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Turquoise Stone | Meaning and Properties



seven rough turquoise stones


History of Turquoise

Turquoise is one of the oldest of all gemstones and also one of the most popular.  Widely used in jewellery by many cultures around the world it's one of the very few minerals to have given its name to a colour.  Its history can be traced back as far as 6000 BC. where records from the reign of the Pharaoh Semerkhet detail extensive mining operations that involved thousands of workers.  It was mined in the Sinai Peninsula and many beautiful artefacts were subsequently found in Egyptian burial chambers dating back to 3000 BC.  Turquoise beads also found in Egypt have been dated to 4000 BC whilst a discovery in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) has been dated to 5000 BC. The most famous artefact featuring turquoise is the burial mask of King Tutankhamun which also features lapis lazuli, quartz, carnelian, feldspar, other gemstones and coloured glass.

Archaeologists also found imitation turquoise artefacts from this same period and it's believed turquoise was probably the first gemstone to be imitated.  Cheaper substitutes have been produced throughout history and the practice continues to this day. The mineral howlite is often used for this purpose because it's relatively cheap and can have similar markings.  This whitish grey coloured stone is porous which makes it easy to dye and its dark spidery veins can to the untrained eye, be mistaken for the matrix often present in turquoise. In recent years a huge number of fake stones have flooded the market and sadly many people will be blissfully unaware that their prized piece of turquoise may not actually be genuine. Howlite is even sometimes marketed as white turquoise and whilst this mineral does occur in white, it's usually accompanied by a distinctive blue or green tint.



 the mineral turquoise in rock matrix


Turquoise from Arizona. Photo courtesy of Stan Celestian - Flickr




Turquois meaning "Turkish stone" was the name given to the mineral by the French in the 17th century in the belief that it had originated from Turkey when in fact it had only passed through there on its way to Europe after having been mined in the North East of Persia (modern day Iran).  The Ancient Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote about turquoise in his works Naturalis Historia published around 77 AD in which he referred to it as callais or callaina.  The bible identifies it as the first stone in the second row of the high priest breastplate which is a religious garment worn over the top of a tunic-like garment.

Personal preference for the colour of this popular stone varies from one country to the next.  In Iran where its been highly prized since antiquity the bluer shades are more popular but in Tibet and India green is the colour of choice.  In the Americas mining operations are known to have taken place as early as 1000 AD and turquoise is known to have been widely used by the Incas, Aztecs and Maya. It has long been revered by American Indians including the Navajo, Apache, Zuni and Pueblo tribes and is the most important gemstone used in traditional jewellery which is crafted in silver as opposed to gold. Many would argue that it's fundamental to American Indian culture.

Napoleon I gave his second wife a diadem on the occasion of their marriage which was made by the French jeweller Etienne Nitot et Fils of Paris. It originally featured emeralds and diamonds set in gold and silver but in 1953 was sold to Van Cleef and Arpels who at some point between 1956 and 1962 replaced the emeralds with seventy nine Persian turquoise cabochons. The emeralds were subsequently sold in other pieces of jewellery and were promoted as being gemstones from the historic diadem.



diamond tiara featuring large turquoise gemstones polished as cabochons


Marie Louise's Diadem in the Smithsonian, Washington D.C




The Colour Turquoise

Turquoise was first recorded as a colour in 1573 and is described as being 70% blue, 30% green yet in mineral form the stone's colour can vary from the most subtle shade of blue to a rich shade of green.  Copper is the chemical element that's responsible for the blue colouration whilst shades of green are caused by iron and although rare, yellow is caused by the presence of zinc. The spidery veins correctly known as matrix are part of the host rock in which the stone evolved.  Pure blue turquoise that's void of these dark coloured markings is highly sought after and can command exceptional prices.



large museum exhibit of the mineral turquoise


Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Washington D.C | Photo: Stone Mania ©




More Turquoise Facts

On Mohs scale of mineral hardness turquoise grades 5 to 6 but not only is it quite fragile, it's also porous so moisture or oils from the skin that are absorbed may well over time cause irreparable damage. Turquoise may also lose or change colour if exposed to excessive heat and in extreme circumstances may even crack.  It must be protected from perfumes, hairspray and cosmetics because all leave a residue that could leave a mark if not removed immediately.

Turquoise is one of the birthstones for the month of December with the other being citrine which is yellow quartz. The USA, Tibet, China, Afghanistan and Australia are the world's main producers of this popular mineral.



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Further Reading

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