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When Native Americans Began Using Persian Turquoise

When Native Americans first started using turquoise in their jewelry?

The trading post bullpen 1949. Pictured: clerk Pete Balcomb waits on Slim Tahe (Hastin Besh’ii’aahe Biye) in the leather jacket facing camera. Aside a change of products on shelves, the bullpen still looks like this

NAVAJO STERLING 8 PERSIAN TURQUOISE CABS, VINTAGE NECKLACE currently selling on Ebay for  $4,147

NAVAJO STERLING 8 PERSIAN TURQUOISE CABS, VINTAGE NECKLACE Carl Luthy Shop Design, currently selling on Ebay for $4,147

Turquoise in jewelry goes back a thousand or more years. But setting it in silver only goes back to around 1870 or 1872. Initially much of what was set was just hand-cut pieces that people would find willy-nilly, maybe a broken pendant or earring. They’d take a piece of sandstone and grind and shape it and fit it into a bezel or a setting for it. There was hardly any cut turquoise available in the Southwest USA in the late 1800s.

Shortly after that, a trader named Lorenzo Hubble from Hubble Trading Post in Ganado, Arizona, began importing cut turquoise from what was then Persia, now Iran. Hubble was also sheriff of Apache Country, Arizona as well as an instrumental trader and over the years earned the Spanish sign of respect being called ‘Don Juan Hubble’ by one and all.  A turquoise mine in Iran had been operating almost 2,500 years and it was from there that Hubble made his orders, importing Persian turquoise to fill the need. By the early 1900s, US miners had jumped on the wagon and cut turquoise was also coming in from newly opened mines primarily in Nevada. So the expectation grew—if you were buying Indian jewelry, it would have turquoise on it. Don Juan Hubble though was not just a profiteer, he helped many Navajos become economically self-sufficient by showing them the patterns of blankets most likely to sell for a profit and gearing them towards successful production. He was well respected in the Navajo community for his fair dealings, hence the honorary Don Juan title.

And Navajo-Persian turquoise work continues to hold its value. Joe Dan Lowry of the Turquoise Museum in Albuquerque, is quoted as having said that Persian Turquoise now sells for $20.00 per carat. He also said that his grandfather cut the cabochons (above pictured) for the Carl Luthy Shop (Luthy and his brother Max had a shop between 1960-80 that employed outstanding talented Navajo artists, fine silversmiths. The hallmark used for the shop is quite unusual and honestly rather distinctive, it is the Stamp of a “Stickman with an Erection“. The Luthy pieces made at this shop are considered to be some of the finest collectibles in existence but must bear the stamp). You can read more in Joe Dan Lowry’s book: TURQUOISE, The World Story of a Fascinating Gemstone.

Hubbell's is still a trading post today. Navajo blankets and carpets, not dissimilar from ancient Persian folk design

Hubbell’s is still a trading post today. Navajo blankets and carpets, not dissimilar from ancient Persian folk design

Interestingly for traders, in the 1970s there was a boom period and the demand for turquoise again outstripped availability, Americans once again turned to Iran and began importing Persian turquoise. Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site is a meeting ground of two cultures, the Navajo and the settlers who came to the area to settle in what is now northeastern Arizona in the late 1800s. These settlers came from Mexico from the south and eastern United States. In 1878, John Lorenzo Hubbell purchased the trading post, ten years after Navajos were allowed to return to their homeland from their U.S.-imposed exile in Bosque Redondo, Fort Sumner, New Mexico. This ended what is known in Navajo history as the “Long Walk of the Navajo.” The park is located in Ganado, Arizona and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, so that it has thankfully retained it’s shape and feel. Don Juan Hubble is said to be the only caucasian buried on Navajo land, he’s someone we’d have liked to have met speaking Spanish Navajo and English and growing up steeped in Spanish values. If only we could find a copy of the book of letters written by American artist Maynard Dixon to Hubble! We have found some evidence of lingering Navajo-Iran relations including a traditional walk of beauty catalogued by a Navajo visiting Iran, but more exists, for example Navajo rugs were bought by Iranian traders and taken back to Iran…

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