What is the difference between stabilized and natural turquoise?

If you're interested in Native American jewelry, it's important to know what stabilized turquoise is and how it's different from natural turquoise. This is a subject surrounded by much confusion and misinformation. With this post, we hope to shed some light on the subject. For a true expert on the subject, we recommend Turquoise Unearthed: An Illustrated Guide by Joe Dan Lowry. You can buy it on Amazon.

What is stabilized turquoise?

Soft, low grade, turquoise that has undergone a stabilization process to enhance its hardness and color. During this process, the stone is put under pressure, causing it to absorb a clear epoxy or plastic filler. This results in a harder stone that is suitable for use in jewelry. The stabilization process was first invented in the 1950s in Arizona.

Why is turquoise stabilized?

Turquoise by nature is a relatively soft, porous stone, and it can vary greatly in its quality.   Only higher grade natural turquoise is actually dense enough that it can be cut and shaped without damaging the stone.  Softer, lower grade turquoise has to be treated in some way in order for it to be usable in jewelry. The resulting piece of turquoise is then much stronger and easier to cut, polish, and set by a jeweler without risk of breaking. Stabilized turquoise can be produced in large quantities and is less expensive than natural turquoise.
 

What are the different types of altered turquoise?

  • Stabilized or Enhanced: An epoxy or a plastic filler is added via pressure to the stone.  If the stone naturally formed with holes or pits, they can be filled with epoxy for a smoother surface area. Some stabilized turquoise is color enhanced.
  • Reconstituted or Chalk: Fragments of turquoise are crushed into a powder form, which is then mixed with epoxy to make harder blocks that can then be cut into slabs or stone shapes. We do not sell, nor do we recommend buying, reconstituted or chalk turquoise.
  • Block or Imitation: Synthetic material (dyed plastic) or the manipulation of another stone (such as the Howlite) made to look like turquoise, but with no actual turquoise stone in it at all. We do not sell, nor do we recommend buying, block or imitation turquoise.

turquoise

Why is natural turquoise so much more expensive?

The price of natural turquoise is associated with its rarity. When turquoise is mined, the majority is too soft for use in jewelry. This inexpensive low grade material must be stabilized before it can be used in jewelry. It’s estimated that as much as 90% of turquoise on the market today has been stabilized or enhanced.  The lower grade the natural turquoise is, the more treatment it needs to become useful for jewelry. And generally speaking, the more the stone has been changed from its natural state, the less value it has.  

Turquoise Cabochons

Is it bad to buy stabilized turquoise?

Stabilized turquoise isn't bad! It does have its benefits. In fact, some people prefer it. After treatment, stabilized turquoise is harder and is unlikely to break or crack. The stone is no longer porous, so it doesn't absorb liquids or oils and the color is "locked" - unlike natural turquoise where the color can change, or deepen, over time.
Buying stabilized turquoise is fine as long as you pay stabilized turquoise prices. You should expect jewelry with stabilized turquoise to be priced significantly lower than similar pieces with natural turquoise. The problem arises when there is dishonesty around the condition of the turquoise and its quality. Always buy turquoise from an informed and reputable business!

It’s important to distinguish the fact that buying stabilized turquoise isn’t buying a fake stone.  Stabilization is a necessary process to make lower grade turquoise hard enough to be shaped.  

The cheapest forms of "turquoise" are block and imitation. These types of "turquoise" are made from synthetic materials - usually plastic. We caution buyers against purchasing block or imitation turquoise and we do not sell any in our stores.  

Is there a difference between American turquoise and non-American turquoise? 

Natural turquoise is natural turquoise -- no matter where it is pulled out of the ground. Other areas of the world can offer high quality turquoise; most notably China and Iran ("Persian" Turquoise). Some high grade Chinese or Persian stones can be quite valuable and expensive to work with. In the case of Persian turquoise, the majority was imported to the U.S. before sanctions were imposed on Iran by the U.S. Government in the late 1970s.

Quality American turquoise stones from the Southwest fetch higher prices. Folk lore and history may play a role but this is largely due to scarcity. Many of the best American turquoise mines have been mined out and are closed.

In recent years, prices of American turquoise have skyrocketed. This has led to an increased use of non-American turquoise by Native American artists. Often, it's a more affordable way to work with natural stones.

"Years ago when I first started doing jewelry, the cost of Chinese was like a tenth of what the American was. Even though it was natural.

Some of the stones of the Chinese Turquoise are fantastic. I mean they look like Bisbee, they look like Lander Blue. I mean, just excellent looking turquoise. But people looked down on them because it was Chinese.

But now you go out there into the market, you see a lot of high end American turquoise and the price is amazing. Sky high. Now people are looking to the Chinese turquoise. Natural."

-Wes Willie, Navajo Silversmith

What accounts for the price differences between turquoise mines?

Hardness, appearance, and rarity are three major factors when valuing natural turquoise. The hardest turquoise stones are considered "gem grade". Appearance is a matter of personal taste; the color and matrix will vary drastically between different mines. Generally speaking, darker color and a tighter matrix are considered desirable traits. Rarity refers to how much turquoise a mine produced and how much is still available for use.

Most collectors develop a preference for particular turquoise mines, and for the color and appearance it produces. The Lander Blue mine in Nevada (now closed) is widely considered to have produced the most expensive turquoise per carat.

Persian Turquoise

Chinese Turquoise

A few American Turquoise Mines

Bisbee

Blue Diamond

Blue Gem

Blue Moon

Broken Arrow

Candelaria

Carico Lake

Cripple Creek

Damele

Fox

Ithaca Peak

Kingman

Lander Blue

Lone Mountain

Morenci

New Lander

Number Eight

Orvil Jack

Pilot Mountain

Pixie

Red Mountain

Royston

Sleeping Beauty

Turquoise Mountain

Looking for more information about Turquoise? 

Read our post on the History and Chemical Makeup of Turquoise.

 

Comments

This was very helpful! You you help me identify some stones?

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