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Turquoise

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Turquoise is one of the traditional birthstones for the month of December. 

Turquoise was one of the first gemstones to be mined: turquoise beads dating from about 5000 BC have been found in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and Chinese artisans were carving it more than 3,000 years ago. Turquoise was extracted by the Egyptians from sources in the Siani Peninsula before the 4th century BC, and records from the reign of the Pharaoh Semerkhet (c. 2923-2915 BC) detail extensive mining operations that employed thousands of laborers. The magnificent turquoise-adorned breastplate of Pharaoh Sesostris II (1844-1837 BC) is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

                              

Turquoise varies in color from sky-blue to green, depending on the amount of iron and copper it contains. (Formula: CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8 · 4H2O) Crystals are rare; it usually occurs in massive or microcrystalline forms, as encrustations or nodules, or in veins. When crystals are found, they seldom exceed a fraction of an inch in length and occur as short prisms. Hardness: 5 - 6 and its crystal system is Triclinic. 

Some gem material is very porous, so it may be impregnated with wax or resin to maintain its appearance, or enhance its color--so-called "stabilized" turquoise. For most gem uses, turquoise is cut into cabochons, but natural turquoise is very brittle, and cabochons are frequently backed with epoxy resin to strengthen them. The delicate veining caused by impurities in turquoise from some localities is desired by some. Turquoise is also carved or engraved, and irregular pieces are often set in mosaics with jasper, obsidian, and mother-of-pearl. The natural aggregate of turquoise with limonite or other substances--called turquoise matrix--is sometimes cut and polished.

Turquoise from several sources was first transported to Europe through Turkey, probably accounting for its name, which is French for "Turkish". Sky-blue turquoise from Iran has been mined for centuries and is regarded as the most desirable. Persian turquoise tends to be harder and more of an even color than North American turquoise. It is always sky-blue, never green. In Tibet, where turquoise is very popular, a greener variety is preferred. Turquoise also occurs in northern Africa, Australia, Siberia, England, Belgium, France, Poland, Ethiopia, Mexico, Chile, and China. 

In Persia (present-day Iran), good luck was believed to come to someone who saw the reflection of a waxing crescent moon in turquoise. Indeed, turquoise was the national gemstone of Persia, adorning everything from thrones to horse trappings. Turquoise seals decorated with pearls and rubies were the emblems of high office. More widely, turquoise has been thought to warn the wearer of danger or illness by changing color. This is not altogether a false notion, because turquoise is a porous mineral, so when it is worn next to the skin it absorbs body oils and can consequently change color. Some believe turquoise stones can warn their owners by breaking like malachites supposedly do. In many respects, turquoise has been regarded by the Iranians as jade is by the Chinese. It has been highly prized in Iran (ancient Persia) since antiquity. The local turquoise source was the mines of Neyshabur, in the Khorasan region of Iran. 

The Aztecs greatly valued turquoise. The American geologist and educator W. P. Blake compiled some notable accounts of this gemstone from the Spanish conquest of Mexico during the 16th century. For example, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador, and historian observed that the Aztecs valued chalchihuitl, or turquoise, more than the Spaniards valued gold and emerald. Juan de Torquemada, a Franciscan missionary, wrote that the Aztecs made offerings of this stone at the temple of the goddess Matlalcueye and buried distinguished chiefs with fragments of chalchihuitl in their mouths. When the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and Emperor Montezuma played games of chance. Alvarado received gold if he won but paid chalchihuitl if he lost. The Aztecs believed their god Quetzalcoatl taught them the art of cutting and polishing this stone. Bernardino de Sahagún, another Franciscan missionary, wrote that Aztec chiefs wore strings of chalchihuitl around their wrists as badges of distinction.

American Indians have worked the numerous deposits in the southwestern United States since AD 1000. The Pueblo Indians used turquoise for beads and made beautiful necklaces and pendants from shells covered with turquoise mosaics. In 1853, silver-working was introduced to the Navajo for the first time by Mexican smiths. The Navajo soon began reworking Spanish American designs in traditional American Indian styles. In 1872 the Zuni learned silversmithing from the Navajo. Zuni work is characterized by finely set, small turquoise inlays; Navajo work is distinguished by die-stamped designs and large turquoise cabochons. Some American Indians regard turquoise as "male" or "female", depending on its color. "Male" blue is associated with the sky--Father Sky--and "female" green with the Earth--Mother Earth. A Zuni legend relates the story of Turquoise Man and Salt Woman. They felt they were not valued enough, so they went away from the people. Turquoise Man said, “His flesh was simply given out to women for sexual favors.” (I guess he didn’t care for being used as money). The Zuni held an annual pilgrimage to retrieve the salt from the sacred lake where Salt Woman hid. At Pueblo de Los Muertos, New Mexico, a sea shell coated with pitch and inset with turquoise and garnets was found. It had the form of a toad, a sacred emblem for the Zuni. The highly secret cult-room of the Pueblo Indian High Priest of the Rains is said to contain an altar comprising two small crystal and turquoise columns and a heart-shaped stone, the heart of the world. According to Pueblo's belief, a piece of turquoise attached to a gun or bow assured the firer a perfect aim. 

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