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Tuesday, July 2, 2013


by Mauverneen

I love rocks. I’m a sucker for a pretty stone. I pick them up on hikes, at the beach, in parking lots… If it catches my eye I will check it out and often slip it into my pocket.

I have little collections of rocks from Nevada, Washington, New Mexico, South Dakota, Arizona and the Crater of Diamonds Diamond Mine in Arkansas. Pretty much anywhere I’ve been. Pretty little things that caught my fancy.

Imagine my excitement when Rick agreed to detour off the Blue Ridge Parkway on our recent trip, to visit a mine - somewhere I could hunt for gems. I could barely contain myself.

We decided on the Emerald Village near Little Switzerland in North Carolina mainly because it was only a short detour off of our planned route, but there are a number of mines in this part of the state. At some you can dig – at others you ‘pan’ for the gemstones, much like panning for gold.
One of the mine entrances at Emerald Village
After finding the mine and browsing through the gift shops the hard part was deciding which size bucket to buy. They ranged from $10 all the way up to $1000 barrels! If only I had the time I thought greedily. You get to keep whatever you find and the people on site will look at your haul before you leave and tell you what you have found.

$1000 barrel and $500 barrel

Once you purchase your bucket you find a spot at the sluice and have at it, scooping small amounts of dirty rocks into your ‘sluice box’ – a wooden frame with a wire mesh bottom. The water constantly runs down the sluice to wash the dirt away, leaving you to find the red or green or purple bits to pick out. Raw gemstones often look very different from the polished end product, so it helps to know what to look for.
Panning for gems with a $10 bucket of rocks
The kids there were excited and you could hear them cry out when they found something. “I’ve got an emerald!” or “A ruby!” The adults working at it were able to contain themselves, but I could hear them telling each other what they’d just found. Maybe not as loud, but no less enthusiastic. And I have to say there were just as many adults mining as there were kids.

It's a great way to spend an afternoon. I had more fun sitting at that wooden trough than I ever had sitting in front of a slot machine! A gallon bucket full of rocks for $10 lasted a good while –  even Rick got into it, concentrating on his scoops of rock and sand, admittedly a little pickier than I was about what he kept. While we didn’t really come up with anything of much value, the little bits of Emerald, Jasper, Garnet and Amethyst we did find make a great souvenir! Way better than a shot glass with the state name engraved on it!

Emeralds, Garnets and Topaz. Oh my!
Some of the stones found at Emerald Village
By contrast, the Diamond Mine is just a big open field where you dig in the dirt. But spectacular diamonds have been found there. Some of the locals make regular trips to the mine in hopes of finding a valuable stone.
 Crater of Diamonds photos courtesy Arkansas State

If you’re more interested in the polished version of stones, the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art in Elmhurst, IL is a marvelous place to visit. The museum houses an extensive jade collection, dioramas of stone carvings, portraits that look like paintings but made of stone using a technique called “commesso di pietra dura” (the joining together of hard stone) – an art form that has been practiced in Florence, Italy for hundreds of years. They also have some special, temporary exhibits and there is a very well done educational display of rocks and minerals downstairs.
Inside the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art
Portrait of Joseph Lizzadro - it's made of stone!

In Chicago, the Grainger Hall of Gems in the Field Museum of Natural History holds a stunning collection of cut and uncut stones. A walk through is an educational as well as a visual delight. If you’re a rock hound try not to miss this gem of a gallery on your next visit to the museum.

I hope I get the chance to go gem hunting again sometime. And I’d like to hunt for some geodes. Oh and I just found out the other day about a place not far from here where you can go hunt for fossils. Sounds like my kind of fun!
Amethyst geode

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1 comment:

  1. You absolutely sound like a woman after my own heart! I can't tell you how many rocks I've dragged back from my travels.
    I did manage to go "mining" in Thunder Bay, Ontario...on top of a mountain, during a thunderstorm. Came back from that trip with one of those $10 buckets of amethysts.
    Here in the Detroit area, one of my favorite museums is the Cranbrook Institute of Science. It has a large gallery with a really great rock, mineral and crystal display.