What I Learned Digging for Diamonds in Arkansas

In the four years I’ve worked at JCK, we’ve published more than a few stories about Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Ark. It’s the only diamond mine in the world open to the public, and it’s located atop an eroded volcanic pipe in southwest Arkansas. At least once a year, we’ll run an article about a sizable discovery there—like the 3.85 ct. canary yellow diamond 14-year-old Tana Clymer uncovered in April (she sold it for a cool $20,000).

But I never expected to find myself in the Arkansas dirt, digging for diamonds.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was on the phone with my boyfriend, Jim, when he mentioned a couple coworkers—he’s working on the set of Duck Dynasty in Monroe, La.—who were driving three hours north into Arkansas for the weekend, to camp near the Crater of Diamonds. I stopped the conversation mid-sentence.

“Did you just say Crater of Diamonds?!”

I was already planning to visit Jim; the prospect of an overnight camping trip to a state park where I could hunt for diamonds sealed the deal. Even though neither of us had camped in a good long while, we were both game for an adventure.

We made the journey this past weekend. It was enlightening, extraordinary, and educational. Above all, it was hilarious. For those of you who’ve always wondered what it’s like being a prospector, here are my top takeaways:

Courtesy James S. Sullivan

At the entrance to the park

It Takes Work

“This is hard!” exclaimed the woman standing in a ditch a few feet away from me. She was in the middle of the 37-acre field that forms the heart of the state park. It was Sunday afternoon—a gorgeous day in late September. The field wasn’t crowded—the park’s busiest time of year is spring break and summer, when thousands of families rush the site—nor was it empty.

Jim and I had just spent an hour sifting through wet gravel on the north side of the field, where there’s no shade from the glaring sun. The woman’s complaint registered with us on so many levels. 

Hard describes not only the toil required to find a diamond in Crater of Diamonds State Park, it also describes the soil: a rich field of lamproite, after the Greek word meaning glistening, a reference to the shiny mica crystals found in this type of volcanic rock. (Let’s not forget that hard also describes the finished product.)

When Jim and I arrived, we rented a shovel, a bucket, and a screen set—a boxed set of screens, one to sift out large rocks, and a finer meshed screen that could catch anything bigger than a match head—from the Diamond Discovery Center.

Jim sifts for stones on the north field at Crater of Diamonds State Park.

We had been told by Waymon Cox, an interpreter for the park, to look for visible signs of erosion.

“You have to dig in the low areas and look for gravel—that usually means colorful rocks and minerals, like jasper, hematite,” Cox told us. “You want to dig in the washouts, between the rows, off the sides of the pathways, wherever you find these little trenches where water has washed through. You don’t have to dig a deep hole—the deeper you dig, the more you’re limiting yourself.”

Finding a spot to break ground was a mystifying process. Cox had said that many of the most prominent diamonds found over the past year had been plucked from the surface, where they’d settled after years of erosion. 

We trained our eagle eyes on the rows of dirt and looked for anything that recalled the shine of a diamond. After 5 minutes or so, we chose a spot—arbitrary as can be—and started digging. Once we’d reduced the clods of dirt in our bucket down to a small cache of gravel and stones, we spread the pile on top of the trash receptacle near the trough of muddy water used as a sifting station and picked through it using a small magnifying glass and a Swiss army knife.

Courtesy James S. Sullivan

Diamonds are tiny! Or so I was reminded when I took a magnifying glass to our pile of gravel and pulled out a few hopeful candidates. 

The park has white, yellow, and brown diamonds, and Jim and I carefully pulled out a few tiny stones that we thought had some potential. We saved them in a small Altoids tin that I tucked in my shorts pocket. “The responsibility is killing me,” I joked, as we amused ourselves with thoughts of accidentally spilling the tin, and returning the tiny raw stones that may or may not be diamonds back to the sea of dirt surrounding us.

Before Jim and I decided to abandon the north part of the field for the western end, where two taller wet-sifting stations promised to give our backs some relief from the grueling business of hunching over, we ran into an older gentleman who’d driven seven hours from Lake Charles, La., to try his hand at prospecting. When we told him we’d come up from Monroe, his reaction was priceless.

“Monroe? That’s Yankee country,” he said in a lyrical Cajun drawl. “They speak English there. And the crawfish walk forward instead of backwards.”

It’s a Giant Crap Shoot

As with anything in life, finding a diamond requires persistence—the scores of regulars who visit the park are a good reminder of that.

“In general, it’s about how long you have and how hard you want to work,” Cox told us. “Don’t give up. It’s not like bowling—you don’t have a great game the first time you come out. It has happened, but, by and large, most folks have to work at it. Come back and keep trying.”

This wasn’t my first visit to a diamond mine, so I knew a little bit about the effort mining required. A decade ago, I spent a week in Africa as a guest of De Beers. The press trip included visits to the Venetia mine in South Africa and the Jwaneng mine in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert—the company’s largest and richest mines, respectively. Comparing what I’d seen at these sites to what I was finding with my own humble search for diamonds in Arkansas, I realized that beyond the scale of De Beers’ impressive operations, serendipity plays a considerable role in the search for stones.

So much about finding a diamond—much less a clean, colorless gem in a size that can yield a polished stone of some significance—boils down to luck. The vagaries of Mother Nature are such that you never know what lies beneath the ground. Teams of scientists and mechanized machines can help you determine where to place your bets, but no amount of money can guarantee you’ll find the motherlode.

Here in Arkansas, plenty of people have tried. Diamonds were discovered near Murfreesboro in 1906, by John Huddleston, the owner of the property. For the next half-century, miners struggled to figure out if the mine was commercially viable.

“They found less than a quarter carat for every 100 tons of ore they processed, so not enough diamonds to make a commercially viable mine,” Cox told us. “But still, people continue to find them on the surface, one or two a day, every day because of that erosion.”

Courtesy James S. Sullivan

Digging for diamonds is back-breaking work.

Store-Bought Diamonds Will Do!

Jim and I threw in the towel after about two hours of digging. We had nearly two dozen flecks of rock in our Altoids tin to show for it. We approached the Rock and Mineral Identification table at the park’s Diamond Discovery Center, where an employee named Megan studied our stones and gave us her coolheaded assessment:

“You have two jaspers, some quartz, calcite—the blue-tinted one is barite,” she said.

“And the yellow one?” I asked hopefully. To my eye, the rounded lemon-yellow stone in our tin represented our best hope for a diamond.

“That’s jasper,” she said. “It goes for about $55 a ton, so you’ve got a little more digging to do.”

I wasn’t dejected, exactly. But I had to admit defeat: “We got a whole lot of nothing,” I said to Jim.

Megan, however, begged to differ. “You got some Tums and some barium,” she said. (Calcite, she reminded us, is the main ingredient in the over-the-counter medication.)

Jim and I had been hoping for a diamond—instead, we found Tums.

I recalled the woman we’d seen earlier that day complaining about how hard it was digging for diamonds. Just as Jim and I passed by her, she turned to her husband, an older fellow in a red T-shirt and John Deere baseball cap, and came to a brilliant conclusion: “I guess you’re going to have to keep getting my diamonds from the store, honey!”