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Turquoise

This sky-blue copper derivative, so important to the ancient Egyptians and Aztecs, has known better times.

Perhaps the best times of all for this gem were the late 1960s when social awareness briefly held more sway in U.S. fashion trends than did the social registry. Back then, Native American jewelry was powerfully in vogue and turquoise, the gem most associated with it, was hot.

But once so-called Native American jewelry started coming from Hong Kong and Taiwan, with its turquoise often plastic-treated or just plain plastic altogether, the gemís popularity nose dived. It didnít help matters when a major tribe of the Southwest was found to have mass-produced some of the silver and turquoise jewelry in Asia that it had been selling as handmade in the USA.

Such scandals devastated the reputation of a gem that is as strongly linked to centuries of skillful jewelry artisanry and other decorative arts as amber and ivory. Yet even with such scandals, there were still small but evidently gold-lined pockets of connoisseurship for this gem. A Los Angeles turquoise specialist recalls prices to Iranian collectors of as much as $2,000 per piece for top-echelon 15x20mm turquoise cabochons as late as 1976, three years before the fall of the Shah.

Now it is doubtful that the finest turquoise could fetch anywhere near that price unless it was a part of an important piece of antique jewelry, say a fine Islamic ring dating from around 1200. The sad truth about this gem is that rampant adulteration, plus a profusion of fakes, has cost it much of the publicís trust. But even without much-publicized high-tech shenanigans, turquoise would probably have difficulty commanding big bucks today, although the fashion wheel has turned and this bright blue-green gem is in vogue once again.

Persia Spelled A-R-I-Z-O-N-A

Although the U.S. Southwest is well-known for turquoise mining, Arizona, the gemís largest producer, is not the place most jewelers and connoisseurs think of when they think of turquoise. Very likely Iran- or, should we say Persia- comes to mind, for that country has for centuries been regarded as the premier source. And, in fact, the name turquoise, which means ďTurkish,Ē refers to the fact that prized Persian material was originally brought to Europe via Turkey.

Just for the record, however, the earliest known deposits of turquoise were found in Egypt, at least as far back as 2000 B.C. Ironically, grades were so poor that Egyptís gifted jewelry artisans were forced to develop a substitute called faience, composed of a quartz paste that was shaped to look like pieces of turquoise, then glazed a beautiful sky-blue color before being hardened in a fire oven.

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Turquoise