Mined in America

Many of the world’s finest gems come from the Third World: Mogok ruby from Burma, tanzanite from Tanzania, tsavorite from Kenya. But North America also has treasures to brag about, and, gemologically speaking, that’s very reassuring.

For example, are you worried about the color-origin of Thai-enhanced ruby and sapphires, which might have undergone bulk diffusion? The United States has excellent sources of documented natural and traditionally heat-treated rainbow colors of sapphire from Montana.

Have you heard that up to half of the “natural” amethyst in stock is actually synthetic? Beat the odds and buy natural U.S. amethyst.

Are your customers concerned about buying conflict diamonds? Show them the Canadian Northwest Territories Government certificate of origin.

Here’s an overview of what’s available close to home, and where to find it:

Diamond. Historically, discussion of American diamonds focused on Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Ark. That’s where the Uncle Sam diamond was found. You can still dig all you want for $3 a day, and you might even find something cuttable.

But if you want North American diamonds, the emphasis here is on “north.” Canada is fast becoming the choice for conflict-conscious retailers and consumers. The Lac de Gras and Yellowknife areas in the Northwest Territories are producing some of the finest-quality colorless and near colorless diamonds on the planet. You can contact any number of wholesale diamond cutters to get certified Canadian diamonds.

Sapphire. Given the current concern about bulk diffusion, Montana sapphire is a valid alternative for your inventory. You know where it comes from, and if it has been heated, in most cases it’s been done in the United States using the traditional enhancement (without the addition of chemicals). These stones are readily available in all colors, but mainly in smaller sizes (2-6 mm). There are even some Montana rubies, but they’re rare.

You can’t mention Montana without noting one of the most important gem sapphire mining localities in the world—Yogo Gulch. Here, the cornflower-blue corundums are considered to be top Kashmir-like color, and they’re not heat treated. Supplies are limited, but it’s worth the effort to get recently mined material.

Beryls. Emeralds from Hiddenite, N.C., are as fine a quality as you will get from most Brazilian mines. Prices are steep, but that’s because North Carolina emerald is still considered a rare U.S. gem find. Only a few pockets have been found, but they’ve yielded substantial amounts of cuttable material. Unfortunately, government regulations, paperwork, and lack of operating capital have hindered greater production.

Garnets. Andradite garnets (yellows and some interesting browns) as well as the demantoid variety (moderate yellowish-green) are found in Arizona. Supplies are somewhat limited but should satisfy most retail jewelers’ inventory needs. Magnificent spessartites (orange) are found in Southern California, and chrome pyrope garnets (bright red) from Arizona have super-saturated color.

Peridot. Arizona peridot from San Carlos is world famous. There’s plenty of material to supply the world, but you may have to settle for smaller sizes than those found in Pakistan or Burma.

Tourmaline. To get the intense rubellite color (red), many pink tourmalines are irradiated—and the treatment is undetectable. If you buy from a U.S. source, such as California, you can be sure of the color origin of the stones. On the East Coast, Maine tourmalines—typically blues and greens—have been mined for even longer than the West Coast stones and are still actively pursued. (Sorry, no Paraíba-like colors found here yet.)

Turquoise. Arizona and New Mexico contain some of the largest commercial deposits of gemstones, including turquoise. The Sleeping Beauty mine is noted for some of the finest-quality stones in the world. There’s a sophisticated enhancement process for turquoise, but FTC regulations require the supplier to notify you of any enhancements. With these types of enhancements available, buying American—with FTC disclosure backing—becomes an even more attractive option.

Mine it yourself. If you think the price tags on some of these gems are too high, think again. Mining gemstones isn’t glamorous. It’s dirty, dangerous, and unpredictable, which is why most gem mining takes place in countries with lower wages and fewer mining safety and environmental regulations than in the United States and Canada. Fortunately, there are still some in America who can’t shake the treasure-hunter drive to keep digging for gems.

Take Helen and Richard Shull of Out of Our Mines in Arcata, Calif. They lease a portion of the old Himalaya tourmaline mine in San Diego County and dig for tourmalines three weeks every year. Last time out, they unearthed 15-20 lbs. of usable tourmaline. Almost all of the pink was carving/bead grade, and the green crystals were gemmy pencils, many of them flawless. Some of the pencils were watermelon, with deep pink cores and delicate green rinds.

The Himalaya mine, which has been worked for more than a century, once was owned by Tiffany. Like most underground mines, it’s dark, deep, and dangerous. The floor is steeply angled, ceilings are low, and the gravels of previous diggings make traversing the caverns risky. This isn’t big, corporate, heavy mining. It’s a pick-and-hammer operation, chiseling into pillars left by former mining geologists to hold up the hard rock ceiling.

A good example of a less treacherous—but still laborious—mining site is the Dust Devil mine near Plush, Ore. The state has a sizable mining area of gem feldspars, specifically sunstones. Facet-grade sunstones from Oregon are commonly yellow, but more important fine reds, greens, and red/green parti-colors also are being produced. Oregon sunstone also displays schiller, a metallic glitter that results from gleaming included platelets of copper.

Jerry and Mike Romanella of the Commercial Mineral Company in Scottsdale, Ariz., trek up to the local mountains every year to break out Four Peaks amethyst. With Four Peaks you don’t have to worry about identifying synthetic amethyst—a difficult task. You are guaranteed that the stone you get is from inside a mountain just east of Phoenix.

Here are some other notable American gems:

Amazonite. Colorado is most noted for the opaque gem amazonite, which is found in the Pikes Peak area. You’ll also find some of the finest transparent rhodocrosite in the world in Colorado, but this is definitely more a collector’s gem than a commercial gem.

Ammolite. Iridescent layers of fossil ammonites make for one-of-a-kind black opal-like cabochons and tablets. Found in Alberta, Canada, ammolite is promoted by Korite Minerals Limited, which is named after rancher Roy Kormos, on whose property the finer materials have been found.

Benitoite. This sapphire-blue mineral, California’s state gem, was discovered in July 1907. The lone area in which to find benitoite is the Dallas Gem Mine, in San Benito County, southeast of San Francisco. Considered more a collectible gemstone, it’s usually handled by smaller wholesale mineral dealers.

Pink and Red Beryl. Morganite, or pink beryl, comes from a few different sites around the United States, especially in places where one finds tourmaline. Consider Maine and California for good morganites.

Call it red beryl, red emerald, red aquamarine, or bixbite, but no matter what you name this material, it, too, is like benitoite—a collector’s gem. Found only in the WahWah Mountains of Utah, the material is beautiful, but to accept its price, you must appreciate its rarity.

Fossil Ivory. Add the fossilized tusks of walrus and mastodon to your list of American gems. Alaska and the North American Arctic are the top producers.

Jade. Go north from Jade Cove, just above Monterey Bay on the California coast, up to Dawson in the Yukon, and you’ll find plenty of jade. (It’s nephrite mostly.) Black jade from Wyoming also is a novel addition to your jade case.

Obsidian/Moldavite. Natural green glass does not, at first, sound very exciting, especially if you’re also offering emeralds, rubies, and sapphires. However, there’s a lot to be said for affordability these days, and you can create some wonderful beaded necklaces from New Mexico’s natural “Apache tears.”

Quartz. In addition to Four Peaks amethyst, there are plenty of quartzes around North America. Agates, fire agates, and petrified woods as well as rock crystal can make for nice and relatively inexpensive jewels.

New York State is well known for its “Herkimer diamonds.” These rock crystal quartz crystals, found in Herkimer County, N.Y., are doubly terminated, with natural points on both ends. They make excellent pendant drops, especially for those looking for gems with magical, mystical powers.

Going American. When it comes to promoting American gems, Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, Wash., has been spearheading the movement for years, and what he says may encourage you to do the same.

“We’ve actually been cutting and marketing American gems for almost 20 years,” Braunwart says. “There has been, of course, a lot more interest in American gems this past year.”

It’s obvious that 9/11 has rekindled the American spirit in a lot of ways. Braunwart has begun a new, more focused “Gemstones of America” program. “This particular program started in Las Vegas at [last year’s] JCK Show,” says Braunwart. He knows that to sell American gems, you can’t just say that the stone is from America. “That’s pretty lame,” he says. “You need to give the customer enough confidence that the stone really is from the USA—and marked ‘USA’ on the jewelry. If you are buying it as an American product, where it’s made is almost as important as where it’s mined.” You need a guarantee that the stone and the jewelry are made in America, says Braunwart.

Columbia Gem House’s Gemstones of America include:

  • pyrope garnet from northern Idaho (Braunwart notes that these are typically reddish-orange in color and come from the same area in which star garnet is mined);

  • orange fire opal from eastern Oregon (Braunwart shows play-of-color opal from this area at trunk shows);

  • purple sage chalcedony from Nevada (it’s purple, says Braunwart, but not an amethyst purple);

  • “white” (rock crystal) quartz from Arkansas. Typically, if the rock crystal cannot sell on its own merits, it will be irradiated to make smoky quartz.

Bottom line. There are many gems from North America—many more than are listed here—that could make fresh additions to your inventory. So maybe it’s time to get patriotic and start looking into North American gems. Gemologically, you’ll get a wide variety of color and—most importantly—a guarantee of origin.