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When the tomb of Queen Zer, the Egyptian monarch, was excavated in
1900, the mummy was found adorned by four bracelets made of turquoise
and cast gold that had encircled the dead queen's arm for about 7,500
years. These bracelets are the world's oldest known pieces of jewelry and
remain as beautiful today as when new.
The name turquoise is believed to have been derived from the French use of
pierre turquoise, meaning "Turkish stone," probably because the stone first
reached Europe by way of Turkey. The Persians called turquoise ferozah for
"victorious," and in Tibet it was known as gyu, which resembled the Chinese
name for jade, China's most precious gem.
The history and romance of turquoise include a multitude of legends and
superstitions. Most ancient civilizations -- the Aztecs, Incas, Egyptians and
American Indians or the Southwest -- valued turquoise very highly. In fact,
the American Indians used turquoise in the sixteenth century as a medium of
exchange and an adornment of their house fronts, their graves and their
persons. To them, turquoise embodied the spirits of the sea and the sky;
they also believed that it had the power to bring abundant spoils to their
warriors, many animals to the hunters and happiness and good fortune to all
who wore it. The turquoise was expected to protect the wearer from injury
from falling, especially from a horse and to make his steed more
sure-footed. A belief still prevalent among the Navahos is that a piece of
turquoise thrown into a river while saying a prayer to the rain god will almost
surely bring immediate rain!
The oldest known piece of turquoise jewelry made by these early Indians
was found in Death Canyon, Arizona. It was a pendant bearing a mosaic
formed of eighty-one pieces of turquoise affixed to the wood with gum. Every
Navaho wears a piece of turquoise, and the higher his position in tribal
society the finer the stone. Few religious rites of the Indians of New Mexico
and Arizona take place without the inclusion of turquoise and almost all the
Indian jewelry in the southwestern United States contains turquoise.
Great chiefs and monarchs of the past were often buried with a treasure of
turquoise to guide them safely into the spirit world. This practice of the
ancient Egyptians extended to the Aztecs of Mexico. Turquoise was used
also as a powerful charm to protect the newborn in the voyage of life. In
India it was believed that the man who looked long at the new moon and then
instantly fixed his eyes on a turquoise would be assured of great wealth.
The oldest turquoise mines in the world are located on the Sinai Peninsula,
and it was from this area that the Egyptians, as long ago as 5500 BC.
obtained the turquoise they used for personal adornment; beads found in
prehistoric caves confirm this. By the time of the first dynasty, about 3200
BC., the kings of Egypt were sending mining expeditions to Sinai. These
venture were highly organized and often included several thousand laborers
and a military escort. The long journeys usually began in November and
ended in May, before the summer heat became too oppressive. The mines
were worked in this way for about two thousand years, but the turquoise
they yielded was never of great quantity.
Most of today's turquoise comes from the United States, mostly form the
Southwest. Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and California have
substantial deposits of turquoise. The finest quality stones are an intense
medium blue with the color smooth and evenly distributed. Iran still produces
some stones of this quality. The term "spider web turquoise" indicates a
specimen with a smooth color but with a rather evenly distributed network of
very fine lines.