Spotlight on turquoise

Turquoise was initially imported into Europe from Iran by Venetian traders from intermediaries in Turkey. Its name derives from the French, ‘turq-oise’ literally translating as ‘from Turkey’. The mineral is formed in dry, arid regions, and ranges in colour from green blue to yellow depending on copper content and host rock properties. Rare and beautiful transparent gem-grade turquoise is of more value than diamonds.


Magical properties


Since the mining of turquoise began – the first records date back to Egypt around 3000 BCE – turquoise has conjured magical associations.
A favoured ancient Egyptian colour scheme saw red aligned with light blue-green and dark blue; in jewellery these were created using carnelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli. When worn by women of Egyptian royalty this jewellery not only conveyed status but imbued the wearer with superhuman powers which she could wield in the service of the King – the embodiment of the divine order on earth.

Turquoise stones, Sonia Sevilla, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The turquoise gem was worn in the form of ritual garments and jewellery in Central America. It conferred status and power on emperor Moctezuma II, enabling him to rule the vast 15th century Aztec empire through a system of tributes and sacrifice. Turquoise is also the colour of the resplendent quetzal bird’s tail feathers, and associated with the pale, fair-haired Aztec ‘feathered serpent’ god Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs believed Quetzalcoatl would one day return to rule on earth. And so legend has it that, on seeing pale, fair-haired Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, the emperor Moctezuma greeted him as the returning god. This precipitated the catastrophic downfall of the Aztec empire, a scene reproduced by the great Mexican painter Diego Rivera in his 1929 mural the ‘Legend of Quetzalcoatl’, currently displayed at the National Palace in Mexico City.

Aztec double-headed serpent turquoise mosaic, Paul Hudson from United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A sacred stone to many Native American people of the Southwestern United States, turquoise is considered compatible with the most precious thing in a desert landscape: water. The Navajo believe turquoise to have powers of healing and wellness. Shamans perform a dry sand-painting ceremony that can last several days using crushed turquoise and other materials to summon forth holy figures capable of healing. The sick then sit in the sand painting, where their illness is believed to be absorbed by the holy figures. Afterwards, the painting is taken away and destroyed.

Najavo bracelets, Silverborders, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Turquoise as hue

Turquoise paint is manufactured using blue and green pigments. Synthetic phthalocyanines are chosen for their transparency to form the darker hues such as Winsor & Newton’s Professional Watercolour Phthalo Turquoise. Cobalt pigments create lighter hues such as Cobalt Turquoise Light and the granulating Cobalt Turquoise – both are semi-opaque. Cobalt colours are clear and bright in watercolour, and give both bright and duller opaque colours in oil.

Phthalo pigments give turquoise hues a rich, deep, mass tone and sumptuous undertones that are both warm and cool. Extremely versatile, they pair well with other colours in the spectrum. Adding turquoise as a single pigment secondary colour to the palette will create bright, stronger mixes.

More like this

Cave paintings to emojis: the journey of yellow 

Sunflowers, smileys and 20,000-year-old drawings. Discover why artists have always loved the colour yellow.

blue colour

A deep dive in to blue

Discover the dazzling journey of the colour blue, from semi-precious lapis lazuli to the Virgin Mary's robes.