Several years ago we attended a family reunion at a wonderful event space that included a vast array of child-friendly activities. Among those activities were hayrides, a giant water slide, and digging for gemstones, as well as educational exhibits showcasing farm life before electricity, running water and gasoline engines. All of those activities seemed fitting for the locale – with the exception of gemstone mining. I’d only heard of gemstones being found in the upper Piedmont and Mountain regions of the state, and my only experience with gemstone mining had been an afternoon’s entertainment with my children on a trip to the mountains that included Tweetsie Railroad and Horn in the West.
Today, there are more than 800 active permitted mines in the state. Many of these mines produce non-fuel raw minerals, crushed stone, construction sand and gravel. North Carolina leads the world in the production of high-purity quartz and is first in the nation in the production of feldspar, mica and olivine. But, let’s get back to the gemstones.
Did you know that rubies are more rare than diamonds? I was surprised to learn that. And, I was even more surprised to learn about a collection of four “extraordinary” rare star rubies that could bring more than $90M at auction. The stones were discovered in 1990 by native North Carolinian, and self-proclaimed rock hound, Jarvis Wayne Messer. Mr. Messer lived in the Asheville area. Reading this fascinating story recently in the News & Observer and Garden & Gun Magazine, my interest was piqued to learn more about gemstone mining in our state.
The first systematic attempt to mine gems within the state occurred in 1871. The first commercial source of emeralds in the United States was the Crabtree Emerald Mine in western North Carolina that opened in 1895. The mine supplied emeralds for Tiffany & Company. In 2009, a 64-carat cut emerald, known as the “Carolina Emperor,” was found in Hiddenite, Alexander County (near Statesville.) The raw stone measured two inches square. This find helped to solidify the area as a high-quality emerald district in the world market. It also prompted the opening of numerous commercial collection sites, luring amateur collectors to try their luck at finding gems. According to the Western North Carolina Vitality Index, primary gem-collecting counties include Alexander (emeralds and hiddenites), Macon (rubies, sapphires and garnets) and Mitchell (emeralds and aquamarine) – making North Carolina first in the east coast in the mining and marketing of gemstones and mineral specimens.
Today, North Carolina is home to more pay-to-dig mines than any other state. So, if you’re in the mountains this summer and looking for an activity to keep the young ones entertained, why not explore one of them? It’s sure to be a fun way to share time together while creating a lasting memory for everyone. Who knows, you might just find an amazing gemstone!
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