Turkish Stone: The Ancient Lore of Turquoise

Turquoise may not sparkle like diamonds or glow like amber. And yet, this opaque blue stone has been prized and coveted for millennia. It’s one of history’s oldest gemstones, and some of the earliest evidence we have for its popularity dates all the way back to ancient Egypt! Tombs from 3000 BCE have been found to contain elaborate turquoise jewelry. In fact, one of the most famous artifacts of all time, King Tutankhamun’s burial mask, is covered with turquoise inlays.

The stone we call turquoise is actually a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum, the combination of which results in a beautiful color that can range from yellowish green to a brilliant sky blue. Turquoise is relatively soft, making it relatively easy to cut and carve and thus a natural choice for art and jewelry making.

Natural deposits of turquoise exist in arid climates, including Iran, China, the Southwestern United States, and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. Though it has gone by many names, turquoise get its current name from French pierre tourques, or “Turkish Stone.” This phrase refers to the Turkish traders who introduced the gem to Europe via the Silk Road in the 13th century.

Turquoise and gemstone necklace from Ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, circa 1887-1878 B.C. The necklace was found in the tomb of Princess Sithathoryunet and features the name of King Senwosret II. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
While turquoise’s popularity has waxed and waned over the centuries, it has always been a stone with both sacred and secular appeal, a gem used as much for ritual and protection as it is for personal adornment. Ancient Persians believed that turquoise could prevent them from harm and covered their daggers and bridles with it. They referred to turquoise as pirouzeh, which translates to “victory.” The Persians also claimed that the stone’s brilliant blue color represented the heavens above and used turquoise to decorate palaces and mosques. The stone also appeared in their jewelry and on turbans.

Meanwhile Native Americans have long used the stone for ceremony and worship as well as for jewelry. The Apaches wore turquoise as talismans and believed that attaching it to weapons and bows made for better aim. The Navajo used the stone for ritual, and it was thought that casting the stone into a river could summon rainfall. Later in the 19th century, Native American turquoise jewelry became a major handicraft and commodity, as it still is today. The Hopi and Zuni tribes are particularly famous for their handmade silver and turquoise jewelry and their ancestors have been mining the stone since prehistoric times.

Turquoise’s prevalence in the Southwest means it was easily available to the ancient Aztecs, who used it for ceremonial masks, mosaics, and in burial rituals. Aztec chiefs wore turquoise jewelry as a mark of authority. They referred to turquoise as chalchihuitl, or “Stone of the Gods,” and legend had it that Quetzalcoatl himself taught Aztecs the art of working with turquoise.

The prevalence of turquoise artifacts from all over the world and across history attests to its timeless allure. Turquoise has become more and more rare overtime, and yet it maintains its appeal as a gem of power, sacredness, protection, and beauty. Whether you favor turquoise for its color, or are eager to wear it as a personal talisman, honing a love for this stone is a tradition that goes back thousands of years!
This Turkish scimitar and scabbard set features jade and turquoise inlays and dates to the late 16th-17th century. The words “I trust in God” are inscribed on the blade in arabic. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.