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SANTA FE, N.M. — For Navajo silversmith Rodey Guerro, making jewelry is more than just a source of income — it’s part of his way of life.
“I’ve been at this for over 47 years,” he said. “I got started in the early ’70s and I’m still at it.”
On most weekends you can find Guerro in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Today he’s one of about 40 Native artisans selling their work along the central plaza sidewalk.
Guerro’s inventory is arranged neatly on a purple felt blanket. Smaller pieces such as earrings line the bottom half of his vending display, with larger items like pendants and bolo ties dotting the top. While Guerro uses a variety of materials in his work, it’s the turquoise that commands the most attention from customers.
“This is inlaid with different types of turquoise from Arizona and Nevada,” he explained to a couple eyeing one of his bracelets. “And here’s a little abstract dragonfly that I put in there.”
Guerro is asking $3,500 for the bracelet, a much higher price than he would have asked just a few years ago. He said several things impact the price of his work, especially raw materials. Right now, though, it’s the cost of natural turquoise.
The cost of turquoise has been steadily increasing for the last 60 years, but recently prices for the gem have skyrocketed. Growing demand for turquoise jewelry from Europe and Asia is partly to blame for the shift. The stone is also becoming harder to find and mine.
Geologically speaking, turquoise is a nonrenewable resource, one that took millions of years to form. For those who use the stone to make a living, adaptation seems to be the name of the game for now. But with only a handful of mines still producing, the natural stone’s place in the cultures in the Southwest faces an uncertain future.
While the increased scarcity means consumers and artists alike have had to adapt, reaction has been varied throughout the complex market.
Industry experts say the craze that led to this dramatic environment change was first noticed around 2010. “Something that five or six years ago was $200 a pound” is now a couple thousand a pound, said Jeffrey Lewis, owner of Trade Roots, an international procurer of wholesale raw materials for Native American artisans.
Lewis added that while demand for turquoise jewelry has increased steadily across Europe, it’s the demand from China’s expanding middle class that’s really driving the spike.
“When you’ve got such a huge population moving into middle class wanting things, especially cultural things, it just creates a huge demand,” he said.
In today’s market, much of a stone’s value can be derived from the mine it came from. Lewis said his Chinese buyers tend to prefer turquoise with solid sky-blue coloring, qualities that are typical of stones from the Sleeping Beauty mine in Globe, Arizona. Like many of the once prolific mines in the Southwest, Sleeping Beauty is now closed to turquoise miners.
Only a handful of mines in the U.S. still produce turquoise, but the supply of this gem is limited by yet another factor. Of all the turquoise that comes out of the ground, industry experts estimate that only about 3 to 4 percent is hard enough in its natural form to be used in jewelry.
“It’s difficult for the artists to buy,” said Cheryl Ingram, owner of Silver Sun Gallery in Santa Fe and a member of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association. “We have to find it in private collections, estates and that sort of thing.”
Ingram said that scarcity means higher prices for the consumer, which can make it harder to sell.
“Turquoise, which used to be a very inexpensive stone here half a century ago, is now very collectible, and it’s only going in one direction,” said Ingram.
But, she added, true collectors understand that, and most will be willing to pay for the best rocks no matter what the price is. This type of market has manifested itself in several ways for the Native artisans who work with turquoise to make a living.
“If you’re good, there will be buyers,” said Ingram. She explained that the best artists can raise their prices with the cost of their raw materials and still have a customer base willing to pay.
But not every artist has clientele with an unlimited budget. Many are keeping their prices in check by using more silver in their work, like Cochiti/Zuni silversmith Robert Eustace Jones.
“I’ve adapted,” he said. “Now I use my stones very sparingly.”
Thanks to falling silver prices, Jones said, he can still make pieces he’s proud of without raising his prices too much, but it does come at a personal cost.
“It’s impacted my personal creativity,” he said. “I have a lot of great ideas, and I can no longer make those designs because I don’t have the material to make them.”
But not every artist has taken that approach.
“Most of them can’t afford that level of [natural] turquoise today. And slowly that level of market has gone to stabilized,” explained Lewis
Stabilized turquoise makes up more than 95 percent of the turquoise on the market. Unlike natural turquoise, stabilized turquoise starts out too soft to be manipulated into jewelry. Those who use it must treat it, or stabilize it, with epoxy before working with it.
For the untrained eye, it can be hard to tell the difference between natural and stabilized turquoise. From a market perspective, Lewis said, there’s nothing wrong with using it, but because the product is of lesser quality, it needs to be disclosed to buyers.
“I think this Southwestern region has a significant number of jewelers who work professionally or work with collaborators and really provide for their families with the use of their art,” said Dallin Maybee, chief operating officer for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts. He explained that while demand for turquoise is growing worldwide, it’s a major part of the cultural identity in the Southwest. And for many Native artisans in the region, it’s also an important source of income.
The exact size of the Native arts and crafts industry is unclear and remains very hard to track, as many of the transactions tend to be done in cash or other forms of trade.
A recent survey conducted by the Indian Arts and Crafts Association suggests that nationwide, it could be generating as much as $150 million a year, though association officials maintain that even that is a very rough estimate. As far as the market impact goes, various tribal craft organizations, such as the Zuni Pueblo, say the increasing cost of turquoise is cutting into their artists’ bottom line.
But industry size aside, Maybee said, maintaining a robust arts and crafts industry comes with certain benefits for tribal members.
“With a jewelry studio, you can do that anywhere,” he said. “They don’t have to leave to make a living.”Maybee explained that the ability to work from home allows artists to stay close to their community and keep their cultural ties and identity strong. “That sense of community happens there, with that connection to that land,” he said.
But while turquoise can play a significant economic role in many Southwestern tribal cultures today, the connection to the stone itself goes even deeper for the Navajo people.
“We have four sacred stones, and the No. 1 is turquoise,” explained Navajo silversmith Mae Peshlakai.
For the Navajo, the stone is not just worn. It’s also used in ceremonies and to make offerings. Peshlakai added that, for many, it’s a reminder to keep life in balance.
“It’s your connection to Mother Earth and Father Sky and living in harmony with everything that exists in between,” she said.