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Turquoise: The Gemstone of Tibet   

by Martin Walker-Watson      Accredited Gemmologist (A.I.G.S.), Graduate Jeweler (G.I.A.)


          Turquoise is widely appreciated by Tibetans and all through Tibetan history has been prized, valued and worn as jewellery, not only for preserving the family wealth but also for its application in ritual and medicinal practice. "Gyu" (pronounced "yu") the name for turquoise seems to be indigenous, indicating that knowledge of the mineral came from within and not through outside influences. To call a turquoise a stone will offend a Tibetan who will exclaim, "this is a turquoise and not a stone," looking upon it as a thing distinct in itself.

         There are four sources of Turquoise in Tibet; the most important is in the region between Lhasa and the China-Tibetan border particularly in the vicinity of Lhasa and near Chamdo, a small town of eastern Tibet about 400 miles north-east of Lhasa. The finest material comes from an area in the Gangschan Mountains of Ngari-Khorsum in Western Tibet. There is another location at Draya to the west of Bathang, and the fourth area is in the mountains of the state of Derge in Eastern Tibet.

         Turquoise rough occurs in a dense form filling up fissures as grape-like masses or nodules (botryoidally) and the thickness of the veins measure up to 20 millimeters. Historically there hasnít been much mining in Tibet, as the turquoise was all picked up by hand from the surface so as not to scar and deface the earth, but this practice may well have changed in recent years.

         Tibetan turquoise rarely comes in a pure blue colour as most pieces contain matrix, veins which may be brown (limonite), dark-grey (sandstone), or black (jasper); the spider-web matrix of the Tibetan material has a design unequaled by turquoise from any other part of the world. The rough is hand-cut and polished en cabochon and graded as follows:

          Deep blue (robinís-egg blue) lustrous gemstones without flaws take foremost rank; the lighter the blue and the more it approaches green the more it sinks in estimation; gems with black veins and streaks (matrix) are looked upon as common, as are those with a greenish hue.

          Turquoise is an aluminium phosphate coloured by copper (blue) and iron (green), and until very recently was considered amorphous (not having any internal arrangement of atoms). With the help of X-rays it has been found that it is in fact crystalline and belongs to the Triclinic System with most crystals forming an aggregate of material. Turquoise does not cleave, but does fracture, breaking unevenly and conchoidally displaying a waxy or vitreous lustre. The resistance it offers to scratching, the Hardness, is measured on a relative scale (Mohís Scale). Turquoise measures between five and six depending on the variable porosity of each gem, this can be compared with gem quality Coral which measures between three and four - turquoise is therefore a mineral of greater Hardness and will not scratch so easily as Coral. The tenacity of the gem was utilised most effectively by the Tibetan hero Gesar who fashioned his arrowheads from the finest turquoise.

          Gemstones have always been associated with curious superstitions and turquoise is no exception. Many people have recognised that the change of colour in a turquoise gem is the direct result of variations in the state of the ownerís health (being in sympathy with the affections and the characteristic physical influences of the wearer). The gem grows paler and usually more green as the owner sickens or grows old, losing its colour and intensity entirely at death, but completely recovering its inherent qualities and beauty when given to a new and healthy possessor. Traditional lore avers that as turquoise is susceptible to the personality of the wearer, a gem must be treated with affection and regarded as a sentient being if its colour and lustre are to be maintained and improved. Similarly, its beauty is immediately lost if bought and not bestowed as a gift, carrying happiness and good fortune if given by a loving hand, and sympathetic not only to the wearerís health but also to the giver, paling in colour if he or she is threatened by evil.

Goldsmiths have to be careful while setting turquoise as the blue colour changes at 250į C / 482į F into a dull green. A negative change in colour can also be brought about by the influence of light, perspiration, oils and cosmetics as well as the loss of the natural water content (turquoise is quite porous). The external colour appearance varies greatly from a sky-blue to a blue-green to an apple green. Yet turquoise is an idiochromatic mineral (one in which the colour is caused by essential elements in the chemical composition, in this case copper and/or iron), the inherent colour is usually whitish with black or brown spots. Streaking a piece of turquoise across a rough porcelain plate will display this inherent colour. With the finest inherent colour in mind, perhaps it might help explain a couplet from a Tibetan love-song;

"Iíd guard her fragrant body,

Like white turquoise so rare."

          Turquoise is sometimes used as a love-token, presented by a lover to his betrothed, its colour remaining permanent as long as the loverís affection lasts.

          In Padmasambhavaís biography it mentions that he availed himself of turquoise as well as other precious gemstones and metals for their uses in dyeing and staining. Turquoise though, is officially registered as a medicament in several standard medical works derived or modeled after Sanskrit texts. Practitioners of the healing art of gem therapy generally accept that there are three methods of applying a gemstone for medicinal purposes. Firstly, by allowing the patient to observe a gem; secondly, by allowing a patient to touch and feel it; and thirdly, by prescribing it as a powder usually mixed in with other preparations, such as herbs and animal products. In the first and second instances, a gemstone is used mainly as a tool and aid to the healerís power of suggestion. For its use as a medicinal preparation, turquoise must be crushed as finely as possible. The resulting mixtures are frequently prescribed for liver complaints, anaemia and hysteria (copper, one of the main ingredients of turquoise is found chiefly in the liver as well as in the blood and nerve cells). The effects of colour in a gemstone are also worth noting as each individual has a particular colour spectrum that he or she is working with for the major portion of an embodiment. Usually having only a few specific colours around us in our daily routines, a need frequently arises for some people for a colour from the opposite end of the spectrum to maintain both physical and inner balance. The dark-red colour worn by the sangha is effectively balanced by the blue and blue-green of turquoise. Jewellery with fine blue gems are worn for healing purposes by people with tired and bloodshot eyes.

          It is not surprising that a gemstone so highly prized as the turquoise should have been one of the first gems to be imitated, simulated and eventually synthesized. Over the years the decreasing availability and increasing cost of high grade turquoise has challenged the ingenuity of the turquoise suppliers to devise methods for:

  1. colour improving low quality gems,
  2. impregnating and stabilising porous turquoise to improve its strength and colour,
  3. simulating turquoise with similarly coloured natural minerals,
  4. reconstructing turquoise from other minerals, and
  5. synthesizing turquoise.

          Although natural turquoise can be identified by its specific gravity of around 2.76, a refractive index spot reading of approximately 1.61 and a visible absorption spectrum of 2 bands around 4300 and 4600 Angstrom units, natural turquoise may only be separated from synthetic turquoise by microscopic examination. The synthetic possesses an identical chemical composition, identical X-ray structural characteristics, identical sub-microscopic structure and identical colour characteristics of the natural turquoise. The synthetic turquoise displays a unique surface patterning of masses of angular blueish particles each surrounded by a thin whitish margin (termed "the cream of wheat"). There is even on the market today a synthetic turquoise resembling exactly the natural Tibetan turquoise, but fortunately, the spider-web matrix (so characteristic of the Tibetan material) is usually too good to be true. The turquoise imitations are: faience (a type of earthenware), glass, enamel, porcelain, plastic, stained or dyed chalcedony, stained bone and tooth, as well as stained howlite. The turquoise simulants are prosopite, variscite, chrysocolla, wardite, ceruleite, eilat stone, faustite, papgoite, lazulite, shattukite, and odontolite. Luckily, it is actually quite difficult to confuse a turquoise with a mineral or stone that isnít a turquoise, especially the finer gem qualities.

          Both Tibetan men and women wear turquoise jewellery as earrings, finger rings, belt-buckles, head dresses, pendants and so on, frequently set in gold or silver with coral and other precious gemstones. A single piece of turquoise is sometimes worn as an earring, attached only by a length of string. Sarat Chardra Das described the headdress of the wealthy women at a festival in Tashilhunpo: "their headdresses struck me much. The prevailing form consisted of two or sometimes three circular bands of plaited hair placed across the head and richly studded with pearls. Coral and turquoise beads as large as henís eggs, and various sorts of amber and jade encircled their heads like a halo of light round the heads of goddesses. These circles were attached to a circular headband from which six or eight stings of pearls and regularly shaped pieces of turquoise and other precious gems hung down over the forehead". Most Tibetans carry boxes of wood, copper, silver, or leather pouches suspended from their necks or attached to some other part of the body, most of these objects being embellished with turquoise. As famous swords, daggers, saddles, and coats of mail receive individual Tibetan names, so also celebrated turquoise gemstones are given special names. Water-vases, musical instruments, bells, prayer-wheels and other artifacts are commonly set with turquoise, in fact, the gem is used so extensively for decoration that it ranks as one of the most appreciated gems in the world.

         During puja, turquoise is employed, strung as rosaries (108 being the usual number). It is also offered on the altar and adorns the brass or copper images (which is not intended as a mere ornamental addition, but to signify the actual jewellery with which the deities are adorned, and which forms part of their essential attributes). A turquoise rosary is occasionally used in the worship of the popular goddess Dolma or Tara, who are conceived to be of a blueish-green complexion, and the gem, usually in connection with gold belongs to the most ancient propitiatory offering to the gods and demons. In the final enumeration, gold always precedes turquoise as the more valuable gift, but turquoise does figure among the presents bestowed on Lamas.

          In Tibetan literature, the word for turquoise is a favourite for describing natural objects of sky-blue colour such as beautiful lakes, wells and flowers, even the manes of horses, bees and tadpoles! The hair of goddesses and the eyebrows of children born in a supernatural manner are spoken of as turquoise-blue, and Tibetans speak poetically of the sky as "the turquoise of heaven", the 13 Turquoise Heavens referring to traditional mythology. King Du-srong Mang-po who reigned during the 8th century CE supposedly found the largest turquoise then known in the world on the top of Mount Tag-tse, a few miles north of Lhasa. A family living in the city at that time had their roof showered with turquoise and other precious gems by a generous deity. Apparently this mansion still stands, somewhere near the "Turquoise-roof Bridge" in Lhasa. One famous story is the one about King Srong-tsan Sgam-po winning the hand of his beautiful princess. He was required to pass a silk thread through a coil of turquoise beads arranged in a concentric circle. He solved the problem by tying the thread onto a queen ant, which he blew through the holes in the beads. To the amazement of the lookers-on, the ant came out at the other end of the coil dragging the thread along, and thus gained the princessís hand in marriage.

          A source of inspiration to all Tibetans, there are no two turquoise gems alike, and when observed sub-atomically it is found that it can no longer be regarded as an inert mass of matter. Each gem is a vibrating essence of atoms, a phenomenon distinct in itself!



          This article was first published in The Tibetan Review, June 1983. 


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