Turquoise delight

The name of the colour turquoise comes from the stone that exemplifies it. The gem’s name, in turn, is a medieval English corruption of Turkish, since it was believed to originate in that country. In fact, turquoise is to be found all over the world and is part of the fabric of all of the great and minor cultures in the history of the planet. The range of hues of turquoise, both the colour and the stone, goes from greenish to blueish with the evocatively named celeste being the extreme blue shade and the equally pleasing pearl mystic turquoise marking the end of the greenish dominance. In the gemstone, the scale depends on the degree of copper present, which is why the colour suggests the patina of oxidized copper. It is a stone that does not belong to one region and is quite ecumenical in its scope with strong turquoise traditions among Native Americans, the Aztecs, the American Southwest, the ancient Egyptians (see, for example, the inclusion of turquoise in Tutankhamun’s death mask, below), the Middle East, China, and Europe. It is mined across the world, from Cornwall to Arizona and from Queensland to Chile.

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I’ve always found it a surprising choice for jewellery for two reasons. Firstly, the colour itself can be very attractive but often seems to just miss being garish. Secondly, the stone itself is somewhat fragile and can fracture. I’ll add to these two reasons that the market has been inundated with synthetic turquoise to the point that one is naturally suspicious of its authenticity. However, my own natural prejudices cannot get in the way of the fact that turquoise has a long pedigree of positive symbolism. Tibetan monks often carried it as it gently can change colour over time and it served as a reminder of the wheel of life. Some Native American tribes saw the shades of the sky and the sea in it and thus it represented life itself to them. These natural tropes together with its availability has meant that it has long been used in jewellery. My own favourite use of the gem is in tiaras. The photograph below is of the Persian tiara of Princess Margaret (Queen Elizabeth II’s late sister). The turquoise outshines the diamonds, even though these precious stones are vastly worth more, and the overall effect, somewhat paradoxically, is a natural one.  The Duchess of Cornwall often wears turquoise, including a tiara, and never fails to look stunning in it.

ImageIt is somewhat surprising, given its noble lineage, that there isn’t a particularly strong use of it in Christian art and architecture, with the exception of some Orthodox churches. It has perhaps been eclipsed by the deep blues obtained from lapis lazuli, long used in representations of Our Lady. Islamic art has a much more visible tradition of turquoise and it is often found on mosques, in both the interior and exterior, both the colour and the stone. A particularly striking example is the portal of the St Petersburg Mosque, a building completed in 1921, below. The Wilayah Mosque in Malaysia is crowned with twenty-three composite domes clad with turquoise mosaics. This traditional use is offset by the decidedly modern use of computerized pixel technique to achieve the pattern.

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One tradition attached to turquoise is that it should never be purchased but only received as a gift. This, incidentally, was also a norm that held for cufflinks; a gentleman was never supposed to buy his own pairs. Sometimes iconoclasm is not only a good thing but is also positively to be relished.

ImageToday’s cufflinks have three turquoise cabochons, rather appropriately for Trinity Sunday, set on sterling silver. They carry the maker’s mark of MLV and the three-eagles symbol denoting that they were made in Taxco, Mexico. While we don’t know the name of MLV, he or she is a recognized designer who was active in the 1940 and 1950s, and this pair looks like it dates from the 1950s. MLV loved working with turquoise as most of the pieces that bear this maker’s mark (brooches, wrist cuffs, and rings) incorporate the gem. Since it widely symbolizes healing and protection, turquoise is often associated with guardian angels. It is thus perhaps not a bad thing to have in our lives.

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