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Some people are lucky enough to have found gold mines. Douglas Magnus is doing just fine with his historic turquoise mines. The Santa Fe, New Mexico, jewelry artist uses turquoise to give Old West jewelry a new look.

Turquoise has a long history in the West, and for a somewhat shorter time, the cow skull has been a symbol of the Old West. Those were two of the reasons that Magnus of Douglas Magnus/Heartline created a special buckle for his new ?Tough Stuff? collection. The skull, made of turquoise of course, is on a silver belt buckle that features a diamond plate design.

?It truly is part of the West,? Magnus says of the cow skull design. ?All the cowboys use it in their trucks, but the technique that I?m using and the way in which we do it here in the shop is very much an extension of all that Indian jewelry and all that Western jewelry.?

The look might be modern, but the technique is historical. ?It’s sand-cast,? the 60-year-old Magnus says from his Santa Fe studio, ?which is not something you see very much. Not an awful lot of people do it that way. It took us quite a few attempts at it to get it right.?

In the 1870s, the Navajo Indians in New Mexico and Arizona territories began casting jewelry using sand and perhaps the getter known tufa stone, but the casting method, such as ?lost wax,? probably dates 4,000 years.

After making an impression of the buckle in sand, molten silver is poured into the mold. Once the buckle has been cooled and cleaned, meticulously cut turquoise has to be set into the design. The casting process produces, indeed requires, a one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry. This isn?t some cookie-cutter operation.

Indian and Western jewelry has interested and inspired Magnus since he came to New Mexico in 1969. He grew up in California, where actor Glenn Strange (Sam the bartender from the old Gunsmoke TV series) was a neighbor, and was making Western- and Indian-influenced jewelry when the turquoise jewelry craze exploded (again) in the 1970s. Some of this work has been seen on the PBS Mystery series based on the bestselling Navajo mystery novels written by popular Albuquerque author Tony Hillerman.

By the late 1980s, Magnus began acquiring about 60 acres in the Cerrillos Mining District south of Santa Fe. That area is rich in history. Charles Fletcher Lummis went through the area during his famous 1884 walk from Ohio to Los Angeles. Lew Wallace once considered infesting in mining properties there during his term as territorial governor in the days of Billy the Kid. The semi-ghost town of Cerrillos was turned into Lincoln, New Mexico Territory, for filming of the Young Guns movies of 1988 and 1990.

The history of the mines is what captured Magnus? attention. His property includes the Tiffany, Castilian, Alisa and Council turquoise mines. Pueblo Indians dug for turquoise even before 700 A.D. Around 1600, the Spanish took over the mines, using slave labor, and American interests dominated the area in the late 1800s. In fact, Magnus explains, for much of the 19th century, the Santa Fe-area sites were believed to be the only turquoise mines in America. Later discoveries were made in other parts of New Mexico, as well as Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and California.

?Turquoise in the middle of the 1880s had little value,? Patricia McGraw writes in her book Tiffany Blue (Lone Butte Press, 2006), ?but in 1892, following Tiffany & Company’s gemologist George F. Kunz’s declaration of the gem status of turquoise, the value of the stone jumped. Immediately, Charles Lewis Tiffany secured a supply of the blue stone for his jewelry. People screamed for Tiffany jewelry, and Wall Street dug deeper in its pockets to increase turquoise output.?

Magnus named his property Millennim Mines. The land is part of Turquoise Hill, a four-summit ridge rising on the plains northeast of the Cerrillos Hills. ?It’s in honor of a thousand years of history,? he says. ?There are so many players?Indians, Spanish, white; it really is tri-cultural?that it makes you feel very small. I?m simply a caretaker.?

The mines aren?t that productive these days, although Magnus does find a good stone sometimes. For instance, he used Cerrillos turquoise in his Millennium bracelet line back in 1999. Magnus, also an accomplished painter, remains quite prolific. ?I like to make new things,? he says.

Buckles are big in his world. After all, as he often says, ?The buckle makes the belt.? He adds, ?Buckles are often my favorite item because I like the functional decoration.?

The turquoise and silver cow skull buckle pleases him. ?It really is my favorite of all the pieces that I?ve created in that collection so far,? he says. Another version of it has the words ?Rodeo or Die? available in turquoise or gold or silver lettering. A third version features a black cow head with short red horns, done in coral.

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This article was written by Johnny D. Boggs and is an online extra to the June 2007 issue of Wild West magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Wild West magazine today!