Tibetan Turquoise Beads
Author’s note: A shorter version of this article appeared in FLIGHT OF THE KYUNG, August 2013 Newsletter, Tibet Archaeology That site is run by the renown Archaeologist and explorer, John Vincent Bellezza.
When did humans first start wearing beads and why did they start? According to Lois Sherr Dubin, in the The History of Beads (2009, p. 19):
“… the earliest known beads are associated with Middle Paleolithic people. They were discovered at Skhul Cave on Mount Carmel and have been dated to approximately 108,000 B.C., at about the time Homo sapiens populations were replacing the Neanderthals and developing new and more complex cultures.”
Both those beads and some found at the nearby Qafzeh Cave dating from 92,000 B.C. were either naturally pierced or pierced by predators. But a group of 32 beads from Grotte des Pigeons in eastern Morocco, dating from 82,000 B.C., were intentionally perforated.
What is the significance of this? Anatomically, homo sapiens evolved to their current state approximately 200,000 years ago, but, for the first 100,000 years they exhibited little cultureal difference from their forbearers. Then, suddenly, between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago, something changed. They started using syntax as well as symbols for communication; they started using complex weapons like slings, bows and the atlatl; and they started to utilize adornment, painting themselves with ocher and wearing beads. Thus beads are one of the earliest, overt signs of the emergence of a new degree of mental complexity and human culture.
And we’ve been wearing beads ever since.
I’ve been involved with buying and selling turquoise since the late 1960s, when I was a jeweler selling my wares on the streets of San Francisco. In 1972, I first traveled overland to Asia, stopping in Mashad, Iran to purchase black spider-web matrix turquoise mined near Nishapur, and after a year living in Afghanistan, traveled to Nepal and purchased kilos of old Tibetan turquoise beads in Kathmandu. During the 1980s I was a gemologist and lapidary, co-owner, with Dharma Dan Rollins, of Triple Gem Lapidary in Boudhanath, Nepal. One of our specialties was to recut broken Tibetan turquoise beads into cabochons, thus I literally know turquoise inside out.
The Persian term for turquoise is commonly spelled ferozah in the Roman alphabet, and it means ‘Victory’ or ‘Victorious’. The mountains of Western Afghanistan where the fabled Minaret of Jam is to be found are named the Ferozkoh, or Turquoise Mountains.
As a gemologist, my preferred reference book while traveling is Gemstones of the World by Walter Schumann. He states:
Most of the so-called turquoise found in the United States contains Fe (substituting for Al) and is thus really a mixture with chalcosiderite. Iron imparts a greenish color.
The popular sky-blue color changes at 482 degrees F (250 degrees C) into a dull green. A negative change in color can also be brought about by the influence of light, perspiration, oils, cosmetics, and household detergent, as well as loss of natural water content. (1999, p. 170).
Over 90% of turquoise found on the market has been tampered with in some form or another. The most common is stabilization. Since the stone is so porous it is often soaked in an artificial resin, which improves the color and hardens the surface. The color is also enhanced by heating it with oil or paraffin. Many beads from China have distinctive brown discoloration on them, this is indicative of being too close to the heat during the treating process. Touching a hot needle to the back of stabilized or paraffin-treated turquoise will cause it to give off a ‘melting plastic’ smell.
When working as a lapidary, we discovered one more interesting fact about untreated turquoise’s natural discoloration from oil absorption due to aging. If the stone was originally blue in color and closer to 6 than 5 on the Moh’s hardness scale, it was possible to restore the earlier, more desirable color, though the patina of age was lost. When we were cutting broken beads into cabochons, we often encountered beads where the green discoloration was only a few millimeters in depth. Simply regrinding and polishing the stones restored the bright blue shade they first possessed.
Turquoise in Myth and Culture
I find it interesting that cultures as distant as Native American and Tibetan both associate turquoise with protection against travel disasters, especially when traveling by horse. I also remember a Tibetan friend once telling me that a turquoise earring would prevent reincarnation as a donkey. My curiosity piqued, I did a little online research and discovered the following:
The significance of light and shade is reflected in the supremacy of the semi-precious stone turquoise in the daily spiritual and religious life of the devout Buddhist, who holds various beliefs about this stone. In general terms turquoise is a symbol of the blue of the sea and the sky. Infinity in the sky speaks of the limitless heights of ascension. The stone is opaque as the earth, yet it lifts the spirit high, laying bare to us the wisdom of both the earth and the sky. When worn in a ring, it is believed to assure a safe journey; worn in the ear it prevents reincarnation as a donkey; appearing in a dream, it is auspicious; when found, it brings the best of luck and gives new life (in contrast, it is not considered lucky to find gold or coral); when changing its color to green, it indicates hepatitis, yet at the same time it draws out jaundice. Most importantly it is believed to absorb sin. Strings of prayer beads too include turquoise. In fact, when worshipping the popular goddess Tara in her green form, because of the color association, it is desirable to do so with a rosary entirely composed of turquoise beads. There also exists as well the concept of living and dead turquoise. Living turquoise has a healthy blue color, whereas dead turquoise has turned either white or black. In the natural aging process of turquoise, exposure to light and body oils darkens the color, eventually turning it black. Tibetans compare this to human aging and death. Wearing “living” turquoise is therefore very desirable, as it will give long life to the wearer.
I have purchased turquoise throughout Central Asia. In Mashhad I bought newly cut cabochons of black, spider-web Nishapur turquoise. In Afghanistan ancient beads can be found in Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Kabul. There are many Afghans who have shops in Peshawar, and the Shinwari Market in Chowk Yadgar is one of the better places to look for antique beads. Namak Mandi is the area of the city to look for new gems. In India, the Tibetan stalls on Janpath, in New Delhi have a selection of new and used ‘antiques’. The Tibetan shops in Dharamsala have a good selection, as do the shops in Manali and in Leh. Jaipur, in Rajahstan, is the gem-cutting center for India. In Nepal, Kathmandu Valley has several Tibetan areas, Swayambhu and Boudhanath. A word of caution for those attempting to purchase Tibetan Turquoise in Thamel. Most ‘Tibetan’ shops are run by Nepalis and the majority of their stock is new Chinese beads. In future posts I shall travel to most of these locales and devote articles to an in depth investigation of what is currently available.
I would like to present a few photos of some turquoise beads in my personal collection. I also include pictures of turquoise bought in Afghanistan. The Afghan beads show the probability that many of the ‘Tibetan’ turquoise beads originally came from Afghanistan or Iran.