By Danielle Olivia Tefft
Some of your favorite gemstone beads may come from California. For those of us who don’t live within its sun-drenched borders, the mention of California conjures up several mental images. These include the famous Hollywood sign and glimpses of red carpet movie stars, the Golden Gate Bridge and Disneyland. Then there are the mighty Sequoia trees, infamous LA traffic jams and perhaps the great California Gold Rush of 1849. But did you know California also has a bounty of precious gemstone deposits?
Gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This event sparked the great gold rush that officially put California on the map of the United States of America. But discovery of gemstones also drew many fortune seekers to the state during the 1800s and 1900s. Of course, these “discoveries” by prospectors and the gemstone industry weren’t the official firsts. Native Americans inhabited the lands in which California gemstones have been found for centuries prior to Columbus landing in America. Many of these gemstones have a cherished role in their culture, as well. That fact has not stopped modern discovery claims on gem-rich land tracts by prospectors and mining companies.
Native California gemstones include benitoite (the official state gemstone), morganite, kunzite, tourmaline, topaz, hessonite and spessartite garnet, agate, green fluorite, pink apatite, quartz crystal and turquoise. Several of these gemstones have unique stories of their own that coincide with their modern discoveries. These tales are briefly recounted below:
In 1907, farmer George Louderback stumbled onto a mesmerizing outcrop of rock on his land near the banks of San Benito River. It was riddled with sparkling blue crystals which he assumed were blue diamonds. He quickly worked to secure a mineral rights patent for them. Subsequent scientific study revealed the alluring cobalt blue crystal to be a member of the barium titanium silicate mineral family. It was also found that under Ultra Violet light, this captivating gemstone emits a bright blue fluorescence.
The newly discovered gem was named “benitoite” after the river and county of its initial discovery. (The area was also part of San Benito County at the time, although it is now part of modern day Fresno County). As it happens, gemstone quality benitoite is extremely rare. In recognition of benitoite’s rarity, it was named California’s state gemstone in 1985. The California location where it is found is still privately owned and is now known as the Benitoite Gem Mine. It is one of the only places in the world to date where the alluring blue gemstone has been found.
As far as the gem industry is concerned, tourmaline was officially discovered in the hills outside of San Diego in the late 1870s. Of course, like so many other indigenous gemstones, the Native Americans in the region had admired the lovely pink or reddish-pink gemstone for centuries prior to this date.
China’s Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi who reigned from 1860 to 1908 was the San Diego tourmaline industry’s best customer. This quirky empress was known for two things. She ruled her subjects with an iron hand and surrounded herself with pink tourmaline extravagance at every turn. She commissioned everything from jewelry to ornamental furnishings in the gorgeous pink stone. Even several years after Tzu Hsi’s reign, high ranking Chinese officials continued to prize California’s pink tourmaline. Several tons of this coveted gemstone came from the Himalaya Mine in San Diego County between 1898 and 1914. It became the world’s largest tourmaline producing mine during those years.
Turquoise was sacred to the Native Americans of California long before European settlers stumbled upon the sky-colored stone in the craggy rock outcrops of San Bernardino County. Many tools and other evidence of pre-Columbian mining operations have been uncovered there. Turquoise veins have also been found in Inyo and Imperial counties. The Apache Canyon Mine in Barstow is currently the state’s only commercial turquoise mining venture. It is privately owned.
Kunzite is a lovely pastel pink variety of spodumene. It was discovered by the gem industry in 1902 near
. It was named after Tiffany & Company legend George Kunz, of course. He was the most respected gemologist and renowned gem buyer in the world at the time. However, this designation created quite a controversy among those in the gem industry at the time. In protest, the owners of the mine marketed kunzite in Europe as “California Iris.” They thought this name was more appropriate. Others who claimed to be first to discover the stone also claimed rights to name it, but Kunz’s influence and power eventually won him the right to retain the name “kunzite.”
Morganite is a pink variety of beryl. It was discovered in
in the early 1900s. George Kunz named this pink beryl “morganite” after the vastly wealthy (railroad) tycoon, J.P. Morgan. It was a deliberate attempt to flatter one of his wealthiest benefactors. Morgan routinely contributed to Tiffany & Company’s gem explorations and the Natural History Museum’s gem and mineral department. He funded many of Kunz’ worldwide forays in search of gems and minerals for Tiffany & Company.
Currently, there are four famous mines in California that are open in part for a fee to public treasure hunters:
1. Benitoite Gem Mine near Coalinga (Fresno County):
Since its 1907 discovery by the gem industry, the mine has changed hands a number of times, but is still privately owned. The public can pan for benitoite in a designated area of the mine. You can also view your findings in a UV dark room, courtesy of the mine. The cost is $70 per person (for kids under 12, the cost is $20). Reservations are required. Website: calstategemmine.com
2.Himalaya Mine in San Diego County:
This mine is located at the Lake Henshaw Resort. It offers year round, Thursday through Sunday digs from several dump truck-size rock piles. No reservations are necessary. Gemstones you might find are tourmaline, quartz crystals, lepidolite, topaz and morganite. The cost is $75 per person (for kids 12 and under, it is free). Reservations are required. Website: highdesertgemsandminerals.com
3. Oceanview Mine in Pala (San Diego County):
This mine offers daily supervised digs from a designated rock pile. You can find tourmaline, kunzite, morganite and other precious gemstones. The cost is $60 per person (for kids 11 and under, the cost is $50). Reservations are required. Website: digforgems.com
4. Stewart Mine in Pala (San Diego County):
On most weekends, you can sift through buckets of dirt for tourmaline and lepidolite from the Stewart Mine at the Gems of Pala store. Each bucket costs $20. Reservations are required. Website: gemsofpala.com
If you decide to go gem hunting, be sure to bring screening pans, tools to chisel with, safety glasses, gloves, buckets, jackets, sweatshirts and hats. It’s smart to dress in layers and have a change of clothing with you. (You just might get covered from head to toe in dirt and mud.) Also, don’t forget to wear sunscreen and bring ample food and water. Prospecting is hard work but it can be fun and rewarding, too. However, if you’d rather not seek the raw materials for your gemstone beaded treasures from scratch, many of these lovely gemstones are available in pre-faceted and polished beads.