates (when his corpse in its royal attire was sent to Sylla (63 B. C.) was valued at 400 talents ($400,000).
VALUE UNKNOWN TO SPANIARDS
While the turquoise was well-known and highly esteemed throughout Europe during the middle ages, knowledge of its value does not seem to have been current in Spain at as late a date as the sixteenth century. Had the Spanish been familiar with the gem, it would have been as much of an object for exploration during the Conquests as were the emerald and gold.
LORE AND TRADITION
Few gems were invested with more wonderful properties than the turquoise by the credulity of the medieval naturalists. Like most of the blue stones, it was supposed to cure blindness and other infirmities of the eyes, and it was thought to possess many other virtues that were peculiar to it alone. To render its wearer happy and optimistic, to protect him from broken bones that might be incurred in falls, taking the damage unto itself, were qualities that were attributed to this gem. If mounted in the trappings of a horse, it was believed to make the animal surefooted and immune to distempers. It was said that the stone would prophesy the illness or death of its wearer by growing pale or losing its color.
Such superstitions in regard to the various gems were widely believed. To quote Dr. George Frederick Kunz, (The Curious Lore of Precious Stones). From the Middle Ages and even down to the seventeenth century, the talismanic virtues of precious stones were believed in by high and low, by princes and peasants, by the learned as well as by the ignorant. Here and there, however, a note of scepticism was sometimes apparent, as in the famous reply of the court jester of Emperor Charles V, to the question, “What is the property of the turquoise?” “Why,” replied he, “if you should happen to fall from a high tower whilst you were wearing a turquoise on your finger, the turquoise would remain unbroken.”
|Turquoise of Madan-e Olya of Nishapur
USE IN THE ENGAGEMENT RING
During the Middle Ages the turquoise was the gem most widely used in bethrothal rings, for the permanency of its color was thought to be dependent upon the steadfastness of the wearer’s affection. We may believe, however, that the gem was by no means limited to this use, for one medieval writer states that no gentleman in his day (ladies for obvious reasons eschewing its use) thought his hand becomingly decorated or his elegance complete without the adjunct of a handsome turquoise. The practice of using this gem in the engagement ring still prevails in certain parts of Germany, and it is evident that the custom was known in Shakespeare’s time for Shylock had a turquoise which he would not have lost “for a whole wilderness of monkeys” for he ”had it of Leah when he was a bachelor.”
Today, fine turquoise of pure color and waxy luster is in popular demand, and is found in many of the most beautiful modern rings and gem-pieces. The owner of a turquoise of first quality will derive no little pleasure from the gem’s distinctive beauty.
- Back to “What Are Birthstones?”