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Home > Turquoise Tutorial


noun: turquoise

  1. a greenish-blue color.
    "the turquoise waters of the bay"

  2. a semiprecious stone, typically opaque and of a greenish-blue or sky-blue color, consisting of a hydrated hydroxyl phosphate of copper and aluminum.

This "tutorial" will help explain some of the terms and types of turquoise and turquoise jewelry with definitions and pictures. Not meant to be all encompassing, just get you through the basics. PS: this is a work in progress, so I will adding more as time goes by...

...............................CARE OF YOUR NATURAL TURQUOISE....................

All natural turquoise is relatively fragile, porous, and susceptible to heat and/or chemical damage, just as is natural fire opal, Stones average 18-20% water content. When heated, from an unwary jeweler’s torch, for example, that water is progressively lost and the stone will fracture and or change colors and the turquoise is destroyed.

Due to this stone’s properties, you should reserve natural turquoise jewelry for occasional wear. Protect it from heat, chemicals, and shocks and use protective settings, especially for ring use.

Don’t use mechanical cleaning methods, such as ultrasonic or steam cleaning. Avoid cleaning this porous gem material with soap, detergents, or cleaning solutions. Wipe with a damp cloth, then wipe dry immediately. Also, wipe pieces with a damp cloth after wearing.

Cabs / Cabochons.
Most turquoise is cut and polished to some degree, a stone that has been ground to smooth convex (rounded) shape on the top and sides and then polished, is known as a "cab" or cabochon it can be in a free form or calibrated size.
With turquoise the normal cab is not usually more than 1/8" to 3/16" high, higher cabs are known as high dome and can be as high as 1/2" although normally about 1/4" high.
Thin cabs cut with very little dome are called a flat top cab, nugget cut refers to the surface of the cab being left with a natural rough texture.
Most 'natural' turquoise is cut into free form to conserve as much of the turquoise as possible, most of the 'treated or stabilized' turquoise is cut into calibrated sizes, 8X10 mm, 30X40 mm, etc, because they have tons of material to work with.

.....Free form........Calibrated Stabilized ...Nugget cut.................Flat Top

Not all turquoise is backed, however a lot of rough turquoise is very thin, in fact most of the high grade material is seam material, especially in Nevada, and is from paper thin to 1/4" or more, the bulk of that material needs to be backed to make it possible to cut and polish. The process of applying a back to the thin turquoise has been around a long time, in fact was used by American Indians early in the 1900's by gluing various materials to the turquoise to make it thicker and also to make it easier to set in jewelry. Now we normally use an industrial epoxy that bonds to the turquoise very well and not only thickens the material but also makes it much stronger and more durable when set into jewelry. Once the backing is cured the turquoise is ready to be cut and polished. The object of the backing is to utilize turquoise that is too thin otherwise, strengthen the stone, create a level back to attach the dop stick and make the cab much more secure when set into jewelry.

....Thin seam of turquoise....material with epoxy applied.....front & back of backed stone.

.............................Dopped, ready to cut........................backing is typically very thin....

Once the turquoise is dopped (affixed to dowels with hot dop wax) it goes through a hand process of grinding, sanding and polishing, we use diamond cutting wheels to do the rough grinding (preforming) and sanding, but we still use silicone carbide wet sanding to prepare the stone for polishing. It takes almost as long to cut a 2 carat cab as a 50 carat cab, so smaller cabs tend to have a higher carat value just because of the labor involved. We polish by hand using several different compounds on soft cotton buffs with high speed polishing motors.

So to get the turquoise from the ground to a finished cab requires quite a few steps:

1. Mining the turquoise, this can be quite a challange as most of the terrain that turquoise is found in, especially Nevada, is normally high in altitude, extremely rough country, dry and remote. The actual mining can take place by hand with picks and hammers or with various pieces of heavy equipment, backhoes, trackhoes, dozers etc, however very seldom are any explosives used as it fractures the delicate turquoise making it useless. Once rock containing the turquoise has been uncovered it is normally moved from the mine site to an area for further processing.

2. Breaking the rough turquoise out of the host rock (called cobbing), basically taking various sized hammers to reduce the amount of host rock and free as much of the turquoise as possible while destorying as little as possible, turquoise is quite fragile and an ill placed blow can be expensive. Some operations have used cement mixers from small to large to tumble the rock to break the turquoise free, but that also is rough on the turquoise.

3. Back at the shop we begin sorting and grading the rough turquoise into various piles based on color, size and hardness. Rock still containing turquoise, called saw rock, is processed using a diamond saw to slice the rock away.

4. Prepping the turquoise for backing and cutting, the graded turquoise is now prepared for backing by using diamond grinding wheels to remove even more of the host rock and flatten one side for backing.

5. Once the stones have a flat side the ones that are thick enough are seperated from the ones needing the epoxy backing, the thinner stones are then backed with an industrial epoxy to not only make them thick enough for cutting and polishing but also to strenghten them for use in jewelry. We normally back everything, because the dop wax sticks to the backing better than to the turquoise, and then grind most or all of the backing away if it does not need it.

6. Now the backs of the stones are rough sanded so that the dopping wax will stick, the dop wax is applied to a dowel while quite hot and then to the stone, providing a handle on the stone for cutting and polishing. I have recently started using some of the thick cyanoacrylic (super glue) for dopping and it has been working out pretty good, no hot, sticky wax to burn my fingers !

7.The cutting and polishing now takes place by preforming the cab to get the most turquoise we can from each stone on diamond grinding wheels, once preformed we than begin smoothing and contouring the stone into the familiar cabachon shape, this process requires 5 steps the last of which is polishing the cab on a high speed buff.

8. Even after all the careful steps we take, anywhere from 10 to 20% of the cabs will crack, split, have major defects or not be up to the quality we require for our web site. We sell these cabs to the vendors you see on various web stores and sites that pretend to be turquoise experts, but really only buy from someone like us to resell, or we wholesale them on our web site as 'fixer uppers' for our lapidarys out there.

So, as you see, it quite a process to get the turquoise from the ground to a finished cabochon that can be used for your jewelry or collection. A lot of time and labor and some very expensive equipment and supplies are used and as time has gone by there is not a whole lot of good gem grade turquoise left for us to cut and get out to the buyer. Generally speaking it costs about $1.00 per carat to cut and polish a turquoise cab, and that's just the cost of the supplies,equipment and labor, the turquoise itself depends on the quality and rarity.

Rough seam material.........................Backing the turquoise.............................The finished product !............

........................................Varieties of Turquoise...........................
There are many different types of turquoise, just as there are many different mines. Some mining districts tend to have similar types and grades of turquoise, but of course there are exceptions to every rule. For example the Royston district has numerous mines and they can be many miles apart, but the turquoise from these mines "tend" to be very similar. In Nevada, many mines, even in different parts of the state, produce turquoise that is also very similar, this can make it very difficult to look at the stones and be sure of where they came from, having said that the high grade from most mines is normally quite distinctive. Provenance and a reputable dealer are about the only safe way to be sure of the origins of turquoise, Ebay, Amazon, Etsy and other online warehouses are not the best way to buy quality turquoise. I am often asked to determine origin and value of turquoise and it can be quite challenging, sometimes it just cannot be done honestly, anyone that says they can 100% of the time is only fooling themselves and their customer. Often the host rock and or the matrix is more useful in determining the origin of turquoise than the turquoise itself. On the other hand if I mine the turquoise or buy it from the miner, that is the best provenance there is. Other than that making an educated guess (with over 40 years of experience) its the best that can be done.

Nevada mines have produced and continue to produce more turquoise than all the others put together, more high quality, natural gem quality turquoise has been mined in Nevada than any other place on earth. Natural turquoise is just that, no effort has been made to enhance, stabilize, treat, alter, dye or use ANY method to change the stones natural condition. Please note that for many mines the vast majority (90-99%) of that mines production is soft, chalky material that is too soft to be cut and polished and literally tons of this chalk material is treated,dyed and or stabilized with any variety chemicals and methods to harden and or color the stone. Is it still turquoise ? Technically, yes, and as long as it is offered to the buyer as treated or stabilized (I still don't care for the dyeing) there is nothing wrong, but let the buyer beware, treated or stabilized turquoise is NOT as valuable as the natural hard material. Please note that I do not have any Sleeping Beauty turquoise on my web site, it was and is some of the most beautiful NATURAL turquoise there was, the problem is that the vast majority of what is now available is not NATURAL, it is all stabilized and cut to calibrated sizes for mass produced jewelry. On our web site if we have any stabilized cabs they will be so noted as "Stabilized/Treated". True gem quality turquoise is material that is not only hard enough to be polished as is, but but also has a glossy, semi translucent appearance, and runs harder than the average natural stone. Its value is determined by its color, matrix, rarity, size, origin and the buyers willingness to purchase. Natural turquoise is expensive, beware of the too good to be true prices on ebay, etsy and amazon, if the price seems cheap, guess what ?

New batch of old stock ready to back and cut.(2016) .... You just never know what will be inside some rocks!

You may have noticed I have an "Not Turquoise" page on the web site. There are many very nice gem stones that appear to be turquoise, but are not, some are very similar chemically and visually, but still are not turquoise. Here is a picture of two cabs, the one on the left is turquoise the one on the right is not, very similar, but not the same. How do I know ? I dug both of them from the earth and from looking at many thousands of cabs from all over the world. The cab on the right is a mixture of gem quality chrysocolla and chatoyant malachite from a copper bearing area in White Pine county Nevada both are very nice semi precious gem stones and valuable in their own, the cab on the left is from the Blue Spider turquoise mine in Nevada.

Sorry, Not turquoise, exposed, large seam of

The “Blue Spider Mine”

The Blue Spider Turquoise mine had a short but rather colorful and, in many ways, typical life span for a 1970's era Nevada turquoise mine. It was (is) located in Lander county Nevada near a fairly large gold mining operation, the Cortez mine. Located in the high desert of north central Nevada, in an area that is well known for its mineralization and many and varied mines.

Turquoise was mined in north central Nevada for thousands of years by native Americans and the remains of their operations many times led to the “discovery” of turquoise by the white men that followed. Although most of these johnny come lately’s were not actually searching for turquoise, but the associated copper and gold that was also to be found in most of these areas. Battle Mountain, Carlin, Austin and Tonopah, Nevada are all found in this mineral rich zone known as the Carlin trend and all have had a number of copper, gold and turquoise mines located near them.

In the early 1970's, turquoise and turquoise jewelry, was enjoying a renaissance. Indian jewelry was a hot fashion trend and the business of making it was booming. Turquoise mines that had long been closed were reopening and prospectors were out looking for new deposits to supply the growing demand. Many turquoise deposits have a habit of being very localized and not a large quantity of rough material is recovered, however in many cases what is recovered is very high grade and much of Nevada’s turquoise is world renown for its color and hardness. These small deposits are known as glory holes or ‘hat’ mines, some being small enough to cover with a hat.

In 1974 I had started doing custom silver smithing in Las Vegas and had opened my store, The Turquoise Mine, the jewelry boom was in full swing and I was staying very busy doing custom work as well as repairs, I also provided a buyer service for the large hotel silver shops that were purchasing large quantities of silver jewelry from the many wholesalers plying the trade then, known as traders. Like any boom, turquoise had more than its fair share of dubious characters, some were outright crooks, some just were not as expert as they thought they were when it came to the products they were selling. My service to the hotels was to make sure they were getting what they were paying for, real turquoise and real silver. In those days buying and selling turquoise was mostly a cash business, especially at the mine level, the miners were not all that interested in paying dues to uncle sam.

Because of my custom and repair work on turquoise jewelry I was in need of more and more turquoise, so I began making trips to Kingman Arizona and Albuquerque New Mexico to buy rough turquoise. Much of the material was good. But not the quality I was looking for, so I started buying from Nevada miners in the Austin and Tonopah areas at first. Here I was buying directly from the miners and was able to acquire some very nice high grade material that I began to store away.

During this period my wife’s grandmother and aunt were living in Carlin Nevada, where her aunt was a school teacher. Her aunt had met an old cowboy, Joe, that had retired from that profession and was doing a little prospecting and exploring. Being very familiar with the surrounding area, Beowawe Nevada, he began staking claims near an active gold mine, never really intending to mine the claim just to, hopefully, get in the way of the large mine so they would buy him out, a very common practice in rural Nevada. One day while checking his claims he saw a fellow poking around on his claim, after talking to the gentleman for a while found out that he was a mine geologist for the gold mine, a good thing he hoped.

The geologist was from Germany and was quite familiar with turquoise and its related ores and formations. He noted that he had found some variscite float (surface material), which is quite similar to turquoise and in Nevada, often found in conjunction with turquoise, in fact many Nevada turquoise miners do not know the difference and often try selling it as turquoise. He then told Joe he was sure that there would be turquoise just under the surface and it should not take too much effort to find it. After a short time Joe began hand digging the claim as he had no heavy equipment to excavate with, and did indeed find turquoise, he named the claim the Blue Spider Mine.

Now Nevada is mostly rock and not all that much dirt and digging in it by hand can be very challenging, so he began looking around for some help. In due time he was approached by some men from Phoenix Arizona, they had heard about his mine and wanted to make a deal with him to mine it. They would provide the man power and equipment and split the rough turquoise with him fifty fifty. Being a gentleman from the old west, Joe shook their hand and the deal was struck.

It was about this time that my wife’s aunt told her about Joe and his turquoise, knowing that I was in the market and might be interested, I was. We made a trip to Carlin within a few weeks and met Joe, he had brought a small bag of rough turquoise that was very good quality. I bought that turquoise and made a deal to buy all his share from the Blue Spider Mine.

As time went by and he accumulated enough turquoise for me to make the trip to Carlin worthwhile, I noticed that the quality seemed to be going down, not too uncommon with small mines. I asked him if he was keeping a eye on the operation to make sure all was going as it was intended and he admitted he only went up there every two weeks to collect his share. Now Joe was also the constable for this rural area and drove a police car, I told him for his next trip to go a week early and drive his police car, just to check on things.

On his next, unexpected, arrival at the mine, no one was in sight, so he walked in the mine shack and low and behold there were all the miners sitting round a large pile of turquoise with a very surprised look on their faces. Now Joe, being the trusting type, just assumed they had hit a pocket and were just now cleaning it up and boy was he glad he came by, just in time to get his share. As it later turned out these crooks from Phoenix had been high grading (stealing) Joe for some time and flying the turquoise out by light plane without him knowing it, and keeping a small amount of lower grade material for his share. When I came up to buy his windfall I told him he better get out there and keep an eye on the crooks, but it was too late, they had packed up and left town, the only thing they left was a large hole in the ground.

This was indeed a pocket mine and very little turquoise was ever recovered after this scam, but I did get the last batch that Joe had received and I have held on to most of it and have recently starting cutting and selling some of it in my retirement. The Blue Spider mine did produce some very high quality spiderweb turquoise cabs and nugget material, however like all mines not all of it’s production was high grade, but even the lower grades tend to be a very pretty blue with very little green or green hued colors. All of it is rare and very collectable, and makes great jewelry set in either gold or silver. What I have left is likely all there is and of course there will be no more. I have a few pieces of Blue Spider Mine turquoise on my specimen page, even a very large nugget, but most will be cut and polished.

'Boulder' Turquoise from slices of rough to a finished cab.

Michael Brown 2018