Paige Chase’s arm has a tattoo of a mountain range, and her hands are covered in the ruddy soil of western North Carolina. She drove five hours from Nashville, Tennessee,
Paige Chase’s arm has a tattoo of a mountain range, and her hands are covered in the ruddy soil of western North Carolina. She drove five hours from Nashville, Tennessee, to Franklin with three friends so she could pay Mason’s Sapphire Mine $35 for the privilege of spending the day sifting through mud, hoping to find a precious gemstone. Gem hunting requires being lucky enough to uncover a valuable stone and having enough focus to realize when you’re holding that stone in your hand.
Across a creek are two large mounds of dirt flanked by signs warning “NO TUNNELING.” Earlier, after hauling a bucket of dirt over a small bridge, Chase had sat down on a bench at one of four troughs, called “sluices” or “flumes.” Water runs continuously through the canals, making it easy for her to wash away handfuls of soil. What remains in her tray is a collection of pebbles and stone chips, most reddish-brown and unremarkable.
“I’ve gotten very efficient at cleaning,” says her friend Lauren Chan.
People who keep sifting through bucket after bucket can find treasures in that slurry of stone. Some are aesthetically pleasing if commonplace, like the golden flecks of mica. But a round stone might be a star garnet, and a hexagon shaped like a pencil is probably a ruby or sapphire, which have a special gleam in the sunlight. Whether a handful of pebbles contains mica or a garnet is pure chance. But if one doesn’t look, neither will be found.
Chase stares at the rocks with the careful eye of a surgeon. (She is, in fact, a doctor — a resident in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University.) Most of the stones are the same rusty color. What sets the gems apart are their shapes. “Anything faceted and shiny, you’ve got it,” counsels her boyfriend, Drake Embry.
Chase quietly grins and triumphantly holds up a sapphire, brandishing the tiny precious stone between her thumb and forefinger. With a pen-size black light, Embry helps her confirm her discovery: In the ultraviolet rays, the stone glows bright red.
Since the 19th century, Mason’s Sapphire Mine, surrounded by the misty Blue Ridge Mountains, has attracted visitors like Chase and her friends — people happy to spend a day on the gamble that they’ll find a precious stone. The ground of North Carolina contains some particularly righteous gemstones: In 2003, the North American Emerald Mine in Hiddenite produced the largest uncut emerald ever found in the United States, a 1,869-carat whopper that’s now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. North Carolina is unusual in that it’s home to all four major gemstones — emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds.
But just how geologically rich is our state? “Gems are difficult for most geologists,” says Brad Johnson, associate professor of environmental studies at Davidson College. “How special they are is based on their appearance. There may be very similar minerals that aren’t shiny enough or translucent enough [to be considered a gemstone]. A great example of this is quartz. It’s one of the most common minerals on earth, but which quartz is interesting and which isn’t interesting is a sociological question, not a geological question.”
Johnson explains that the precious stones that people search for are rarely found in sedimentary rocks like sandstones and siltstones and shales, which form the foundation of the eastern half of North Carolina. Our planet has two other broad categories of rocks: igneous (cooled magma) and metamorphic (rocks like marble that are created when sedimentary and igneous rocks experience intense heat and pressure underground). Gems are most often found around igneous and metamorphic rocks. “Fairly conveniently,” Johnson says, “most of western North Carolina is igneous or metamorphic or a combination of the two.”
The Appalachian Mountains are the result of continents erratically colliding into each other hundreds of millions of years ago. “Big mountain ranges like the Himalayas or the Appalachians are like icebergs,” Johnson says. “They’re floating, and you only see the tip of what’s there — underneath is this huge root that’s basically holding up the rest of the mountain range.” Every time a meter erodes off the top of the Appalachians, what’s underneath floats up about 85 centimeters. That maintains the Appalachians’ status as mountains rather than molehills, and it also slowly pushes interesting pockets of minerals closer to the surface.
“Hiddenite is a good example,” Johnson says, referring to the town in the foothills about 20 minutes northwest of Statesville. “You’ve got intrusive rocks like granite and metamorphic rocks, and right at the boundary is where emeralds formed 400 million years ago.”
Franklin calls itself the “Gem Capital of the World.” The longest-running business in downtown is now Ruby City Gems & Minerals, which, over the years, has diversified its offerings from stones and jewelry into healing crystals and home decor.
At Ruby City, owner Kevin Klatt emerges from a hot back room where he’s been cutting gems. His olive-green T-shirt is splattered with water; his vision-magnifying OptiVISOR glasses are perched on his forehead. Klatt is friendly with visitors and customers at the front of the shop, but it’s clear that his real passion is the lapidary work that he does in the back room. “My father put the responsibility of the business on my shoulders so he could do other things, like travel, and I chose to stick with it,” he says. “There’s five children in my family, and I take a lot of pride in the fact that I stuck this out. I was the only one that would put up with my old man.”
Like the gems in Mason’s Mine, Klatt’s family landed in western North Carolina by chance. His grandfather, Ernie, started Ruby City 65 years ago. Kevin tells Ernie’s story with pride, how he left Oklahoma as a teenager, jumping trains and living as a hobo, wandering across the country and almost freezing to death in a Nebraska snowstorm. While picking strawberries in Louisiana, he met and then married the farmer’s daughter; they moved to Florida, where he got his start as a “dirt farmer,” buying cheap swampland, mucking it out, then selling both the muck and the upgraded real estate. When his wife developed breathing issues, her doctor recommended that she spend summers in a drier, cooler climate.
Traveling north, the family stopped at the closest mountain area, where they bought a motel that they ran seasonally. Then they acquired a neighboring rock shop, selling gems and stones to tourists. It seems that Ernie Klatt had to travel barefoot through most of the United States before discovering that he was most at home surrounded by the mountains and mineral deposits of Macon County.
The Klatt family bought Mason’s Sapphire Mine 12 years ago because it had synergy with Ruby City — the store could direct rock hounds to the mine to look for sapphires, and the mine could send people who found those sapphires to the store to get them cut and polished. Unlike most tourist-attraction mines, Mason’s is “unsalted”: Although the soil is moved with a bulldozer from nearby, no gemstones are added. (The mine does sell salted buckets for children, giving them the geological equivalent of a slot machine that keeps disgorging jackpots.)
“At one time there were 10 or 12 operating mines in the area,” Kevin says. Most of them were alluvial, meaning that they were located in places where running water had brought soil and precious stones downstream; Mason’s, however, is situated on top of deposits of gemstones including corundum, a crystalline form of aluminum oxide that’s one of the hardest rocks around. The mine was established back in the 1890s, and around the turn of the century, Kevin says, “Tiffany’s did some short-term mining, trying to determine the quality of the corundum.” The jewelry company ultimately concluded that there weren’t enough stones good enough to set, but the mines did extract the corundum for a while, selling it as industrial abrasives. “They got turned into sandpaper, grinding wheels, things like that,” Kevin says.
Mason’s Sapphire Mine took off as a tourist attraction in the 1950s, when Americans started using the interstate highway system to explore the country and its treasures. Kevin has a theory about why gem mining experienced this renaissance. “Everybody wants to get rich,” he says.
Back at Mason’s, a dozen people are working the flume lines. “I found a whole lot of emeralds,” a child sifting through a salted bucket announces. “How much do emeralds cost?”
Studying and sorting their stones, several people have what Kevin calls the “heartbeat moment” — the glorious realization that there’s something unusual and precious in their tray. Chase and her friends spend the whole day at Mason’s Mine; by the end, they’ve found 10 garnets and 39 sapphires. Their largest sapphire is 3.61 carats, which will be an impressive-looking rock if it ends up cut, polished, and mounted on a ring.
Life is full of such randomness, not all of it as obvious as a spinning roulette wheel. When a hurricane crosses North Carolina, chance can be the only difference between the house that gets its roof blown off and the one that remains untouched. Randomness can be exciting or scary: To accept chance is to understand that not everything in life can be controlled by willpower alone.
Engaging in a game of chance isn’t just a way to leapfrog through life — it’s a statement that even when you’re unlucky, you’ll still be fine. If you spend a day at the mine without finding a diamond as big as a Ritz cracker, at least you achieved a Zen calm while washing handfuls of pebbles, talking with friends, and sitting in the sunshine.
At the trough, there’s a sign next to where Chase sits that underscores the ephemeral and random nature of mining for treasures. It reads: “In Memory of the One That Went Down the Flume.” — Gavin Edwards