Purple Gems, Mountain Majesty

We often hear stories of the complicated journey gemstones take from the mine to the jeweler’s showcase. Yet it’s difficult to truly appreciate that odyssey unless you’ve lived the experience. It’s an eye-opener, as I recently discovered on a trip with my son to the mountains east of Phoenix. We expect primitive mining conditions in Third World countries. But in the United States? A climb to the top of a mountain in search of amethyst at the Four Peaks mine was a step back in time.

No room for the squeamish. An hour and a half outside of our starting point—posh Scottsdale, Ariz.—we turn off the main road; within minutes, we’re transported back to primitive times. A one-lane dirt road takes us up the backside of a mountain in the Mazatzal range. The road is bumpy, with constant curves and never a guard rail. The 11-mile ride takes us 30 minutes. It’s not for the squeamish, nor for a car you care about.

By the end of the road we’ve made it up to 4,000-ft. elevation. The rest of the ascent is now by foot. The trail starts off relatively tame. An hour into the hike, we reach a resting point. The second half of the trek is far more treacherous. Not until nightfall will I learn that three people have lost their lives on these trails in the past decade. We make our way through thick brush, up steep climbs, and over jagged rocks. I look down and see that my leg is bleeding from the brush, but we press ahead. Two hours, 41/2 miles, and 7,200-ft. elevation, and we’re there.

The reward is immediate. The ground is covered with quartz crystals. Some are purple, some white. The crystal specimens are everywhere, as if someone planted them for the tour. We begin to pick up samples. We wish we could fill a truck, but whatever we gather we’ll have to carry back down at the end of the day. So we limit it to about 25 lbs. per backpack.

Into the mine. The mine area is primitive indeed. Only two miners work the site. They hike up the mountain and stay for two to five days at a time, sleeping in a tent outside the mine opening or sometimes inside the mine. “It’s very dark and very quiet,” a miner tells us. “Sometimes I sleep inside the mine and wake up in the middle of the night. I turn on the generator light and dig for a while and then go back to sleep.”

The miners have no bathroom facilities. They have supplies dropped by helicopter when they run low. They have huge boxes of cereal, canned food, and lots of Mountain Dew.

After lunch with a spectacular view, it’s time to go mining. The mine itself is very small. Mining is done mostly by hand. The amethyst is everywhere, so the miners begin by opening a hole in the side of the mountain. The amethyst is visible in the walls in every direction. But like most geological growth, a rich vein is struck that yields better quality and larger crystals, and so the tunnel takes a detour inside. The mine currently extends about 45 ft. At the back is another detour to follow a vein.

A miner takes us inside. My 13-year-old son, Eric, is offered a hammer and a chisel. As the rest of us sit in the dark tunnel talking, he mines small and large crystals of amethyst. In a matter of minutes he has extracted at least a dozen well-formed crystals that go into the production pile. The material is either flown down by helicopter or carried down in bags of small quantities.

Return to creature comforts. Back at our hotel after an 11-hour trip (four in the car, four on foot, three at the mine), we reflect on the activities of the day. Sure, there are tougher, taller mountains to climb to unearth gems. Still, this was an exhilarating experience I will never forget. We joke about ordering T-shirts that say, “I survived the Four Peaks hike.” We are dirty and tired. A good hot shower and comfortable bed make me think of the miners who stay on top of the mountain for days. And as I fall asleep, I have a greater appreciation for that purple gem from the top of the mountain.

Marketing Four Peaks Amethyst

Mike and Jerry Romanella of Commercial Mineral Co. in Scottsdale, Ariz., are the exclusive marketing agents of Four Peaks amethyst. As Jerry Romanella will tell you, “It is a long, slow process, and amethyst is not an expensive gem, so making money in this venture is not easy. However, we are convinced that enough good material exists in this mine.”

The Romanellas do the initial cleaning, cobbing (hammering the stones to knock off the host matrix), sorting, and tumbling in their shop in Arizona. The facet-grade gems are then sent overseas to Thailand, China, or Sri Lanka to be cut. Only about 30% of the crystals are facet-grade. Because of zoning the yield is small, about 0.5% of the original crystal. About 80% of the cut stones are between .50 ct. and 2 cts. A small percentage (3% to 5%) of the stones are heat-treated at low temperatures to improve their color.

The Four Peaks mine is smaller than amethyst mines elsewhere in the world. But it’s proving to be important. For one thing, it’s a U.S. mine, and very few U.S. amethyst mines turn a profit. Second, the material from the mine can be marketed and sold with a guarantee that it’s natural. For amethyst, this could be a key to the mine’s success. With synthetic amethyst flooding the market, jewelers have little guarantee these days that what they’re buying and selling is natural.

Given the low price of amethyst, profit is a real challenge. Four Peaks amethyst is priced the same as amethyst from any other source in the world. Commercial Mineral sells amethyst mostly from Africa and from Four Peaks. The best quality will generally fit into this pricing structure: .50 to 2 cts., $15 to $20 per ct.; 3 cts. or more, $20 to $28 per ct.

The History of Four Peaks

Legend has it that Spanish explorers first found amethyst at what is now the Four Peaks mine in the 18th century, but there’s no evidence to prove that. A gold prospector named Jim McDaniels made the earliest known discovery of this area in the late 1880s. Since then many people have claimed ownership, but sources close to the mine believe only a few really ever owned it. All past mining ventures were small-scale and not thought to be profitable. After all, quartz is plentiful, inexpensive, and in this location difficult to mine in quantity.

In 1972 the mine was purchased by Joe Hyman, a real estate developer and jewelry store owner in Scottsdale, Ariz. He later sold the mine and then bought it back in 1979. For the next 18 years the mine sat idle. Then in 1997, two friends who enjoyed gems simply as a hobby heard about the mine. Kurt Cavano and Jim MacLachlin decided to purchase it. They formed a joint venture with Mike and Jerry Romanella of Commercial Mineral Co. in Scottsdale, which became the exclusive marketer and distributor of Four Peaks amethyst.

Richard B. Drucker, G.G., is president of Gemworld International and publisher of The Guide, a pricing periodical he began in 1982.