Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sky and Earth

by Scott Anderson: Native Treasures Online - East Coast Operative

I've never written a blog before so I'm quite surprised to find myself writing my first one far from home and far from the places traditionally associated with my subject today, that being the mineral phenomenon known as Turquoise.

I am not a geologist, nor an artist, nor a theologian or an economist, and I therefore concede that there are deeper writings on everything I'll discuss here today. I stand at this nexus radiating from the stone as an admirer and a tourist of sorts in the realms of these experts.

My first exposure to this stone was in my grade school years when a kid from up the street showed me a stone he had obtained on a trip to some exotic location. Turkoyse was how he said it, and it was valuable. It immediately impressed my young mind and I accepted it's value on his say-so alone. That impression sat many years before I was again exposed to the stone.

When I moved to Albuquerque at the age of seventeen there were few jobs for which I was qualified and one of the possibilities was working for an "Indian Jewelry" shop. As it turned out, I never did go to work for such a place, but many of my acquaintances took their turn working in these sweatshops grinding heishi for the quick sell to tourists that didn't know any better. To me, the whole subject of turquoise was decidedly utilitarian. The stuff seemed to be everywhere and it's enthusiasts merely a class of prey for the local merchants.

Fast forward through the years--about thirty. These experiences have faded deep into the realm of irrelevance now. There was the occasional reminder of the art form employing turquoise and silver as my life took me far from New Mexico, but somehow the place and the people had made me one of their own. I remember driving to my job at the Ambrosia Lakes mines outside of Grants, New Mexico. I looked off to the side of the road and saw the smooth rolling brown hills and was overcome with something strange and warm. These hills, this land, were now my mother. I was born from them and in them I belonged as on my Mother's arm. Wherever life might take me, I would never forget this place and this time.

From Albuquerque one can see in the distance a beautiful mountain. You have to be on a high place to see it off to the west. It's called by the white man, Mount Taylor. This is a holy place. It was in the foothills of this place that I saw my Mother Earth. There is no arbiter of justice, there is only what is part of us and what is not. This land and I are of a piece. Maybe it's a reach to claim more than that, but the particular stone we call Turquoise is of this land too. In fact it is found in globally diverse places, but here in the New World, it is closely associated with the Southwestern United States.

All this variety has led to a hope that we might classify the stones and indeed we do, but the predominant classification is by mines from which a particular stone was quarried, hence mysterious names such as The #8 Mine or Carrico Lake, Cerrillos or Pilot Mountain. To anyone seeking to know more about this beautiful stone it can all seem quite daunting and indeed to compound the problem there is plenty of misrepresentation around these stones. Its really not a matter of malicious intent either, it is mostly just that there is really no solid science to the whole thing. Any particular quarry or mine will produce a variety of gem-quality pieces depending on where in the vein they were found. And yet, each mine can produce stones unaffectionately referred to as crap. Strangely or not, these stones never seem to receive the appellation of place like that afforded the best wines. Which brings us to yet another point and the comparison with wines is inescapable on this point. A cheap wine is made of grapes sourced from the cheapest supplier and they are likely to be a mixture of grapes from moderately diverse locations. Likewise turquoise of poor quality can be ground into a powder and bound with epoxy resins to produce a uniform composite which will take a polish and can be easily cut to size. This is referred to simply as "block" by those in the trade. This is not gem-quality stone and, unfortunately finds it's way into a lot of cheap jewelry.

So having danced around this subject maybe a bit more than necessary, we're still wondering what it is that gives a stone value. There's beauty, but how can one measure that? There's rarity, but that is a difficult thing to quantify when the stones themselves vary so much within even a single mine. There are physical qualities such as hardness and the ability to take a polish. These are a better bet at least on the quantitative front and indeed they really do matter probably more than anything else, except, where the stone came from. There are particular qualifiers to this though and that's the particular mine from which the stone was quarried. Some mines are active today, some had a brief spurt of glory in recent times and are now lost forever under hundreds of feet of quarry tailings, while yet others were mined in prehistoric as well as historic times. One can do the calculations at home as well as can I; rarity equals value, historicity equals value, beauty equals value, yet in the end, most of what determines value is subjective at best and unmeasurable except through the most tortured of extensions. What is one to do about all this?

Well, the answer is really one for each to answer for oneself. My own attraction to Turquoise is a complex thing, but it always holds a sense of place for me. Having no true homeland myself, it reminds me of the place that claimed me so many years ago. I see the weathered rocks and the weathered faces of the natives who work the stone, the silver, and the leather into reflections of this land. But even this association is by personal experience as much as objective fact. Many wonderful stones of Persian, Tibetan, and even Chinese origin have found their way into finely crafted pieces of Southwestern Native American Jewelry. The turquoise stone is a color in the artist's palette as much anything, yet anyone who has spent any time in the American Southwest can see those skies set against the tones of the desert, and know why this stone is such an integral part of it's people's craft.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

JW Edgar--The Turquoise King of the Southwest

We've had an opportunity to acquire some superior pieces from the J.W. Edgar estate here in Albuquerque. Edgar was referred to as “The Turquoise King of the Southwest” during his 100 years, and on his passing his family has slowly started to offer pieces from his private collection. At one time Edgar owned close to 11 thousand acres of turquoise claims in Nevada, several of them producing much sought after, high grade stones. He sold much of what his mines produced to Indian Trading Posts throughout the Southwest with much of it ending up on the Native American pueblos of New Mexico.

Legendary silversmiths were regularly employed by Edgar to incorporate his best stones into special, one-of-a-kind pieces, many of which Edgar kept for himself, with many more being offered to important collectors, dignitaries and pop culture icons. Often pieces would return to Edgar in trade when someone wanted to either upgrade or have something designed especially for them. He was the “go-to guy” when you wanted the best available. RG Armstrong had this chip inlay watch bracelet custom made by one of Edgar's silversmiths, and later traded it for something else. With Armstrong's extensive stage, film and television presence, starting in the late 1930s and lasting beyond 2000, this is not only a highly desirable work of Native American art, but an important Hollywood collectable.

The acquisition of two, Old Navajo Pawn Bow Guards / Ketohs has been a real feather in our cap as far as adding to our museum worthy offerings. The stones and craftsmanship are completely "over the top" on both of them and we're very excited to add them to the Native Treasures collection. You can get a good look at them in the video, they're located in the Featured Pieces category on the website and include some extensive provenance in their descriptions.

As negotiations continue we're confident that additional pieces from this impressive estate will become available. We'll keep you posted!