Bob Brucia is the owner of the Nevada Gem turquoise collection and several turquoise mines including the legendary Lander Blue. He is one of the most respected turquoise dealers in the business (Nevadagem.com) and the author, with Annie Osburn, of Jewel of the Southwest, Turquoise the Nevada Gem collection (out of print), a classic turquoise book. Mike interviewed Bob in May 2018. The following are excerpts from that interview.
Bob Brucia with a tray of Lander Blue. Photo Mike Ryan II.
How did you get started in turquoise?
I started out in the late 1960s. A friend of mine and myself were in Mission Beach, California. We had gone into a shop, and they were selling leather moccasins and we just thought they were the greatest thing we'd ever seen, hand-made leather moccasins by this leather worker. He had belts and other things too. So, she and I ended up getting a couple of books. One of them was a Ben Hunt Boy Scout book on how to work with leather. He had a method for making Navajo moccasins, with the hard sole that they would mold, wet and mold around a block of wood. We figured out how to make these moccasins, and started in the leather business down in San Diego selling in the street fairs and such. It just branched out to bags, pouches, purses, fur goods, all kinds of stuff. To supplement our income, we, (well, she moved on), I ended up selling at the fairs, and I started selling trade goods. I did a lot of silver buttons, domed buffalo-head nickel buttons, and started to buy and sell turquoise and also coral, because it was coming out of Phoenix in the southwest.This was in '68, '69, '70, '71.
Where were you sourcing your turquoise?
Well, everything was coming out of Phoenix at the time. We were in San Diego. That was the closest place to get it. And then in '71, we moved up here to Rescue and had a company. The company was Smiling Eagle Moccasin and Trade Company, and we worked out of Rescue. Then all the turquoise came out of Battle Mountain. And most of it was sold just as Battle Mountain turquoise. They would take Fox, and Blue Gem, and the dealers would show up here in Northern California with trays of cut turquoise and we would buy it. It was pretty hot in '71, '72 and we were living with jewelers, silver jewelers, so they were all using turquoise. This was in early '71, '72. And we were doing the fairs, like the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival and whatever fair you could go to. And then the malls started having fairs, the Renaissance Fairs. Most of the big malls that were dying would bring a fair in, and people would sell their wares there, so you'd do a lot of those, and then just travel all around to Pismo Beach and just different places, wherever you could sell. We sold a lot at the colleges, because, I don't know if you can still do it, but in those days, you could go to any college, and just lay a blanket down, whenever you wanted, and start selling. A lot of the people at the colleges didn't live in the area so they would take home presents It was surprising how much we sold. At Berkley, there was Telegraph Hill, or Telegraph Avenue I guess.
You had an herb business.
Yeah, that was an herb business. We had moved up from San Diego and leased a farm up here in Rescue, 600 acres, and we lived in the worker's house in the back, $75 a month. We were raising goats and were back to the landers at the time. We got Mother Earth News, and we're reading the books, putting in a garden. We had no phone, no electricity, just lived with kerosene lamps and did this for about four years or so. We did home births for all of our kids.
With the goat farm, every time they were sick, you couldn't get any help for them, because the vets didn't want to work on goats. They just wanted to work on cows and wouldn't touch our goats. We would give them antibiotics from the feed store, and I'd sew them up, because I was into mocs and knew how to sew, because they were all hand-stitched moccasins. I made the salves for their udders. That part of the business just kind of took off, herbs were getting hot at the time. We were selling more herbs and making product. Everything I did was hand stitched, so it's really time consuming. Everybody else was using machines, and that was kind of my niche. I was kind of more of an entrepreneur, than a craftsperson.
Well, it's hard to leverage, when you're the craftsperson, and do the stitching yourself. You're kind of limited in how many moccasins you can produce.
Yeah, exactly. So anyway, the herb business took off, and I just kept working hard, and it grew, and grew and grew. I sold the business, I think in 2000 or 2002. I bought my wife a little necklace, a turquoise necklace, and just got the bug again. So, I just started collecting it. After three or four years of collecting and building up a collection, I was getting too much. I was saying, jeez I can't keep buying it, unless I can get rid of some of this. So, we just started selling and got in the trade. I noticed there was only – at the time, there was only a couple of people selling online, so it was pretty easy. I was one of the first selling online. There was a few of us, and that was it.
Well, I bought my first turquoise from Bob Brucia.
Alright. So, that was pretty much it, just started collecting, and collecting and half the fun's the hunt. I guess we've got that hunt in our genes, so you want to get out there and find the old miners. I found that two things were the problem when I first started. One, everybody claimed they were selling natural turquoise but being from the pharmaceutical – more the phytopharmaceutical industry, we did a lot of testing. I knew how to do it. You just take a stone and send it off to GIA Lab, and it comes back tested as treated. I found that out of everybody I did business with, I found three people that were selling natural stone that was really natural. Everybody else was just getting stone that the person who sold it to them claimed it was natural but most of it was all treated. People would just look at a stone and say, oh that's so and so, instead of getting it from the miner. So, I made a point to get untreated stones.
When you were first getting started on the hunt, before you'd really started building this up, what were some of your big moments where you stumbled upon some of the most amazing turquoise that's in the collection?
Yeah, well, it had to do with buying, getting into the turquoise mines, claiming a couple of turquoise mines. When I was in the herb business, you find that it's a lot harder to do business when you're buying and reselling. People just see you as a middle man, and they keep thinking, well, I don't need you. I'll just go around. I'll get it where you get it from and buy it, which isn't always the case, because you're doing more than just buying and reselling. You are high grading. You're picking the best stuff. But anyway, I decided I'd better have a couple of claims and it would be be fun to go through the tailings anyway. I can be a mine owner and it's easier to do business that way. Once I picked up a few claims, you start seeing the history, and you're going out to visit them.
I believe in your book you said you got some Lander Blue from Rita Hapgood, who discovered the mine from her Ouija Board or whatever the story is.
(The full story of the discovery of Lander Blue is in Turquoise in America Part Two 1910-1990)
I had gotten a call from, I think it was her sister to begin with, in Winnemucca. And I went and visited Rita, and she had a coffee can filled with Lander. Nobody had picked it up that she had offered it to. She had Lander Blue and I bought Rita Hapgood's collection, including the first nugget that she claimed she found there.
Lander Blue purchased from Rita Hapgood. Photo Mike Ryan II
This is a fine example of good provenance.
When did you decide to do the book?
Well, there wasn't a good book. I had a passion for turquoise, high grade turquoise, and I was surprised how many dealers hadn't even seen it or recognized it. When you get into mining, you understand why. The miners, whether they're mining a hundred or thousands of pounds of material, in order to find top-grade stones, you have to pick up every piece and look at it. It's so hard to do that, when only one percent or two, three percent's the high grade, and the rest is just medium grade and chalk. You just can't pick up each piece, especially when you saw the Number Eight, a warehouse with tons, and tons, all these burlap bags, you couldn't pick up every nugget to see which ones were the heaviest and then window a piece off of them and try and find this high grade. So, they sent everything off to be stabilized. Early on, everything was being stabilized. They just didn't pick the better stuff out. That was hard to do so, there was so little around, and a lot of people had never seen good, natural high-grade turquoise. The book Gem of Century, Branson's book, had poor pictures. Joe Dan (Lowry) came out with his book, (Turquoise, the World Story of a Fascinating Gemstone) but I wanted better photos. I just wanted better pictures to see the turquoise. I couldn't read all those words. It's a big book. I just figured it was a nice time to have a good coffee-table book of Nevada Turquoise, so people could understand why you and I have such a passion and so many people have such a passion for turquoise, when they see these beautiful stones, especially the ones that the mine owners had been hoarding, and weren't giving up and had hoarded for 30 and 40 years. And they were pretty exceptional pieces.
Gem grade Pilot Mountain turquoise from the Nevada Gem Collection. Photo Mike Ryan II
Currently available on Amazon for $800. Original price $60. Turquoise in America Parts One and Two currently available at turquoiseinamerica.com for much less than $800, for now.
Mike Ryan II
Santa Fe November 2021