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The History of Natural Turquoise Beads - The Bead Traders

The History of Natural Turquoise Beads

Turquoise calls to mind the very distinct blue- and green-colored gem that is synonymous with the Southwest. It has a rich history, and its use in jewelry and art spans centuries as well as the entire globe.

How did turquoise get its name?

While its origin is contested, you can most likely thank the French for the name “turquoise.” Some etymologies imply that turquoise is named for the country of Turkey, or “Turquoise,” as it was once commonly believed that turquoise originated in this part of the world. A further possibility is a more literal translation, as the French term “pierre turquin” translates to “dark blue stone.”

Regardless of its origin, the beautiful blue-green color of turquoise beads is recognizable all over the world.

How does turquoise form?

Turquoise forms in areas with dry soil comprised of large copper deposits. When water containing minerals like copper and aluminum leaks through the rocks, a chemical reaction takes place and veins form in the rock surface. This results in the development of chunks of natural turquoise. The chemical reaction is what lends a veined look to turquoise.

Turquoise is then mined, and you may have even come across some pieces that contain traces of the “host rock.” The host rock mixes with the turquoise and this why you might see some black or brown patches in real turquoise.

Where does turquoise come from?

Several distinct places around the globe are renowned for their production of turquoise.

It is mined in China, Chile, Egypt, Iran, Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Chinese turquoise

turquoise isolated

Chinese turquoise has been mined in various parts of China for more than 2,000 years. The colors of Chinese turquoise vary, from light to deep blues and dark greens. Chinese turquoise often contains dark veins of host rock.

Dark blue Chinese turquoise with delicate black spider-webbing is highly sought-after and a favorite of collectors.

Persian/Iranian turquoise

Iranian turquoise is known to come from the northeastern city of Neyshabur. The turquoise mined from this region has long been considered of exceptional quality and is prized for its color, which ranges from sky blue to dark blue.

Not only was turquoise from this part of the world used for jewelry, but it was also used in architecture. Turquoise tiles were used to cover the domes of mosques as it was a symbol of heaven on earth.

Egyptian turquoise

Turquoise in Egypt was once considered a holy stone that would bring its holder good luck. In fact, in Egypt, turquoise even has its own goddess, Hathor, who was known as the “Lady of Turquoise,” and she was considered the protector of the region where turquoise was found in Egypt.

The turquoise found in this part of the world is unique in that its host rock, or “matrix,” is reddish to gold in color. This unique look may be the reason turquoise has maintained popularity in Egypt.

Turquoise used in trading

While gold, silk, tea and spices are renowned for their historical use by traders, turquoise was traded in a similar manner. The most famous turquoise traders were the Anasazi people, who established trade routes in the western part of North America and Mesoamerica.

The Anasazis began mining turquoise as early as 200 B.C. and believed the gem had great powers. Artisans used it to create mosaic pieces. These would then be traded to civilizations in modern-day Mexico. Artworks made by Anasazi artisans containing turquoise have even been found in Chichen Itza, a former Mayan city on the Yucatan Peninsula.

silver and turquoise jewelry

Native American use of turquoise beads

Turquoise beads have a special significance in many Native American cultures. Some tribes see turquoise as a symbol of strength and skill, while other tribes saw it as a symbol of invincibility. Still others associated turquoise with spirituality, healing and good fortune.

According to one legend, turquoise is the “fallen sky stone” that is hidden in Mother Earth. Another legend states that when it rained, the Native Americans would be so happy they would cry tears of joy, which would mix with the rain and become the “sky stone” known as turquoise.

Today, turquoise remains one of the most popular stones of Native American jewelry. The Navajo people, in particular, believe that turquoise is a symbol of happiness, luck and health, and they often craft it into gorgeous beads, heishi necklaces and other jewelry.

Final Thoughts

With its stunning colors and historical use around the globe, turquoise is still a popular gemstone. Whether you love it for its color or its perceived powers, turquoise beads make for an excellent addition to your jewelry collection.

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