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Unearthing Carolina's emerald highway

Wednesday, 28 March 2012 14:06

feature_emeraldsRockhounds, they say, are a superstitious lot. “Very superstitious,” remarked Tony Elwood of Charlotte, who spent a late winter Sunday at the Crabtree Emerald Mine in Little Switzerland, N.C., along with his pal Mike Ruff. The two “weekend warriors” came searching for gems of all kinds, but especially emeralds, which are rarer and, when of exceptional quality, more valuable than diamonds.

Gem collectors undertake a number of measures to ensure that Lady Luck comes along. First, when one finds a hole, stay in it, and don’t let others dig there. And should the miners visit any other site than “Mama Crabtree,” they dare not mention its name in her presence, lest she grow green—not with emeralds, but with envy—and hide her crystals from view. And before every excursion, there’s a stop at the store for refreshments: green Gatorade.

From Egypt to Alexander

The earliest documentation of emeralds dates back to ancient Egypt, where the gemstones were mined as early as 2000 B.C., surmises the Encylopædia Britannica, though it and other sources acknowledge the difficulty in estimating dates due to numerous terms for emeralds. Some cultures used the word for emerald to refer to other green-colored stones as well. A few sources state that mummies were buried with emeralds, which symbolized eternal life or rebirth. The Greeks worked the emerald mines in upper Egypt during the reign of Alexander the Great, who conquered the land of the pharaohs in 331 B.C., seizing control from the Persians. According to the books Emeralds and Other Beryls by John Sinkankas and Emeralds by Fred Ward, the rough stones from Egyptian mines were poor in quality and small in size.

Before Elizabeth Taylor (whose emerald suite of jewelry fetched $16 million at a Christie’s auction last fall), there was Cleopatra. The Queen of the Nile famously adorned herself with the precious gems, though some of the jewels could have been peridot or other green gemstones.

Emeralds have long been counted among the most valuable gemstones in the world, included in the “Big Four” in precious gems along with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. In 1935, Economic Geology published a scholarly study of gem prices by Sydney H. Ball, who wrote, “The earliest satisfactory gem prices are those of the Arabian mineralogist, Teifaschi, who in 1150 A.D. ranked the gems as follows: emerald, diamond, ruby and sapphire. He recognized the essential fundamentals of modern gem valuation.” The prominent shrines of the Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Buddhist and Brahminic faiths are treasure houses of beautiful gems, with the emerald in considerable demand for ecclesiastical use because the stone is said to symbolize faith, wrote Ball. So, too, are royal palaces, where large gemstones and crown jewels are displayed to demonstrate the rulers’ imperial power and wealth. One of the globe’s largest cut emeralds, a 2,680-carat vessel, is housed in the Imperial Treasury in Vienna, Austria, while, states Ball, “the Crown Jewels of Persia (Iran) probably contain the single most exquisite collection of fine emerald jewelry in the world.” Emeralds were desired for other virtues. When worn, the stone was said to protect against epilepsy, and when held in the mouth it was believed to be a cure for dysentery. It supposedly assisted women at childbirth, drove away evil spirits, and preserved the chastity of the wearer. Emeralds were sometimes crushed and taken as medicine.

The most spectacular emeralds yet to come would be shipped from the New World. In the 16th-century Spanish conquest of South America the conquerors learned of the Colombian emerald deposits, though it’s believed indigenous peoples worked these mines for at least 500 years prior. The conquistadors at first assumed Peru to be the source of the emeralds, Ball claimed. “Colombian emerald was so common in Peru that for at least two centuries after the conquest it was still known as Peruvian emerald,” Ball was quoted by Sinkankas as saying. “Thus, these emeralds had already traveled via trade from Colombia to Peru prior to the Spanish invasion because there are no emerald deposits in Peru.”

Spanish mining operations at Muzo, Colombia’s most revered emerald area, began in 1568, and lasted from then until the 20th century, Colombian mines produced more emeralds than any other locale. “Father Joseph de Acosta tells us that when he returned from America in 1587 there were on his ship ‘two chests of emeralds; every one weighing at the least foure arrobas” (i.e. a total of 200 pounds),” Ball said, noting that the sudden influx of the gems lowered prices across European markets.

“The South American emerald mines have always uncovered gorgeous emeralds, the best in the world, and in the days of the Spanish conquest fortunes in emeralds flowed into Spain like rivers of treasure,” said Mary L.T. Brown in Gems for the Taking, a casual read about Brown’s gem mining excursions throughout the southern United States, published in 1971. “One can only weep for the beautiful emeralds that were lost when Cortes was shipwrecked in the 16th century.” Brown may have been weeping in the early ‘70s, but in 1992, tears of joy no doubt fell into the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean, when archeological divers located the sunken remains of the ship bearing hundreds of artifacts and thousands of carats of cut and uncut emeralds, including the 964-carat Isabella Emerald, named for Queen Isabella of Spain.

In the 1960s, Brazil and Africa emerged as major emerald producers, and Brazil now leads the world in exports though Colombian emeralds have continued to be regarded as the finest. Recent finds in Western North Carolina, however, have been said to rival Colombian quality, and if auction sale prices are any indication, the claims could be true.

Alexander County lies in North Carolina’s foothills, south of Wilkesboro and east of Lenoir. The first documented discovery of gemstones in Alexander County was around 1874, when a farmer stumbled upon the precious green stone, stirring up a frenzy about the “Green Bolts of North Carolina,” wrote M. Richard Harshaw Jr. in In Search of the Scarce Gem Hiddenite and the Emeralds of North Carolina. “Even the very early finds proved to be of good quality and valuable,” Harshaw wrote. Several national and international mining companies rushed to the state to lay claim on mining sites—among them Tiffany’s of New York, with eleven locations.

J. Adlai D. Stephenson, an Alexander County native and merchant who worked in Statesville, took a keen interest in the emerald finds, and locals reported their discoveries to him. Around 1879, wrote Harshaw, minerals of yellow and yellowish-green coloring were presented to Stephenson, who presumed it to be diopside. Uncertain, though, he told William E. Hidden of New York about the peculiar finding. Hidden came to the area to prospect and happened upon his own pocket containing the mineral in question, which he shipped to Dr. J. Lawrence Smith of Louisville, Ky. Smith concluded that the mineral was not diopside but instead a new and distinct variety of spodumene; he named it “hiddenite” in honor of Hidden, and the Alexander County community in which the mine is located took on the name as well.

In 1890, emeralds were discovered at the 5,000-foot elevation of Big Crabtree Mountain in Mitchell County, N.C., when Spruce Pine native Alf Chisawn dug up a rock with bright green streaks while plowing a field. And there’s at least one other location in North Carolina where these glimmering green gems have turned up. Two counties west of Charlotte, emeralds were discovered in Cleveland County in 1897 and 1909.

In the ‘70s, Wayne Anthony of Lincolnton found a 59-carat stone, cut to 13.14 carats, at the Rist Mine in Hiddenite, which sold to Tiffany and Company in New York; it was dubbed the “Carolina Emerald” and valued at $100,000. In March 1979, Glenn and Kathleen Bolick of Hickory acquired 3,507 carats from a single excavation at the Rist Mine, a short distance from where the Carolina Emerald was found four years earlier.

The Nests with Green Eggs

Emerald is a variety of the mineral beryl, which in its pure state is colorless; chromium adds the green hue. Emerald crystals are six-sized prisms with smooth faces, usually elongated—the reason, one would presume, that they’re sometimes called “bolts.” Beryl can form in solid rock, cavities, compact masses and granular material.

North Carolina geologist Ed Speer, quoted in the spring 2008 edition of Gems & Gemology, said emeralds in the Hiddenite area occur within pockets in subvertical quartz veins that have formed inside cracks in migmatitic gneiss bedrock. Gneiss is a metamorphic rock found throughout the state’s Inner Piedmont Belt, which includes Alexander and Cleveland counties. Quartz deposits are also widely distributed throughout the Blue Ridge Belt, which includes Mitchell County.

“The whole town is really sitting on a highway of quartz veins,” said Jamie Hill, Hiddenite’s most prolific emerald miner of the past decade. The veins tend to run from east to west, so Hill digs his trenches on a north-south plane. “You’re always looking for the nest that contains the eggs,” he says. These nests, or pockets, range from a few centimeters to three meters long.

“Mr. Speer presented interesting statistics that reflect the small quantity but very high carat weight of the emeralds recovered from the cavities,” relayed the Gems & Gemology piece. “For example, not all pockets contain emeralds, but when they are present, 50 percent of the crystals weigh 100-plus carats (20-plus grams). Records and photos provided showed more than 10 emerald crystals exceeding 100 carats, including discoveries made in recent years. Some of the crystals from this mine contain considerable gem-quality areas.”

Attempts to synthetically manufacture emeralds were finally successful between 1934 and 1937, when Germans patented the process, states Encylopædia Britannica.

“Synthetic emeralds are currently manufactured in the U.S. by either a molten-flux process or a hydrothermal method; in the latter technique, aquamarine crystals are placed in a water solution at elevated temperature and pressure and used as a seed to produce emeralds,” the encyclopedia explains. “The crystals thus grown appear very similar to natural crystals and rival them in colour and beauty.”

Modern-Day Miners

Call it a green thumb.

Since 1998, when he began operations at an abandoned mine site in Alexander County, Jamie Hill has become the most famous name in North American emerald mining, harvesting some 20,000 carats from the quartz pockets of Hiddenite. His astonishing finds thousands of miles away from the mines of Muzo and Zambia have resulted in worldwide attention and respect for North Carolina emeralds, thanks in part to interviews by “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” People magazine and The Discovery Channel.

He’s been at it since he was a youth, when he spent weekends at his grandparents’ in Hiddenite. His grandmother would tell him about the local gem mining history and show him quartz crystals, and he distinctly remembers a large ring gleaming from her finger, a 30-carat emerald, wrapped in gold. A prize fashioned from a stone found over by the railroad tracks.

“I would crawl around my great grandmothers’ garden and pick up mica, quartz crystal and other minerals,” Hill recalled. “I found my first emerald at 8 years old, in a corn field by an old mine complex. After picking up a lot of broken green glass over the years, finally I picked up something green and it had the six-sided shape. Over the years I learned from the old-timers and prospectors. For many years I just did it as a hobby.” Hill dug on others’ property, with their permission and sometimes under contract, until 1998, when he starting mining part of a 100-acre tract his family bought at auction in ’95. Located on the tract was the old Rist mine.

It didn’t take long for the venture to pay off, big-time. In 1999, Hill hit veins of dark green, glassy, high-grade emeralds—3,000 carats worth, of which 300 carats were cut into what’s known as the North Carolina Royal Family collection of emeralds. Among them were the Carolina Queen, an 18.8-carat stone valued at $1 million, and the Carolina Prince, a 7.85-carat gem that sold for more than $500,000 at auction, the highest price per carat ever paid for a North American cut gemstone, according to geologist and consultant Ed Speer.

In 2003, Hill struck it big yet again with the discovery of a 1,869-carat emerald crystal, to date the largest uncut emerald from North America. It was sold to the Houston Museum of Natural Science for an undisclosed amount, but according to Speer, the crystal is valued at more than $3.5 million. “It was a nice paycheck,” Hill said, coyly. And in 2006, Hill unearthed yet another one for the record books, a 591-carat rod that, at 10 inches, is the longest emerald crystal found in the continent. Hill said it recently sold for $155,000 at a Beverly Hills auction.

Now called the North American Emerald Mines, Hill’s eight-acre pit employs dirt mining and rock mining, including drilling and some blasting. His equipment includes an 85,000-pound excavator. To help finance his emerald mining operations, Hill began selling the crushed rock from the mine through Alexander Quarry, a division of North American Emerald Mines. “You’ve got to have a way to hunt for those emeralds,” said Hill, who, despite his successes, insists he isn’t rich yet. “There’s a lot of expense involved.”

Mining is all about location and knowing what to look for, he said.

“The thing about emeralds and emerald veins is they come and go. They can disappear for months or years. Nobody’s really completely figured it out,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of what you do is not holding that emerald. But when you finally get one, when you hold it up in the sun and you see that green fire, you forget about the 99 percent it took to get there.”

Hill isn’t the only one digging up Hiddenite. The Adams Farm, formerly known as the Warren mine, the Emerald & Hiddenite mine and the Turner mine, is active today. In 2009, Terry Ledford found a 310-carat emerald crystal at Adams Farm that yielded the Carolina Emperor, a 64.83-carat gem that holds the record for North America’s largest cut emerald.

Though not producing the impressive gems and crystals of the foothills, the old Crabtree mine in Little Switzerland is still a destination for rockhounds, and small emeralds and other gems can still be found here. Mined from the late 1800s to the 1990s, Crabtree’s mineshaft is now flooded under a small pond. Currently the Asheville-based Mountain Area Gem and Mineral Association (MAGMA), founded by seasoned gem collector Rick Jacquot, manages the mine. For a small fee, anyone can obtain permission to collect minerals at the property, located at the end of a bumpy, winding road past stands of hemlock, bamboo and Christmas trees. Jacquot said the mine is busiest after a rain, when prospectors scurry to the site to see what might have washed up.

Elwood and Ruff arrived at “Mama Crabtree” from Charlotte at 9:30 a.m. on that recent Sunday, digging until 3:30 p.m. or so. “You don’t find ‘em every time you come out,” said Ruff, handing a rock to his friend to inspect.

Elwood tossed it.

Ruff explained: he handed Elwood the stone to determine if it was an emerald or not, because Ruff is red-green colorblind. They laughed, acknowledging the irony. Elwood said he and other visitors to the mine have found emeralds, tourmaline, garnets, golden beryl’s and moonstone among the dirt piles. “It’s so rare that you find something that’s cuttable,” said Elwood. “It takes years to find a good piece,” added Ruff. But, they agreed, “It’s the little things in life that make things fun.”

But when emerald mining becomes a full-time occupation, do discoveries begin to feel, well, like business as usual? Not at all, says Hill.

“There’s tremendous excitement. It’s always exciting to discover an emerald,” he insisted. “It’s like pulling a slot machine. You just never know when it’ll be the next million-dollar day.”

— By Anna Oakes

North Carolina: A Treasure Chest

Emeralds aren’t the only gemstones in North Carolina. Far from it.

“North Carolina is prolific as far as mineral specimens go,” said Mike Ruff, an amateur gem collector from Charlotte. In fact, a greater variety of minerals (more than 300) have been found in North Carolina than in any other state, and it’s the only state where the four most valuable gems—rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds—have been found, notes the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Prior to the Civil War, North Carolina produced more gold than any other state in the union, according to author M. Richard Harshaw Jr.

Most of the gem mines in North Carolina are tourist attractions, with the greatest number in the areas of Spruce Pine in Mitchell County and the Cowee Valley in Macon County. While some mines are known to “enrich” or “seed” their buckets to keep customers happy, gem mining is nevertheless a memorable and enjoyable experience for countless families each year.

Spruce Pine, full of relics from an old mining town, is also home to the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, located just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the North Carolina Mineral and Gem Festival, held since 1959.

Got Ruby Fever? Head to Franklin and surrounding Cowee Valley mines, where you can find rubies, sapphires, garnets, aquamarine and amethysts.

Rick Pacquot literally wrote the book on mineral collecting; his book Rock, Gem, and Mineral Collecting Sites in Western North Carolina identifies 53 collecting sites in the region, with maps and other need-to-know info.

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