If you own anything with turquoise in it, Tony Otteson will tell you, there’s a story behind it.
And now the Mesa resident is bringing those stories and the story of his passion for turquoise mining to your living room.
Otteson will be starring in a new reality-television show, “Turquoise Fever,” which chronicles the life of the Nevada native and his turquoise-mining family as they continue to make a living searching for the sky-blue stone.
For 60 years, the Otteson family has been staking claims around Tonopah, Nevada, unearthing some of the most valuable turquoise in the world. The Ottesons’ Royston Mine is the oldest patented mine in Nevada.
The show, an INSP original series, comprises six episodes detailing how the family battles blistering days and freezing nights, detonates explosives on treacherous slopes and struggles to pull enough turquoise from the Nevada desert to keep their business going for a fourth generation.
“What I’m looking forward to the most is educating everybody about where turquoise comes from and how it’s brought from the ground all the way to the person owning the piece of jewelry,” said Otteson, noting:
“This stuff isn’t just pumped out of the tube and mass produced out of some machine.”
“Every single stone in jewelry has a story behind it — and it might be great or sad. I want people to understand the stories,” he continued.
The television show comes at a time where authentic turquoise mining is on the decline, the miner explained.
There are currently some 20 mines throughout the American Southwest that supply gem-quality turquoise — a majority of which are in Nevada.
Tony said the supply of turquoise isn’t infinite either.
“Turquoise is just a surface-forming mineral. It’s different than gold, silver and diamonds — once those things are found in a mine you can just dig deeper,” he said. “But with turquoise, at some point, it stops. There will be a point in, if not my lifetime, my kids’, that turquoise will not be mined anymore — it’ll be mined out.”
Turquoise, according to geology.com, is an opaque mineral typically found in arid climates and is chemically a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum.
Most commonly used as statement pieces in jewelry, its natural color ranges from sky blue to yellow-green.
“I think one of the most important things people don’t realize is that if you turn on your TV, you can’t watch a single show or commercial without seeing somebody wearing turquoise,” said Otteson.
While the pieces typically range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, the stones are difficult to authenticate for the average buyer — making them the subject of a counterfeit market.
Because of the stone’s rarity, manufacturers overseas are mixing plastics and chemicals to make cheaper knock-offs, Tony explained.
And Native American jewelry makers are suffering for it.
“The majority of our buyers are Navajo — this is where they make all their money to feed their families and kids,” said Tony. “Shop owners nowadays will take a piece a famous artist has built and send it to China or Indonesia and have it mass produced with the same hallmark and stamp.”
“It kills these guys trying to sell their jewelry because suddenly the shop owners aren’t buying it because they already have a big supply,” he added.
Tony said his biggest advice for the average shopper is to ask store owners where they get their turquoise supplies from.
If they can’t give a specific answer, chances are, it could be fake.
“Sometimes you can’t tell if it’s real — even for those of us who mine it,” said Tony. “If the shopkeeper tells you it’s ‘American,’ but doesn’t know anything past that — you’re flipping a coin.”
Tony was born in Tonopah in the ’70s and grew up with his family in the mining business.
“I’ve been doing this since I was old enough to walk,” he shared.
He later moved to Mesa with his wife, Emily, and branched out from his family’s mining business to start a new one with his brother, Trenton.
Tony now travels to Nevada frequently to continue growing his mining business, Silver State Turquoise.
“We broke away from our dad and uncles and tried to take a different approach to mining and turn it into more of a business,” said Tony. “Instead of just a way to make money.”
“Our goal was to get a second source of income to allow us to have the ability to say no to buyers and sit on it,” he continued. “At some point, the buyers will always break because the turquoise supply is diminishing around the world.”
The Otteson clan now owns a majority of the mines in central Nevada — making them the perfect candidates for a television show.
But just because their work is exciting enough for TV, doesn’t mean it’s glamorous, Tony joked.
Turquoise mining is no picnic, he explained, and requires an immense amount of physical and mental strength.
“We still do it like they did in the 1800s — we still have to walk out on our hands and knees over thousands of square miles of high desert with no water,” he said. “Once we find something, we have to stake it. We do hand-digging and use hammers, chisels and shovels until we find stuff the world market can use.”
Finding the sky-blue stones with gold and gray spider webs makes all the hard work worth it though, Tony said.
He told East Valley Tribune that it’s the thrill of the chase that keeps him going.
“If you took all the money I made on this business away from me, I would still find myself out there digging rocks,” he said. “You become addicted to finding things and the feeling of the dirt in your hands and running it through your fingers — the smell of it — it shaped me into who I am today.”
“Turquoise Fever,” which is a Glassman Media production, will premiere on Aug. 14 at 9 p.m. ET on general entertainment network INSP. It is carried on Channel 12 by Cox and HD Channel 364 by DirectTV.