Aquamarine Years ago, on the day that The Learning Channel came to film a blast at Gem Mountain’s Brushy Creek mine, a two-pound piece of aquamarine was loosened from the
Years ago, on the day that The Learning Channel came to film a blast at Gem Mountain’s Brushy Creek mine, a two-pound piece of aquamarine was loosened from the surrounding rock. The gem was launched into the air as the dynamite that had been drilled into the mountain exploded, booming so loudly that the sound could be heard more than two miles away. Gem Mountain owner Kay Buchanan had the piece cut and made into jewelry for the film crew, but other pieces were left in the pit for tour groups to find later.
Buchanan and her late husband, Charles, grew up in the mines around Spruce Pine; each of their families had owned mines for more than a century. “It’s part of my heritage,” she says, “and I just love it. When you find a gemstone, you’re the first one who’s ever seen that rock.” The couple started Gem Mountain in 1987, taking tour groups on mining trips and teaching them about the history of the area — how mica and quartz and feldspar were sourced from these hills, with gemstones initially just a byproduct. Later, in the 1950s and ’60s, Tiffany & Co. mined aquamarine in the area. Now, through Gem Mountain tours, gemstones like aquamarine are the stars — even when there’s no film crew there to catch the show on camera.
When the nation’s first and longest gold rush took place in western North Carolina and the southern Piedmont — almost half a century before the California gold rush — prospectors had to send their gold on a challenging and dangerous journey to Pennsylvania to be minted into coins. Enter Christopher Bechtler, a German immigrant who moved to Rutherfordton in 1830 and, shortly thereafter, opened his own mint. Bechtler used a screw press and other tools to handstamp the gold into $5, $2.50, and $1 coins — making the first dollar coin in the country, 17 years before the United States Mint created its own.
The Bechtler Mint put currency — almost 2.25 million dollars’ worth — into the hands of western North Carolina farmers, trappers, homesteaders, and prospectors, many of whom had never held a coin before. In a region where, previously, the barter system had been the predominant means of trade, Bechtler’s ingenuity catapulted the local economy into one of modern commercial transactions.
Although Bechtler’s production of coins declined after a U.S. Mint was opened in Charlotte in 1837, his coins remained in circulation for many years. As late as the Civil War, some contracts required payment in Bechtler gold because of the coins’ reputation for quality. Collections of Bechtler coins have been on view at museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, The Mint Museum in Charlotte, the North Carolina Museum of History, and, of course, at the Bechtler Heritage Center in Rutherfordton. There, a mannequin stands at a screw press, minting coins by hand just as Bechtler once did.
Often, when Wyatt Smith gives tours of the Hiddenite Arts & Heritage Center, he wears a 1920s suit in the style of James Paul Lucas, complete with a hiddenite lapel pin. Lucas, better known as “Diamond Jim,” was an eccentric collector and gem dealer who once lived in the three-story Queen Anne-style mansion that now houses the museum portion of the center. The house is furnished with items from the time period when Lucas was alive, but the lapel pin is one of the few items in the museum that he actually may have owned.
Founded in 1981 by R.Y. and Eileen Lackey Sharpe, the center hosts performances, quilters’ meetings, and classes, and showcases antiques and an art gallery in its two facilities. Tours of the Lucas Mansion begin at the gem and mineral display, which features several pieces of hiddenite, the yellow-green or green mineral whose 1879 discovery nearby is credited to mineralogist William Earl Hidden. “The nice thing about coming here to see hiddenite,” says Director of Education and Gallery Curator Allison Houchins, “is that the very dirt that the mansion sits on is probably on the vein.” After the discovery, the town was named in Hidden’s honor.
Today, the center celebrates the heritage of Hiddenite by teaching workshops on skills like weaving and basketry that would have been practiced when the area was first settled in the mid-1800s, not long before the historic mineral discovery. With all that it offers, the Hiddenite Arts & Heritage Center, too, is a North Carolina gem.
Of the two dozen or so locally found rubies on display in the Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum, the largest weighs in at a whopping 2.25 pounds. The uncut stone was unearthed in 1888 in the mine of George Bidwell and hidden away in an attic for 90 years before his grandson Bob Sloan, then editor of The Franklin Press, rediscovered it in 1977. The ruby was later acquired by the museum, which was opened three years earlier by the Franklin Gem & Mineral Society.
Housed in the 1850 Macon County Jail, the museum has one remaining cell upstairs that is open to visitors, its walls still bearing graffiti left behind by former prisoners. The museum also showcases Native American artifacts, fossils, and, of course, thousands of specimens of gems, rocks, and minerals from around the world, including many from the Franklin area. Commercial mining of corundum — the mineral that can produce either ruby or sapphire, depending on the elements present — began in the area in the 1800s, and the stones are still being mined there on a smaller scale today.
Although Sapphire Valley wasn’t known by that name until 1954, sapphires and other gems were discovered as a byproduct of gold mining in the area in the 19th century. As many as five small sites and a main mine were in operation for the extraction of gold and gems at one time. By the 1890s, however, the local economy had shifted toward tourism.
In 1890, E.H. Jennings moved to the area and began to open resorts like the Sapphire Inn and the Toxaway Inn. A new railroad line from Hendersonville brought tourists to the nearby resorts, which had begun to be known as the “Switzerland of America.” The high elevation’s cooler climate and the nearby lake were just a couple of the many draws, along with fine cuisine, hunting, dancing, and daily orchestra concerts.
In 1954, lumber baron Eugene Howerdd Sr. retired to the area and began construction of the Sapphire Valley Inn and Golf Club, which would later be renamed the Sapphire Valley Resort. It is around this time that the area first came to be known as Sapphire Valley — and the gems were still being found. “The Howerdds started developing the golf course, and they said you could just walk through what would be the parking lot and pick up little rubies and sapphires,” says Rick Stargel, founder of the Sapphire Valley Historical Society.
Today, the Sapphire Valley Resort and the Sapphire Valley Ski Resort continue the tradition of tourism that the area has enjoyed for 130 years. Before teeing off or hitting the slopes, visitors may still keep their eyes peeled for something sparkly — you never know what you’re going to find in the dirt.
Attendees from all over the world got a glimpse of a piece of North Carolina when a rhodolite stone, rough-cut into the shape of our state, was exhibited at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. The piece of rhodolite — a type of purplish pink garnet — can now be seen at the Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum.
Rhodolite was first discovered in Macon County in the 1880s and described in 1898 by mineralogists William Earl Hidden and Joseph Hyde Pratt. In North America, the mineral is only found in North Carolina. The gem was named for its color, which is similar to rhododendron blooms. Some believe that the mineral has curative properties, soothing emotional trauma and healing maladies of the heart, lungs, and hips. One thing’s for certain: The stunning gemstone is, at least, a sight for sore eyes.
One could be forgiven for staring at the Carolina Emperor. The largest cut emerald found in North America holds a place of honor in the Underground North Carolina gallery at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh: in the center of the room, inside a glass case, elevated on a pedestal that slowly spins so that the stone’s many facets catch the light and sparkle. Perhaps the best part about it, though, is that the 64.83-carat emerald was discovered right here in North Carolina, on a farm in Alexander County.
W. Renn Adams, whose family had been digging for minerals on their land since the 1880s, and Terry Ledford, a gem miner who’d been a rock and gem enthusiast since childhood, found the stone on Adams’s family farm. Emeralds were discovered in North Carolina in Alexander County in 1875, when J.A.D. Stephenson, a self-taught mineralogist, realized that the green rocks that farmers found in their fields were actually gems. Stephenson began paying children a nickel a bucket for the stones.
Until recently, North Carolina was the only state where emeralds had been discovered. While all emeralds are green, there’s no color standard, explains Chris Tacker, a research curator in geology at the museum. “Grown men will get into heated discussions over how green it has to be to actually be an emerald,” he says.
But for the Carolina Emperor, there’s absolutely no question.print it