Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Landers conundrum

One question we get a lot in the shop and at shows is, "What is the best turquoise?" A fair question, though kind of difficult to answer, because different people like different things in their turquoise. From a gemological standpoint, the best turquoise is the hardest turquoise, which in America would probably be clear blue Sleeping Beauty. In the Old World, the most prized turquoise was that which had the clearest blue with the least matrix, and the Persian turquoise with the deep black matrix so familiar to collectors of Navajo pieces from the 1920s was the inferior junk that they cut and shipped off to America.

Since 1975, however, the king of the turquoise mountain in terms of price has been Landers. Discovered in 1973 in Lander County, Nevada, this tiny "hat mine" (so called because it could be covered by a hat) produced something like 125 pounds of rough turquoise before it played out. 125 pounds of rough does not equate to 125 pounds of finished turquoise--the total amount of polished cabs out of the mine was extremely small, and Landers is by far the rarest kind of classic American turquoise. But like all types of turquoise, it does come in different grades, and must be priced accordingly--the best Landers can fetch a price that is four times that of lesser grades from the same mine. To see examples of great Landers cabs, see TURQUOISE by Lowry and Lowry, page 228.

Like all things of great value, Landers has brought out the worst in many people. There are other types of turquoise that have similar matrix and coloration, and selling these stones as real Landers has become a growth industry. Indian Mountain can look very much like Landers, as can certain types of Chinese turquoise, and by simply changing the name on the label the price can grow from $15 per carat (or less) to over $100 per carat. There are specific ways to tell the difference, most of which involve a magnifier and strong light, but the average consumer is better off to simply not buy any turquoise as Landers unless the seller has a) a good reputation; b) a money-back guarantee; and c) a good reason for calling it Landers beyond just "it sure looks like it".

Most Landers that comes on the market ends up in the hands of the few Indian artists whose reputation and skill is high enough that their pricing structure can support such an expensive stone. It is rare to find a contemporary piece by a second-tier artist with Landers in it, because they simply can't afford to buy it for themselves. Also, the collectors who have the means to purchase Landers stones will generally hold out until they can have one of their favorites make them a special piece with it. Once in a while, a piece from the mid-1970s (when Landers came on to the market) will surface--TMT currently has a bolo and bracelet done in the Carl Luthy shop circa 1975 with Landers stones. But as a rule, 99% of what is being sold as Landers is actually something far less valuable.

For collectors looking to build their collection of turquoise, Landers should not be the place to start. Historically, it was so rare that it is the turquoise equivalent of a colored diamond: a rare and valuable variation that has a very small presence at the very top of the market. The other classic American mines, such as #8, Bisbee, Lone Mountain and Blue Gem, offer stones that are just as beautiful in their own way at a fraction of the price. For the advanced collector, a good Landers stone is the culmination of a collecting journey, but someone just beginning on that journey should spend their money enjoying every step along the way before draining their bank account to run straight to the top of the mountain.