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Cerrillos Turquoise

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Just a few miles south of Santa Fe, New Mexico lies a vast plain covered only by low-growing vegetation. From this vantage point, one can see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the northeast and the Sandia Mountains to the south. Here, you can find a small group of unassuming mounds, including one called "Turquoise Hill." It's easy to drive past this natural feature and not realize that you're in the shadow of a historic landmark, a place still considered sacred by the descendants of the Native Americans who originally inhabited the land. Turquoise Hill is, in fact, the location of the oldest turquoise mine in North America.
Douglas and Wendy Magnus - Turquoise Hill
Douglas and Wendy Magnus on top of Turquoise Hill, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in view. © Douglas Magnus. Used with permission.

Where is Turquoise Hill?

Turquoise Hill sits within an 80-acre patch of land owned by Douglas Magnus. A highly respected silversmith and jeweler, he helped design and construct the official gavel of the State of New Mexico. Oddly enough, my discussions with him and his wife, Wendy, revealed an unexpected personal connection. Decades ago, to my mother's dismay, my grandfather would drop in at Douglas' showroom before heading to our home from the airport!

Douglas acquired the land in the 1980s, a purchase prompted by his love of the native gemstone. Turquoise permeates this patch of land, which holds six turquoise mines, all now considered commercially mined out. However, this doesn't mean the land has no treasures left. Vibrant blue and green turquoise pieces cover the ground, and Douglas and Wendy collect them by hand. Douglas sets this turquoise in his hand-made silver items without introducing additives or treatments to the gem. He donates all extra inventory to the Native American descendants of the original miners, members of the modern-day Kewa Pueblo (previously known as the Santo Domingo Pueblo), for their jewelry designs.

turquoise findings - Turquoise Hill
Douglas refers to the small nuggets of turquoise which litter the ground around his mines as "findings." © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

The Millennium Mine

Wendy met me at Turquoise Hill on a brisk December day. An expert on the land and its long history, she said the most ancient of the Turquoise Hill mines has known several names. Many locals call it the "Tiffany Mine" out of habit. In the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the owners sent its beautiful blue and matrix-free turquoise to Tiffany & Co. in New York. However, the mine itself has no affiliation with Tiffany & Co. Thus, Douglas renamed it the "Millennium Mine" to eliminate any confusion.

placard MM
This placard with the initials "MM" for Millennium Mine greets visitors at the bottom of the hill. All of the turquoise used in this marker comes from the land itself. You can see the wide range of colors that this small area of land offers. From pure blue to dark green with a heavy matrix, Turquoise Hill produces many types of turquoise gems. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

Native American Mining at Turquoise Hill

Wendy began our private tour by explaining the deep history of the land. The Native Americans have been mining turquoise here for at least the last thousand years and consider the ground sacred. Using only handheld hammers and chisels, they cut down into the turquoise-rich volcanic mafic rhyolite rock. It's impossible to know the exact depth of the original mine as the Native Americans filled in their shafts with tightly pressed soil, but it's at least 50 ft. Some estimates say it may have been more than twice that deep.

Ancient Tools

Having personally excavated one of these repacked shafts, Douglas describes how the Native Americans clearly took great care to accomplish this. He found ancient mining tools placed around the perimeter of the shaft. They considered this place so holy that they buried some individuals here with their tools. The interred were likely affiliated with the mine.

handheld hammer
Note the indentation across the belly of this rock where ancient miners tied rope or strips of animal hide to create a handheld hammer. This rudimentary tool that Douglas spotted lying on the ground may be many centuries old. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

Into the Mine

The Native American workers mined this land by cutting directly into the turquoise deposit. They created a deep pit accessible only from the top. As the mine grew deeper, they placed sturdy logs horizontally across the shaft.

shaft millennium mine
The original shaft of the Millennium Mine created by Native American miners. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.
u-impression stone wall
The U-shaped impression in the stone wall is a shelf cut to hold a log that reached across the opening of the mine. Ropes were tied to these logs to pull the turquoise and rock out of the mine. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

Spanish Mining at Turquoise Hill

Unfortunately, a detailed history of mining activity through the centuries is impossible to reconstruct since Native Americans didn't leave behind any written records. However, Douglas says evidence indicates the mine was used throughout the 14th century CE. By the time the Spaniards arrived in the mid-16th century, mining had apparently ceased, and the shafts were filled. While the original shafts were blocked, the knowledge that this land held turquoise was never lost. The Spaniards made their own, albeit somewhat clumsy, attempts to extract turquoise here.

shallow turquoise vein
Douglas theorizes that this depression in the land represents one of several failed attempts by invading Spaniards to locate a shallow vein of turquoise to access and exploit with minimal effort. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

James McNulty and Turquoise Hill

The story then jumps to the early 1890s, when James Patrick McNulty became the manager and supervisor of the American Turquoise Company holdings located just north of Los Cerrillos, New Mexico. This location included Turquoise Hill. Wendy gifted me Tiffany Blue, a book recounting McNulty's activities written by Patricia McGraw, McNulty's great-granddaughter. McNulty brought modern mining techniques, specifically dynamite, which he used to blast into the existing Native American shafts from the side. By cutting in horizontally, he eliminated the difficult task of hauling the heavy product vertically. Mr. McNulty deepened the mine to approximately 200 ft.

outer inner doors
The outer and inner doors to access the opening into the side of the mine created by McNulty and his crew. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.
upper part shaft
The upper part of the shaft, hand-cut by Native American workers, is smooth. In contrast, angular and sharp indentations caused by the dynamite used by McNulty and his crew mark the lower half. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.
blue green turquoise on walls
You can still see pockets of blue and green turquoise in the mine walls. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.
rusted tool mine shaft
The rusted metal tool left in one of the mine shafts likely dates to the 1920s. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

Cerillos Turquoise and Tiffany & Co.

During this time, McNulty sent the best pure blue material from Turquoise Hill to Tiffany & Co. in New York. In fact, the glowing assessment of this turquoise by the famous George F. Kunz, one of Tiffany's expert gemologists, helped popularize "Cerrillos turquoise," as the turquoise from the Los Cerrillos region came to be known. These gems gained the reputation of being among the most beautiful turquoise in the world. Tiffany & Co. bought all the Turquoise Hill inventory. The turquoise-blue color of Tiffany's packaging, still used today, reflects the influence of the turquoise from this place.

Green Turquoise

McNulty successfully mined the deposit until 1933. However, Wendy explains that he and his men left behind a lot of green turquoise with dark matrix. Although not valued then, this darker variety now has its connoisseurs.

green turquoise
A large piece of green turquoise with dark brown matrix. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

More Mines at Turquoise Hill

Currently, none of the mines on Turquoise Hill can operate on a large scale. Thus, for safety reasons, fences seal off their entrances. The Millennium Mine now has two separate entrances that no longer connect underground. Just a few hundred yards from the Millennium, you can find the Upper and Lower Castilian mines as well as another known as the Alicia.

sealed opening alicia mine
The sealed entrance to the Alicia Mine. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

Roads Paved with Turquoise

As Wendy and I hiked back to our cars after a two-hour excursion, she pointed out various large mounds of broken and crushed rock scattered around the property. She asked if I could guess what they were. My first thought was that they were waste from the mining activity. She laughed and said that there was a much more amusing explanation.

At one point in the early 1980s, the state began to improve rural roads. To minimize construction costs, they used whatever local rock they could scavenge. One day, the previous landowners returned to find a pristine, brand-new, seven-mile stretch of road paved with their turquoise-bearing stone! Naturally, they were quite miffed that the state used their stone, which contained salable gems and historically significant artifacts. They demanded that the state dismantle the roads and return all the material. This is the origin of the piles.

rock piles - Turquoise Hill
One of the piles of rocks returned after being used to create local roads. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

Emily Frontiere

Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.

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