Finding Gems in N.C. Ore, Not.

Amateur prospectors wash and sift the ore they've dug up at Mason's Sapphire and Ruby Mine, where a triangle is rung when someone unearths an especially large gem.
Amateur prospectors wash and sift the ore they've dug up at Mason's Sapphire and Ruby Mine, where a triangle is rung when someone unearths an especially large gem. (Photos By Gaston Lacombe For The Washington Post)
By Gaston Lacombe
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 9, 2008; Page P08

Whenever I go on vacation, I seem to return with a bag full of semiprecious stones. I just love rocks. So when I heard recently about North Carolina's publicly accessible mines, my fingers were itching to get to work with a pick and shovel.

Just a day's drive from Washington, southwestern North Carolina holds some of the richest and most accessible gem mines in the United States. Depending on where you quarry, abundant deposits of sapphires, rubies, emeralds, aquamarines, garnets and other types of stones wait to be uncovered.

The area around Franklin has long been known for its rich alluvial deposits of corundum, the mineral that yields rubies and sapphires. Here in the late 19th century, large corporations extracted corundum for jewelry and the production of abrasives. The development of less expensive synthetics reduced demand for the stone, and by the 1940s commercial mining in the area had ground to a halt.

Today, tourism benefits the most from these earlier prospecting activities. Numerous old pits have been reopened, and at every turn of the highway, garish billboards urge visitors to come try their hand at gem-panning. Most of these operations offer "enriched" ore for washing and sieving at a flume. Ore is soil that potentially carries minerals, but in these places the finding is guaranteed. While it may be fun for children to look in these prepared buckets, for me it feels like fishing in an aquarium. The gambler in me strove for a more authentic experience.

At Mason's Sapphire and Ruby Mine, the morning mist that blanketed the meandering road finally revealed an excavated, ochre-colored mountainside. Already a few enthusiasts were shoveling dirt, serenaded by bluegrass music from a loudspeaker. A staff member showed me rough and polished samples of the gemstones found in the open mine area (the shafts collapsed long ago) before handing me a bucket and sending me to haul out some mud. Here, unlike in most "mines" in North Carolina, the visitor has direct access to the mine.

Even on this chilly October morning I was joined by a few dozen visitors from all over the eastern United States, many of them return customers. A grandmother from Syracuse, N.Y., paraded around like a runway model showing everyone sapphire earrings made with the stones discovered on her last visit to Mason's. "Maybe I can get a matching necklace made with today's finds," she bragged, brandishing a newly unearthed 14-carat purple sapphire.

All day, the rubber-gloved tourists dragged vast amounts of ore to the sluice, where they thoroughly washed the dirt away, then picked through the gravel that remained. The sound of pebbles rasping on metal screens mingled with the animated conversations. The staff hovered around the prospectors to make sure they didn't discard anything of value. Twice during the day, the victory triangle rang to announce that a lucky miner had found a sapphire of 10 carats or more. While some buckets yielded only mud, others hid one or more unpolished hexagonal gemstones.

Pete Civitello, owner of the mine, claimed, "A few summers ago a young boy came upon a pocket of gems in the mine, and he dug up more than 800 sapphires and rubies in one bucketful." That sparked a rush, with cars lined up overnight to come mining. "Not everybody is that lucky," Civitello said, "but nearly everybody leaves with a few nice stones."

To the northeast of Mason's is Gem Mountain Gemstone Mine, near Spruce Pine. The mine offers "guaranteed" buckets as well as expeditions to one of its mines. Unlike Mason's, the mine currently being exploited at Gem Mountain requires chipping, not digging. The site is dynamited on a regular basis, and visitors who take the mine trip are allowed to rummage through the debris and whack at the cliff with a pick. The main finds are aquamarine, golden beryl, black tourmaline, garnet, morganite and quartz.

For Civitello and his staff at Mason's, the most important thing is the authentic mining experience, the type seldom found in North Carolina. "The large corporations might have left in the 1940s, but this mine still holds enough gems to last us a few hundred years. Our visitors still have a lot of dirt to sift through," Civitello said with a laugh.

After a full day of digging, scrubbing and carefully sorting my gravel, I pocketed 20-some carats of small sapphires and was left with a load of muddy laundry. For me, no ending could be happier.

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