The wrinkled man, shiny braids reaching down his back, is dripping with turquoise jewelry. Each of his fingers bears a blue chunk set in silver, and at least a dozen strands of blue and green beads hang from his neck. "You can't wear just one," he smiles, handing me a few to try.
His is just one of many blankets spread beneath the arcades of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Jewelers, potters, and carvers display their wares in the shade along the city's main square. Among the artisans clustered here, this elderly Navajo jewelry maker stands out to me—not only for his beautiful work, but for his palpable passion for the blue mineral that has become a symbol of Native American craftsmanship.
Turquoise is a mineral created in a natural process that is still not completely understood. Water seeping through porous rock interacts with copper, aluminum, and iron, over time creating a striking range of dark and light blues, greens, grays, yellows, and even white. For many centuries, Native Americans pulled turquoise from the earth using antlers, horns, hatchets, and other makeshift tools. Among a list of valued stones, minerals, and shells, turquoise held pride of place. Native Americans traded it for other objects, used it as currency, and transformed it into beads, jewelry, and ceremonial objects valued for their intrinsic beauty. A complex mythology developed about turquoise. It was thought to protect people from illness and bring luck and rain. Certain tribes developed their own distinctive creations with turquoise. For example, artisans from Santo Domingo Pueblo, in northern New Mexico, developed a class of jewelry called heishi, characterized by turquoise beads shaped like hockey pucks stacked closely together and strung in long strands.
When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the region in the 1500s, they considered turquoise worthless, and searched insteadfruitlesslyfor gold. The Spanish introduced silversmithing to Native Americans, who quickly realized the potential of marrying the shiny metal with their beloved blue mineral. Originally Native Americans melted down Mexican pesos and American silver dollars for their silver content, and later, in the 20th century, moved to sheet silver. The Hopi, clustered in northeastern Arizona, perfected several silver techniques that have resulted in distinctive designs. However, few have joined silver with turquoise as successfully as the Navajo. Some Navajo jewelry designs are now considered classics. The most recognizable is the squash blossom necklace, which features a downward-facing horseshoe called a naja, usually encrusted with turquoise.