By Deborah Yonick, contributing editor
Colored gemstones like sapphire, opal, and peridot are as American as baseball and apple pie. In fact, at least 60 different gemstone types have been/and are currently found in the United States; 80% of which come from about a dozen states mainly in the West—with the most important gems also including agate, coral, feldspar, garnet, jasper, pearl, quartz, shell, tourmaline, and turquoise.
While exotic, remote places in Africa, India, Australia and Brazil may come to mind when thinking of these gems, they're actually found in our own backyard. Historically, gemstones have been produced in what is now the United States for thousands of years. Native Americans produced turquoise, flint, amber, shells, obsidian and other materials for use in jewelry, beads, carvings and tools.
"The U.S. is highly mineralized," described Bill Heher of Rare Earth Mining Co., Trumbull, Connecticut, and member of the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA). " American gem offerings have expanded with production of gems like agate, sunstone, chrysocolla, tourmaline, hematite, lapis, opal, red beryl, jade, azurite, and opalized fluorite, even "Herkimer" diamonds from New York and coral from the southern states. A friend recently told me about a new jade from Alaska. The list is huge and growing, [albeit] not as exponential as the earlier days."
In his 30+ years in business, Heher said the American gem market has matured, solidly competing against at least 100 other nations who export rough and cut gemstones, as well as finished gem jewelry. However, gem mining is conducted, predominantly on a small scale, either as a byproduct of big ore mining, or small operations. He expects that to remain the same, until a well-funded producer comes on the scene, able to meet the high costs of mining in the U.S. today.
Heher said many gem savvy wholesalers have amassed large collections over the years and they bring material out as market demand dictates. A t the AGTA GemFair™ at the JCK Las Vegas Show in June, he sold out of 20-year-old stock he had of golden quartz from the original Sixteen to One Mine in California.
A look at what the leading gem-producing states are bringing to market provides an overview of what's available in American gemstones.
Arizona is top producer of gem quality turquoise and peridot. Turquoise, the official state gem, is produced as a by-product of copper mining in various locations throughout the state, and some production is a result of continuous mining efforts. Labor intensive, material must be hand-extracted. Colors and matrix patterns vary by deposit-Bisbee turquoise is deep blue with chocolate brown matrix; Kingman is bright blue with black matrix; and Sleeping Beauty, from the largest producing turquoise mine in North America, is a dark blue with no matrix.
Mined on Apache reservations, peridot is mostly from the San Carlos Mesa and Buell Park areas of the state. Mesa mining is open-face, with explosives and earth-moving equipment brought in only when needed. Peridot occurs primarily in basalt, or lava rock, and can be found in several locations. San Carlos is called the most highly concentrated deposit of gem-quality peridot in the world.
Amethyst is found in several locations in Arizona, but some of the highest quality material in the world comes from high atop Four Peaks in the Tonto National Forest. Access is by helicopter or harrowing trails. Deposits occur in quartzite faults so blasting is impossible; hand extraction is the only method used . In the last century, the mine has changed hands many times, with its current owner biologist Kurt Cavano running things since 1997. An AGTA member, Commercial Mineral Company (CMC), handles its cutting and marketing. It's believed the mine has decades of amethyst left. Colors range from pink and lilac to violet and rich purple with red glints-comparable to fine Siberian. CMC's Mike Romanella said production is minimal, but is hopeful it will resume later this year. Fortunately, CMC bought substantial rough mined in the 70s, cutting a nice selection of gemstones from 5-25 carats.
Arizona also produces agate and jasper, and gem quality garnets can be found scattered throughout the northeastern part of the state, in what is called the Four Corners, where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet. The garnets, which are petite pea-size, smooth and round are collected by the Navajo and sold in bulk to the gem trade. Often they're referred to as "Anthill" garnets because tiny crystals are thrown out on the surface of the ground as ants excavate their nests. Ninety percent of the material is the deep ruby red color of pyrope garnet with its brightest colors in sizes under 2 carats.
Recently, new opal material was found in Arizona's Santa Rita Mountains. Heher debuted it at the AGTA GemFair™ at JCK Las Vegas in June. The claim, which extends into Mexico, has been mined on a small level, by hand for 20 years, and likely holds at least another 20 years of material. "Jasper and other gems are found with it, so gemstones display a candy stripe effect in a variety of shades including blue, which carries small flashes of full color fire." Found in geodes, about 5% of the material yields picture jasper landscapes.
California is best known for tourmaline and turquoise. Pala, a small, mostly Native American community in San Diego County, has been producing tourmaline since the late 1890s, yielding more gems than any other deposit in the northern hemisphere, with pink the regional specialty. It also is the area where morganite was discovered, as well as the first significant site of kunzite.
The production of turquoise in the state can be traced back to pre-Colombian Native Americans in what is now San Bernardino County. It has also been produced in Imperial and Inyo Counties. While many of these deposits are no longer active, several maintain limited production, mainly done by hand.
Unique to California is a rare bright blue barium titanium silicate, benitoite. While the mineral occurs in other places, only California produces gem quality gemstones. Discovered in San Benito County in 1907, benitoite is the state’s official gem.
Montana is sapphire country. Yogo Gulch is the most famous, producing a variety of colors including blue, blue-green, green, pink, purple, yellow and orange. The gravel bars along the Missouri River north of Helena produce sapphires and gold, as well as a small deposit at Dry Cottonwood Creek near Deer Lodge. But the quiet giant of all the deposits is Gem Mountain. Mining there started in 1892, with large-scale commercial operations selling production of small, round sapphire rough to the Swiss watch industry for bearings until the late 1920s when synthetic sapphire was invented; Gem Mountain is currently a dig-for-fee operation. State gems are sapphire and Montana agate.
Idaho produces almost every important mineral except oil, gas, and coal—establishing the territory in 1863 with the discovery of gold. In gems, Idaho is known as the Gem State producing an array of gemstones including agate, jasper, quartz, almandite garnet, jade, topaz, zircon, tourmaline and opal—some in yellow or blue facet grade and fire opal varieties. The Coeur d'Alene area is known as one of the world's richest mineral areas. The star garnet—in dark purple or plum colors, with four rays in the star, sometimes six as in sapphire — is also found here.
Maine boasts many pegmatite quarries that have long been important as commercial sources of industrial minerals, gem stock, and specimens interesting to collectors. Yet none is more famous than Mount Mica in Paris, America's first gem pegmatite. Gem-quality tourmaline was discovered there in 1820 and has been found sporadically ever since. Tourmaline is the state gem. The best Maine tourmalines rival those from renowned locations like California, Brazil and the Himalayas. Crystals from the state range from microscopic to over a foot long.
Nevada is a major producer of turquoise, next to Arizona, with more than 120 mines, yielding significant quantities. Unlike elsewhere in the U.S., most Nevada mines have been worked primarily for their gem turquoise and very little has been recovered as a byproduct of other mining operations. Nevada turquoise is found in nuggets. Because of the geology of the state’s deposits, a majority of material is hard and dense, and comes in a bevy of colors and matrix patterns, enhancement not required. While nearly every county in the state has yielded turquoise, the main sources are in Lander and Esmeralda counties. Nevada also is known for its intense black fire opal, the state gem, from the Virgin Valley.
Oregon is internationally known for producing some of the best gem-quality feldspar in the world. One of the most popular gems of the state, and the state gemstone, is red labradorite, also known as sunstone. Sunstone occurs in a variety of colors including yellow, pink, red, salmon, green and blue-green, and contains microscopic copper platelets that yield a golden-red play of color. Production is labor intensive, screened by hand from soils that have formed above the basalts. The state is also known for producing a variety of agates, jaspers and obsidians.
Tennessee has a global reputation for its lustrous, organically shaped river pearls, and shell sold as seed material to the cultured pearl industry, thanks to the industry’s two leading pioneers, the late John Latendresse and James Peach.
Latendresse, after starting the Tennessee Shell Company in Camden in 1954, founded the American Pearl Co. in 1961, bringing pearl cultivation to the Tennessee River. After spending over $5 million and 20 years developing new techniques for domestic mollusks, the first marketable pearls were harvested in 1983, but it was not until 1985 that the company succeeded in cultivating on a large scale. The shell company was sold in 1991, and two years ago, his daughter and company president, Gina Latendresse sold the farm to a promoter of cultured pearl tours. "They harvest pearls on the farm, but in limited production. Our supply of pearls is substantial, and built over the years."
Also recognized for his contributions to America pearl cultivation and shell production is James Peach, United Pearl Co., Camden. He said the "shell rush" initially centered in the Tennessee River Valley, but spread throughout the Mississippi River systems. He described 1960 to 1990 as the greatest production period for natural American pearls. He does not see those levels achieved again, in part, because of the dramatic decline of Japanese akoya production, a major user of shell bead, and increased production of Chinese freshwaters that do not use beads. "Because demand for American shell is gone, it has impacted secondary production of American pearls. But this will just enhance their value."
Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, Washington, sees this translating in growing sales for his latest Gem America collection, featuring 19 gems that adhere to its fair and transparent mine-to-market protocols.
Besides various agate, jasper and quartz, the line includes such unique gems as bertrandite (lavender to purple opalized fluorite from Utah), rhodonite (rose to red silicate mineral from Colorado), and variscite (green to light blue mineral from the phosphate group that looks similar to turquoise and is found in Utah.)
Today excitement over American gems is on an upswing as the "Buy American" mantra continues to pick up speed. A July 2010 Adweek Media/Harris Poll indicates that three in five Americans (61 percent) say they’re more likely to purchase something identified as "Made in America."