Friday, April 30, 2010

The age of "good" foreign turquoise

Many collectors have been told that having American turquoise in a piece of Indian jewelry is necessary for authenticity, and that pieces with foreign stones should be avoided. In the contemporary pieces this might be true, though there are some absolutely beautiful stones being mined overseas. Pieces that incorporate turquoise from the classic American mines are generally quite collectible and valuable, while Chinese turquoise is almost a four-letter word. But with antique material, there is one huge exception that should be in every collector’s knowledge base (and collection): Persian turquoise from the 1890-1930 eras.

Most turquoise in early pieces came from the early mines of the Southwest, such as those around Cerrillos. There is evidence of prehistoric turquoise mining, and there are many accounts of Indians mining turquoise in the 1870s and 1880s. The commercial mining operations at the Cerrillos mines went from the mid-1880s until the collapse of the turquoise market in 1909-1912. (At one point, turquoise had been more expensive than gold, which explains why companies such as Tiffany were so eager to purchase turquoise mines in New Mexico.) After that, very little came from those mines, though there were small-scale mining operations in the area for years.

When the New Mexican mining operations came to an end, the traders needed a source of turquoise for the Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths, and the major Nevada mines had, for the most part, not been opened yet. The only large-scale source of turquoise available was overseas, and so the traders brought in quite a bit of Persian turquoise for the Indians to use. Most of it came in already cut into domed cabochons, which are different from the generally flat pieces the Indians had used previously. (There was, however, Persian turquoise in the Southwest far earlier than that—pieces from the 1890s set with domed cabochons are rare, but not unheard-of.)

With the opening of the big Nevada turquoise mines in the early 1930s, the stream of Persian turquoise slowed down greatly. Most Navajo or Pueblo pieces with Persian turquoise, therefore, can be safely dated between the mid-1910s and the late 1920s. In this time, some of the best pieces of Indian silverwork held turquoise from across the sea, and these pieces are both extremely collectible and highly important in the development of the art.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another note on "made for sale"

In 1905, noted trader Juan Lorenzo Hubbell published a "Catalogue and Price List" for "Navajo Blankets & Indian Curios". This was not the first catalog published by a trader--both C. N. Cotton and J. B. Moore had already done so. The Hubbell catalog is not nearly so well known as that of the other traders, but is still worthwhile reading.

The catalog offers a very nice selection of blankets (although no rugs yet; Cotton and Moore were ahead of Hubbell in recognizing the shift towards floor coverings). There is also a selection of Hopi crafts, and even minerals such as "Navajo rubies" (probably garnets). And not least, there is a page devoted to "Navajo Silverware and Jewelry". The prices are very interesting, to say the least.

The items offered include concho belts, bridles, strings of beads, conchos for belt buckles, bracelets "with matrix turquoise", bracelets without settings, and "finger rings". There are no squash blossom necklaces offered for sale, though the catalog photo shows them; the same for ketohs, buttons and spoons. There is no mention or picture of earrings, which were an extremely uncommon product and sale item at that date.

Here are some prices:
Concho belts--$30 to $40
Silver beads--$10 to $35, depending on length of string
Bracelets with turquoise--$2.25 to $10, depending on color and size of stone
Bracelets without turquoise--$1.25 to $1.75 per ounce
Rings with turquoise--$1.25 to $5.00, depending on color and size of stones

Affordable, but not being given away. Considering that a loaf of bread in 1913 cost about 5 cents, spending 100 times that on a ring is equivalent to spending $250 today (considering that a loaf of bread is $2.50 in my supermarket if I'm buying the cheap kind). So, even back then, the traders had a sense that what they were selling was not just cheap tourist junk.