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Gone (Jewelry) Shoppin': The story of how I went happily crazy shopping for jewelry and turquoise in Albuquerque New Mexico

I have always wanted turquoise earrings. And from the southwest. Buying it any other place would miss the point. So, I waited. Then one day, my patience was rewarded. I was flying into Albuquerque, and I wasn't going to return without dangling silver and turquoise ear-jewelry.

Southwest jewelry is unique -- it is the product of artists who work in silver with semi-precious stones and create works of art, that you can wear.

What I didn't expect was that, credit card in hand, I would soon become a lunatic spender, visiting every store I saw, and more often than not, leaving with yet another tiny box tucked into my bag. I hardly stopped until the plane took off to bring me home. And it wasn't only turquoise. I found this sun-drenched city, often considered to be the more industrial, gritty sister to Santa Fe, to be a trove of the classic sky blue stones, but also of innovative designs paired with reasonable prices. By the time I left I had turquoise, laboratory made opals, silver and garnet, silver inlaid with lapis and coral, and even beaded jewelry.

The quaint and charming streets of Old Town spill with trendy shops and art-as-jewelry pieces. Native American vendors with blankets filled with money clips, earrings, necklaces, rings, and more line the streets by the tree-shaded town square. The souvenir stores have turquoise hanging from the ceiling, and the walls. No matter where you look there are people selling turquoise.

Turquoise and the Turquoise Museum

Overwhelmed with too many choices and too little knowledge, I decided to head for the Turquoise Museum, located in the midst of a strip mall across from Old Town.
"Do you know what questions to ask before you buy turquoise?" challenged Joe Dan Lowry, part owner of the museum, whose family trove of stones forms the huge collection. "Is it real?" I ventured as a guess. Head shake. "The question to ask is: is it natural," explained Lowry.

The Turquoise Museum is the repository for a mind-boggling collection of turquoise. Little pieces, huge pieces, veined, smooth, carved, blue, and green. There's raw turquoise, fresh from the wall of a mine, and polished turquoise. There's turquoise in cases from more than 60 mines around the world (including Persia and China). There's displays showing the steps in turning raw turquoise into finished polished stone. And there is often Joe Dan, or another member of the family, to explain to the clueless the story of turquoise.

The most important characteristic that determines the value of turquoise is density. Lower grades of turquoise are too soft to be worked and too porous to be worn, but they can be stabilized with plastic to provide strength and deeper color. Most of the turquoise for sale across the country is stabilized. Higher grades, more dense and harder, don't have to be stabilized and are sold as natural turquoise. Finally, turquoise chips too small to be worked are reconstituted into a hardened block that is cut into "stones." Turquoise can also be dyed, oiled, or waxed to deepen its color.

All of it is, in a sense, real turquoise. And it can be quite lovely. You just shouldn't pay premium prices for stabilized stones, or reconstituted turquoise. Joe Dan's point is clear: buy what you love, but know what you're buying. The key is to ask the right question. "Sellers are required by law to accurately and truthfully represent the stones they sell," explained Lowry. If they misrepresent, they can face serious fines and penalties.

Skip Maisel's

"Look at this turquoise watch," exclaimed one happy shopper in our group, let loose in downtown Albuquerque. She mentioned the price, our eyes lit up, and off we went. It was like a feeding frenzy. Located in a historic building dating back to 1939 (listed in both the State and the National Historic Registers), with murals adorning the outside of the store, Skip sells a staggering array of stuff.

The Skip Maisel's is crammed with pottery, art, rugs, jewelry, Hopi dolls, things with feathers, things without feathers. I looked around momentarily overwhelmed, then headed straight for the jewelry. Judy, who had by that time become my partner in stimulating the local economy, headed for the woven baskets.

Skip's sign says wholesale, and the prices on the pieces are supposed to be the retail price, with 50% off the listed price. All I know is that when we all staggered out, I had bought a lovely lapis and coral inlaid sterling silver bracelet, and a pair of synthetic opal earrings, inlaid in sterling silver.

Contemporary Silver Designs of Lilly Barrack

Then, as we were exploring the area known as Nob Hill someone mentioned the shop of Lilly Barrack a designer of beautiful silver jewelry. As fate would have it, I walked down the street, and there it was. I have a weakness for sleek contemporary silver jewelry, and for rough uncut stones. I walked inside and fell in love. I can't imagine what thoughts ran through the mind of the young woman in charge of the shop as I looked at Judy, and started laughing hysterically. I was about to buy more jewelry. A heavy, 2-inch rectangle of highly polished silver with an uncut garnet at the end, and dangling off the very tip, a larger uncut garnet. And instead of a silver chain, the piece came on a long strand of fresh water pearls. Could I pass this up? No. But what good is this eye-catching pendant without...earrings. More agonizing. Finally, long slender dangling rectangles of silver with small pink tourmalines.

I live in Albuquerque now, but I haven't lost my love for the jewelry created by our artists. I still buy and cherish every last piece.

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Neala McCarten

May 10 2016

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