Local turquoise is valued worldwide

Buried treasure: Marty Colbaugh is the third generation of his family to run Colbaugh Processing in So-Hi Estates, Golden Valley. The company mines some of the highest-quality turquoise in the world. Here, he holds raw turquoise he has just dug from the side of a mountain.

Buried treasure: Marty Colbaugh is the third generation of his family to run Colbaugh Processing in So-Hi Estates, Golden Valley. The company mines some of the highest-quality turquoise in the world. Here, he holds raw turquoise he has just dug from the side of a mountain.

GOLDEN VALLEY - The building is turquoise. The merchandise is turquoise. Even the driveway is turquoise. Literally. That's just the way it is when your business is turquoise.

Colbaugh Processing, just off of U.S. Route 93 in So-Hi Estates, Golden Valley, is in the business of mining, processing, selling, buying, importing and exporting the precious blue stones.

Marty Colbaugh owns the business now, the third in a line that began with his grandfather, Chuck Colbaugh, in 1962. The business passed down to Martin Colbaugh, Marty's father, and then came to him. Marty's son, Joshua, is the fourth generation to enter the family's turquoise business.

"My grandfather in 1962 opened the mine looking for turquoise. That was even before the Duval Mine," Colbaugh said.

In his quest for turquoise, Chuck Colbaugh accidentally came across an even more astounding fine.

"One of the explosive charges they set didn't go off," Marty Colbaugh said. "When that happens, they use bulldozers to push rock over it to contain the blast if it does go off. What they found was that the charge did detonate, but it had fallen into a cavern."

Inside the cavern, the miners discovered they weren't the first to go after the beautiful blue stone.

"They found stone hammers and old skin bags from some ancient Indian miners," Colbaugh said.

"We had them carbon dated and learned the stuff was between 1,100 and 1,500 years old. The Indians had been mining turquoise long before the whites came to the area. They would set fires against the cavern walls and throw water from the skin bags onto the heated walls. That caused the rock to crack, making it easier to mine the turquoise."

The mined stones were traded far and wide among the nomadic Indian tribes.

"They've found our local turquoise in burial sites in Mexico City," he said. "Historians figure ours is one of the oldest turquoise mines in the United States, and according to the Library of Congress, turquoise is one of the first gems used by man."

Worldwide appeal

Turquoise traditionally is linked with Southwestern Indian tribes and silver-and-turquoise jewelry created by their artisans. But its fame isn't restricted to the U.S. Turquoise is found in many places around the globe and prized around the world.

"In Tibet wedding guests glue turquoise stones onto the bride's headdress. The more stones, the more friends she has and the wealthier she will be," Colbaugh said.

He said there are "quite a few" turquoise diggings in the Kingman and Golden Valley area.

"At one time, the Kingman Mine, as ours is known, was the largest turquoise producer in the world," he said. "And Arizona turquoise is the best in the world."

A closer look

Colbaugh Processing's rock shop is the first thing customers see when they enter the building where the processing is done.

"It's very casual, more of a rock shop than a showroom," Colbaugh said, gesturing around at the boxes of raw and stabilized turquoise stones that cover every square inch of table space in the room.

"People find things in here I've forgotten we even had."

Along the walls hang strands of turquoise and other semi-precious stones suitable for jewelry making. A showcase along one wall features handmade turquoise and silver jewelry, and the family's collection of raw turquoise, most the size of a fist.

"In here," Colbaugh said, indicating the glass showcase, "are samples from the last 45 years of the first turquoise my grandfather, my father and now myself have taken from any new digs.

"I thought it was a neat family tradition, so I've kept it going."

Turquoise is found anywhere copper mining occurs. It's called a secondary replacement stone. Most of the turquoise Colbaugh Processing sells is from the family's mining venture at the Duval copper mine just off Mineral Park Road east of U.S. Route 93 and north of So-Hi, and from other mines the family owns in partnership with others in Arizona and New Mexico.

Still other of the stones are imported from such far-flung locales as China, South Africa, Peru, Mexico, Australia and the Sinai Peninsula in the Middle East.

"We take turquoise from the ground to the finished product," Colbaugh said. "We sell some finished jewelry, but not a lot. Most of what we sell is rough stones and components for the jewelry trade."

The company is working now on a new line of products for the decorative building industry.

"Take this stone. It's mostly just rock with some turquoise splashed through it. For the jewelry industry, it's pretty much worthless," he said. "But cut this same stone into slices, like this one here, and an incredibly beautiful pattern emerges. Can you imagine having a countertop or floor covered in turquoise? It would be beautiful."

He came across the idea while trying to find a use for every scrap the company mines, a result of his philosophy of refusing to waste any of the raw materials.

"Now, we have a use for just about everything we have to touch, from the lowest grade to the highest, jewelry-quality stone," he said. "We've spotted boulders as big as cars. They're this rich brown, with the turquoise all through it. It will be beautiful."

Among the turquoise mined locally are the rare and valuable "spider web" stones with their unique cracked appearance, and the mixture of turquoise and iron pyrite, fool's gold.

"That's extremely rare and very valuable," Colbaugh said. "It's also very beautiful and polishes up so it looks incredible."

Buyers of the local and imported turquoise include both small artisans and major jewelry manufacturing firms. Jewelry made from Colbaugh's local turquoise is sold frequently on the Home Shopping Network. Look for "Mine Finds by Jay King," one of Colbaugh's partners.

"All he sells is our product made in our factory in China," Colbaugh said. "It's all made by hand and it's all beautiful. He has the biggest home-shopping show in the nation. It's the No. 1 show on TV. It has broken all kinds of records. It's even been featured in the Wall Street Journal. He once sold 16,000 turquoise necklaces in less than 45 minutes."

International reputation

Although he grew up in the business, Colbaugh still finds himself surprised on occasion by the company's high standing in the worldwide gemstone industry.

"Our mine has a reputation for quality all over the world. The quality and size of our materials has made us world famous. People here have little or no idea of the mine's and the company's history and heritage. People on the other side of the globe know more about us than our next-door neighbors do."

He said that's because the family purposely has kept a low local profile.

"Our customers are mostly outside the area," he said. "But, we're going to be building a new showroom and expanding our product line for the local customer and those who pass by on the highway."

Look up Colbaugh Processing on practically any Internet search engine. The result is a plethora of sites about and by the company and its products.

Bob Jones, senior editor of Rock&Gem Magazine, wrote at www.rockhounds.com, "The Duval Pit north of Kingman … is probably the largest producer of turquoise in the country. Turquoise mining by Colbaugh Processing … supplies a major portion of the market today.

"As supplies of gem-quality turquoise inevitably dwindled, even as mining proceeded, the price of the finest natural turquoise climbed out of sight for most lapidaries. Consequently, it has become necessary to treat lower-grade turquoise so that it can be a usable gem material."

Chuck Colbaugh developed the earliest successful treatment process and it's still used today. The stabilizing process is a closely guarded family secret that involves thoroughly drying the porous, lower-grade turquoise, then infusing it with a plastic polymer Chuck Colbaugh developed, sealing the stones into small metal containers and allowing them to cool under controlled temperatures over a period of weeks.

The stabilized turquoise is hard, its color is vivid and it's ready to be made into jewelry.

"If this process had not come along, the supply of useful turquoise would have dried up long ago," Jones wrote.