From miners to collectors to artists to dealers, the market for turquoise today is a continual pursuit for the best and brightest, or bluest.
“It all starts from the valley floor,”
says Tony Otteson, who has been hunting turquoise in the central Nevada Candelaria Hills since he was 5 or 6. “What you do is look at the mountain ranges from a distance. You read the minerals. If a mountain has a high iron content those hills will be red or reddish.”
That’s how you start. But then you want to see traces of the aluminum being pushed up through the ground.
“And that comes with the gray bands running through it,” says Otteson. “So when you see that gray banding across the hills through the red outcropping you know you are on the right track for the ground that makes the turquoise. There are a lot of minerals pushed up through the ground in those areas. But the minerals have to be mixed just right to result in turquoise.”
Otteson’s family has owned many turquoise mines in the Royston district and Candelaria Hills. In fact, they still own several. And some are still active. The Hills are located in Central Nevada, about 70 miles northwest of Tonopah. It’s a high desert, with an elevation of over 7,000 feet, which means freezing winters and an unfortunate abundance of cold air coming off the high, snowy peaks of the aptly named White Mountains that border Nevada and California. The highest peak in the area is Miller Mountain, which is the spot where Francis Marion “Borax” Smith built a board and batten cabin and went on to discover a rich borax deposit at nearby Teel’s Marsh. Ever since, people have known that desirable minerals and gems can be found here.
Otteson is one of the main players in today’s turquoise market and probably one of the only people
out there daily, chasing the high-grade rocks still buried deep in the ground. It is a market that has gone increasingly upscale over the years, with top examples of the most sought-after rocks bringing up to $400 a carat. It is a market made up of artists, collectors, dealers, miners, fans, traders and, of course, dreamers who at one point in their lives fell in love with the deep blues and unique webbing of this strange and allusive stone and have been searching for it ever since.
But it’s never easy. And there are a lot of stories. Stories and storytellers. Of course, the high grade will always cost you a pretty penny. Penny, that is, because turquoise mining is an offshoot of copper mining.
“People love Bisbee right now,” says Randall Marchese, who once owned the Red Mountain Turquoise mine back in the ’70s and has been a dealer ever since. “But the thing to know about Bisbee is that it was never really mined, except for a few years. Almost all Bisbee turquoise either comes from high graders—miners who worked at the mine and got off the equipment to grab turquoise they saw on the ground, survey crews or lunch box turquoise. Lunch box is the term used when miners would find stones as they worked and would take it home with them in their lunch box.”
While the mine closed in 1975, Bisbee is still one of the best looking stones on the market today.
“Those people were professionals,” says Marchese. “They knew what they were doing. And some made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling it. What people love about Bisbee is it’s easily identifiable and not duplicable. And the high grade brings over one hundred dollars a carat.”
Phoenix-based jeweler Olin Tsingine is one of those who values Bisbee. Tsingine is quickly rising in the Native jewelry world. In 2017, his gold bracelet was awarded Best in Jewelry at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market. He’s also a genuine lover of the stone and an all-around nice person. All of these traits make him one of the first artists people call when they come across a desirable stone. Like most artists working today, he is a turquoise aficionado as well. Artists today collect and trade turquoise like they probably did with baseball cards in their youth.
“Bisbee is an Arizona stone. It has those deep blues I love. It’s just a favorite color. It has a magical feeling about it. Looking into it just puts you into a state of
amazement. It’s just like beauty you see. It’s all there,” says Tsingine.
But for Tsingine, finding good examples of highgrade turquoise hasn’t come easy.
“You have to work your way up,” says Tsingine. “When I first started out, it was a really big chore to go and find the good turquoise. I spent a lot of time going to Nevada, going to the mines and meeting people. Once you’re established, the turquoise finds you. But it takes at least five years of hard work to get to that level.”
While Bisbee is popular right now, as are Royston and Lone Mountain, Morenci and Apache Blue, people start speaking in whispers when Lander Blue is mentioned. Lander Blue turquoise is from north-central Nevada, between Battle Mountain and Tenabo, and was discovered in 1973 by Rita Hapgood, a blackjack dealer at the Nevada Club at Battle Mountain while picnicking at Indian Creek. It is known as a “hat mine” because the entire mine entrance can be covered with a hat. Most estimate that only 100 pounds of the deep blue beauty was ever pulled from the mine, thus making it the rarest and most valuable turquoise out there.
“There will always be Lander Blue,” says Otteson. “The problem with it, however, is that back in the day, after the mine was played out, certain people went to China and got turquoise over there and brought it back here and started selling it as Lander Blue. They could buy the Chinese turquoise for about $200 a pound
and then sell it here for about $10,000 a pound. So it’s hard to tell what is the real Lander. I would say there’s probably only 30 to 40 people in the states right now who can really tell the difference between real Lander Blue and the Chinese version of it. So, because of this, some collectors shy away from it.”
But, for Otteson, and everyone else, what is most desirable right now is high-grade turquoise, usually dark blue with delicate black spider web casing through it. And the high grade makes up about only 12 percent of what is being mined. So its rarity continues to increase.
“Every mine produces so much material that no one wants, “says Otteson. “When we go up there and pull high-grade Apache Blue out of the ground, we already have a waiting list of 15 to 20 people who want to buy it. But it’s hard. Because you go up there and spend thousands of dollars getting in there and getting set up. And you might not find anything for months. So you work in a deficit to open things up.”
Otteson and his family are probably the last people to find anything resembling Lander Blue and that is now known as Apache Blue and is found in one of their active mines half a state away from where Lander was first discovered.
“For a pound of Apache Blue, which is 2,250 carats, I can get $20,000 to $30,000 for it,” says Otteson. “Which sounds like a lot, but remember, it takes me a solid year of mining to get that. But where we find it is near our base camp for all the Candelaria Hills, where our bunk houses are. So, whenever I’m there, I’ll just go in and start digging. You never know what’s behind the next rock, or when you’ll run into one of those clay pockets that just holds all the turquoise. You do your best to read all the materials, to see what’s dispersed in the wall you’re looking at. You might just spend two month chipping away at that one area. And once it’s discovered, the gloves literally come off.
“Once we get down to the really high grade, everything is done by hand,” says Otteson. “Hand chiseled. If you find a golf ball sized rock and you hit that with a chipping hammer it will turn to powder in an instant. So what do we use? A dental pick and a toothbrush to get those stones out. It might take hours just scratching away at one nugget.”
Gene Waddell is the owner of the Waddell Gallery but has also had a stake in the Lone Mountain Turquoise mine since 1979. It, too, is still producing high-grade turquoise that is highly sought after by artists. It was used by the legendary Charles Loloma and has also been used by the likes of Lee Yazzie, Raymond Yazzie and Darryl Dean Begay.
“What I’m seeing right now is that collectors want high-end, collectible jewelry, done by an acclaimed silversmith who has won awards, as well as a few up and comers,” says Waddell. “They are looking for the best they can find and it’s a rule of supply and demand. The supply of high grade is very low right now. So the best just gets more rare and more valuable.”
And like everyone else, this is a process that never ends.
“We focus on the high grade from any mine, if we can get it,” says Waddell. “We have a decent collection but we keep looking for it. It’s a rare commodity. High-end Lone Mountain will go for $100 to $150 a carat, Lander $300 to $400. We are always looking.”
Lone Mountain turquoise.Inset: Tommy Otteson and Danny Otteson drilling blasting holes in dead ground in the mine.
Cut Royston turquoise surrounded by Royston in the rough.
Morenci turquoise. Turquoise images courtesy Olin Tsinine.
Apache Blue turquoise. Courtesy Tony Otteson.