Cerrillos Turquoise has long history as prized adornment
The Brown’s Little Chalchihuitl Mine in the Cerrillos mining district.
By Craig Springer
It’s been worn by Egyptian pharaohs, Aztec royalty, and members of the Spanish Crown. Today, it continues to adorn the fingers, necks, and waistlines of women and men alike—from locals here at home to fashionistas from around the world.
Turquoise is a uniquely hued gemstone, ranging in color from the clear blue of New Mexico’s skies to the deep aqua greens of our piñon and juniper trees. And some of the best of it from around the world was extracted from the brown friable juniper-studded earth of the East Mountains. The hills surrounding Cerrillos, New Mexico, yielded fine quality turquoise for decades, and they continue to produce quality stone.
For a chemist or a geologist, interpreting the stone’s chemical formula is as easy as reading a newspaper: CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)84H2O. For the rest of us who may have forgotten our high school chemistry, that means a little bit of copper phosphate and aluminum mixed with water deep inside the bowels of the earth. Once it cools and begins to rise, the various proportions of its chemical make up will yield stones of various hues: some sky blue, some deep blue-green, some near white, others webbed with darker stains that add character. The more copper in the mix, the bluer the hue. The more iron in the mix, the greener the stone.
In fact, turquoise is most always found in association with copper and volcanic activity. Here in the Cerrillos Hills, a large body of copper ore lies yet to be mined—but it’s nonetheless had its influence on the gemstones mined there. The Cerrillos Hills are part of a belt of volcanic and sedimentary stones that start at South Mountain at Cedar Grove and extend north to La Cienega, just south of Santa Fe. The geologic belt has yielded a class of commodities: gemstones, gold, zinc, coal, tungsten, silver, lead, and copper. Ironically, although water is seemingly integral to the formation of turquoise, the gemstone only forms in lands wracked by aridity.
Turquoise derives its common name from the French. It likely originates from their word, Turquie for the country of Turkey, and a site of one of the earliest known turquoise mines, located in what today is modern northern Iran. Closer to home, Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblo Indians mined turquoise from around Cerrillos dating back centuries. Zuni Indians call it the “sky stone.” People from the former San Marcos Pueblo mined the blue stone as early as the year 900 AD above today’s town of Cerrillos on Turquoise Hill and Mount Chalchihuitl. The consonant-rich word means “blue stone mountain” in the language of the Tlascalan Indians, brought to the region in 1598 by Spanish colonist Juan Oñate to help explore for potential riches.
While “mount” is a great overstatement—the promontory is really nothing more than a low, inconspicuous knob—its historical significance certainly exceeds its physical size. Members of an earlier expedition were correct in their assumption that the Cerrillos area had potential to produce mineral wealth. According to archival records, a handful of Oñate’s men and their Tlascalan servants mined the earth at Cerrillos for the stone as early as the summer of 1600. Think of it: while Puritan pilgrims were yet to arrive on the East Coast, Europeans were here in the East Mountains, established and engaged in commerce already conducted by Native peoples. Even more impressive is the fact that the north side of the little dome of a mountain was excavated using only primitive stone tools. Massive is the spoil, the refuse of that excavation, that cascades down the slope—the discards of hundreds of years of sweat and blood.
A land survey circa 1900 revealed that the mine covered about 20 acres of the hillside. The trees growing at the spoil site, along with the rocks that originated inside the mountain, were covered in a lichen that spoke to the mine’s antiquity. In 1680, a mass of stone fell upon the Indian miners inside, crushing them. Historians postulate that the event may have been the proverbial backbreaking straw that precipitated the Pueblo Revolt. The revolt sent Spanish colonists packing for a 12-year absence from northern New Mexico. These significant events are manifest in the region’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places.
The nickname for NM State Route 14’s National Scenic Byway—the Turquoise Trail—is aptly named. Stones from the East Mountain source have been found close by as part of a mosaic at the ancient Tijeras Pueblo and as far away as the interior of Mexico. At Chaco Canyon, two people buried centuries ago were found interred with over 50,000 chunks and chips of the blue Cerrillos stone.
The turquoise mines yielded quality stone well into the Territorial Period. The American Turquoise Company, established in the mid-1880s, mined stones of such quality that they were an exclusive source for Tiffany & Company, who used the gemstone in a variety of their jewelry designs. So popular were their turquoise items that the stone’s color became the inspiration for the famous “Tiffany Blue.” The New York Sun reported in 1895 that a single stone from Cerrillos netted $4,000—a pretty penny back in the day. A Tiffany service set adorned with Cerrillos turquoise sailed on the battleship USS New Mexico in the Pacific in WWII. Two plates in the set presently sail in the nuclear submarine New Mexico. The rest of the set is in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.
Most all of the Cerrillos turquoise lodes have long played out. But some mining and trading is still taking place. Tom and Patricia Brown of Cerrillos have three turquoise mining claims of their own, of the six claims still active in the hills. Their mines produce stones that range from near white to the classic blues and greens. With pneumatic chipping hammers and the assistance of their son, they reduce raw stone into rubble that’s portable and workable on the cutting bench. With a few days’ work on a good vein of stone, they can convert that labor into a modest income. The Browns, who have lived in the area for over four decades, turn the raw material into beautiful jewelry offered for sale at their Casa Grande Trading Post in Cerrillos. They are also the caretakers of the fabled Mount Chalchihuitl mine, which is located on private property and is not presently being mined.
The sky determines fate in the arid Southwest—precipitation makes our future. And so it seems water from the sky was the constituent part, the intrinsic piece needed, to form turquoise an epoch ago. The “sky stone” is an apt metaphor for desert living.
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