A Nugget of a 44-pound gold nugget leads to a museum, a jewelry store and hopes for a tourism industry in Murphys, Cal.

Most jewelers open a jewelry store first and then use an attention-getting piece of jewelry to create traffic. John Kautz did just the opposite – he acquired a 44-pound gold nugget and then created a jewelry store.

Kautz owns Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys, Cal., a community in the middle of California’s gold country. He bought the 44-pound nugget, believed to be the largest specimen of crystalline gold in the world, and made it the centerpiece of a museum and jewelry store at his winery.

Sonora Mining Co. discovered the nugget in 1992 encased in quartz in a mine near Jamestown in Tuolomne County, about nine miles from the winery. The French government offered to buy the nugget, but Kautz felt it’s such an important part of California history that he bought it in 1994 for an undisclosed price. Its appraised value: $3.5 million.

Many people advised Kautz the nugget would end up in pieces if it was removed from the quartz. But Kautz says he likes to gamble (“I’m an old Monopoly player”), so he sent it to Brian Lees at Collector’s Edge in Golden, Colo. Lees cleaned the nugget, gave it an acid bath to break down the quartz and, using small dental-type picks, meticulously removed tiny pieces of quartz. “We left quartz on one small part on the backside to show what the matrix was,” Kautz says. It then was mounted on a Mariposa Rock boulder and placed in a vault that Kautz had built to bank specifications.

Today, the nugget is the focal point of a museum devoted to the history of gold mining in the area made famous by the Forty-Niners. Once the museum was established, Krautz had another thought: “When people go to Australia, they buy opals. When they go to Japan, they buy pearls. When they go to Arizona, they buy turquoise. I decided that since we’re in the heart of the gold country, we should sell gold jewelry. I think people who visit here will say, ‘I’d like to take a piece of gold home.’”

Kautz’s primary business is agriculture (in addition to his 1,100-acre wine grape ranch in the Sierra foothills, he farms 7,500 acres, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley). He knew little about the jewelry industry, so he enlisted the help of Gary Long of Long’s Village Jewelers in nearby Stockton as a consultant and proceeded to open a jewelry store in the museum. Most of the inventory is gold nugget-type jewelry. But he also handles other jewelry and expects to expand the selection as the store grows. He also sells individual nuggets that can be set to fit the customers’ taste.

Kautz is making a portion of his ranch into a tourist destination. In addition to the museum/jewelry store and winery in a seven-story, 700,000-sq.-ft. building, Kautz created a concert hall that seats 300 and features a restored pipe organ salvaged from the Alhambra Theater in Sacramento and a demonstration kitchen where chefs from around the world demonstrate their skills. An outdoor amphitheater that will seat 10,000 is under construction. Outdoor concerts featuring noted artists are offered monthly, and the area is also made available for weddings and other large parties. The focus of the wine tasting room is a 36-ft. antique bar and a 42-ft.-tall stone fireplace.

Murphys is a three-hour drive from San Francisco. The town of 1,300 residents is nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Calaveras County, home of the Jumping Frog contest made famous by Mark Twain. Kautz says the area offers a variety of family-oriented activities, including wineries, caverns, fishing, gold-panning, skiing, golf and museums. That’s why he’s gambling on Murphys becoming the center of a major tourist area and why – though he is a novice to the jewelry industry – he expects his store to be a regional leader in gold nugget jewelry.

The jewelry store at Ironstone Vineyards features gold-nugget and other types of jewelry. Photo by Jack Heeger.

This 44-pound gold nugget is the centerpiece of a museum in Murphys, Cal. After acquiring this 44-pound gold nugget, John Kautz (inset) established a museum and set up a jewelry store at his winery in California’s Gold Rush country.