Mystical and Versatile, Turquoise Takes on a New Allure

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  • LONDON — From the jewelry of the ancient Persians to the Navajo necklaces favored by Georgia O’Keeffe, to the socialite Babe Paley’s 1950s necklace that nearly upstaged President Dwight D. Eisenhower at his inaugural ball, turquoise has come in and out of fashion over the centuries.

Tiffany & Co

The French jeweler Jean Schlumberger designed the turquoise tassel necklace that turned heads when worn by Babe Paley, one of the world’s most photographed women.

A spate of celebrity sightings this year and some recent designer treatments suggest that this may be an “in” moment.

For all the stone’s history, however, turquoise as a luxury gemstone is a relatively recent concept. Although it was long associated with royalty in Asia and the Middle East or with Southwestern American tribes, its reputation has mostly been that of a raw, less-than-glamorous stone. Usually opaque, quite soft, porous, easily faked and lacking brilliance, it has seldom been worked with delicacy.

Yet its color and texture — at least in its higher grades — are luring jewelers who are drawn not only to its versatility but to the way it plays with other jewels.

“Until 10 years ago nobody was using it because it was considered cheap. You could find it in a souk but not in luxury jewelry,” said Fawaz Gruosi, chief executive and designer of de Grisogono, the Geneva-based jewelry house. “When I started in 1993 it was all minimalism in jewelry. It was quite risky to change it, but we started to do bold things, and I began to mix color a lot.”

The more colorful the mix of turquoise with other jewels, he said, “the more it makes the woman more attractive.”

Many movie stars and celebrities would appear to agree, based on the frequency of turquoise sightings on red carpets. Some recent appearances have included the actresses Eva Mendes and Cameron Diaz; Rod Stewart’s wife, Penny Lancaster; and the models Heidi Klum, Bar Refaeli and Bianca Balti. Ms. Balti wore a turquoise and diamond de Grisogono necklace at the Cannes Film Festival this year that later sold for about 500,000 Swiss francs, or $550,000. A de Grisogono necklace worn by Ms. Lancaster to the festival a few years ago featured turquoise on one side and a dazzling mix of sapphire and aquamarine on the other.

For jewelers, its versatility, together with its mystical status, explains the enduring attraction of turquoise.

“This is a stone that was very holy and highly regarded and respected thousands of years ago,” said Nicolas Bos, chief executive and creative director of Van Cleef & Arpels. “Then you find it in the Renaissance and the 19th century.”

He said it was a favorite in the ’20s because of its rich color. “With turquoise you can play with a lot of stones and create bold pieces, and keep the sense of preciousness,” Mr. Bos added. “Turquoise creates a lot of movement. It’s a beautiful and happy color.”

Many recent high-profile designs pay homage to the idea of mixing turquoise with other colors, often using it as the centerpiece and sometimes building pieces around large stones, as bulky and showy as the ones favored by early 20th-century jewelers. That retro look is typical of the way turquoise has fared amid the changing fashions of the past century.

“You find turquoise quite a lot after World War II, then in the ’60s and ’70s — and then it kind of disappeared from high jewelry in the ’80s and ’90s,” Mr. Bos said. “But we’ve revived it in the last decade. We’re not only using rubies, sapphires, emerald and diamonds but combining turquoise with semiprecious or ornamental stones.”

Turquoise has a softer side that may not be obvious to many people accustomed to the image of a weather-beaten O’Keeffe sporting a turquoise necklace. It was etched in heavy silver and had streaks of black in deeply colored stone.

“Most turquoise is very delicate in its natural state,” Mr. Gruosi said. “Just getting makeup on it can change its color.” Natural turquoise is hard to find, he added. “It’s semiprecious, although I hate that word. All stones are precious to me.”

Tiffany & Co. this year has reintroduced several turquoise pieces that were the cornerstone of its popularity during the postwar era. Turquoise was a favorite of Jean Schlumberger, the celebrated French jeweler who closed his New York shop in the 1950s to work for Tiffany, becoming one of only four jewelers ever allowed by the company to sign their work.

It was Schlumberger who designed the turquoise tassel necklace that turned heads when worn by the socialite and former Vogue editor Babe Paley at President Eisenhower’s inaugural ball in 1957.

Paley was one of the world’s most photographed women, and the tassel necklace was one of her signature pieces. Schlumberger credited it with singlehandedly reviving the craze for turquoise.

“The tassel necklace is a fine example of what Mr. Schlumberger wanted the gem to do,” said Melvyn Kirtley, chief gemologist at Tiffany. “He always wanted it to look like everything was growing, uneven and organic. Turquoise ticked all of those boxes.”

The turquoise tassel necklace has been recreated by Tiffany in this year’s collection, together with some new turquoise pieces.

“Turquoise has been interwoven into our history for such a long time because of its opacity and its waxy appeal,” Mr. Kirtley said, adding that it was “like painting with an opaque gemstone with soft subtle tones.”

“Babe Paley brought turquoise into the world of fashion,” he added. “It takes on another sensibility when it’s worn by such a famous person. It becomes more accessible.”

Posted in the New York Times, November 13, 2013
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