Hand Chis­eled

From min­ers to col­lec­tors to artists to deal­ers, the mar­ket for turquoise to­day is a con­tin­ual pur­suit for the best and bright­est, or bluest.

Native American Art - - COLUMNS/FEATURES - By Joshua Rose

“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.”

Bis­bee turquoise

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.

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