Thrill of the dig: Gem mining alive and well in Macon County
Susan Boyette and her mother Martha Drew drove down from Tennessee early Friday morning to Rose Creek Mine outside of Franklin in search of rare treasures.
They spent hours digging through 12 buckets of native dirt and sifting through unknown rocks not knowing what they might unearth.
“For me it’s the thrill of the hunt,” Boyette said about why she enjoys gem mining. “Knowing that God made this little jewel and I’m the first person on earth to touch it — to me, that is simply amazing.”
The gem-mining trip was the first for Drew, who was celebrating her 76th birthday and an early Mother’s Day trip with her daughter.
“We’ve been planning this trip because I wanted to find a ruby,” she said.
As luck would have it, Drew got her birthday wish. When she took her pan of muddy rocks up to Rock Creek Mine owner Tom Sterrett for sorting, she discovered the big red rock she found was actually a ruby — a 110-carat ruby to be exact.
Boyette wasn’t at all surprised at her mother’s discovery. She also has had good luck at Rose Creek in the past. While finding garnets and sapphires at Rose Creek is more common, Boyette once found a rare emerald during a mining trip.
“We’ve had really good luck here,” she said.
Troy and Amanda Morton of Pensacola have also had good luck at Rose Creek. Troy found a 380-carat sapphire about five years ago. He also found an emerald, which he got cut, polished and set in a piece of jewelry to give Amanda for her birthday. Visiting Franklin and gem mining also has some sentimental attachment for the couple since Troy proposed to Amanda at Rose Creek Mine three years ago.
SEE ALSO: Franklin museum a real ‘gem’
“It’s been a tradition coming up here every year with her family so it’s been an important place to us as a couple,” Troy said.
And it seemed fitting that her engagement ring was made of sapphire similar to some of the gems they’ve found over the years. Since he has such good luck finding gems, Amanda said she didn’t even pay attention when he pulled the ring out from the bucket of dirt.
“He told me he had found a big rock, but he always finds gems when we’re here so I just ignored him,” Amanda said. “But this time he pulled out a large sapphire ring.”
Living up to the name
Known as the “Gem Capital of the World,” Franklin lives up to the title with 10 active gem mines throughout the county, plus numerous gem cutters and jewelry makers to support the industry.
Downtown Franklin is also home to the Gem and Mineral Museum. Located in the former jail on Phillips Street, the museum has been operated by the Franklin Gem and Mineral Society since 1974 and offers a huge inventory of rocks, gems, minerals and fossils.
Franklin also boasts a number of shows and festivals focused on the popularity and history of gem mining in the area, including the Mother’s Day Gemboree that draws thousands of people and the growing New Year’s Eve Ruby Drop. The season really heats up in the summer months when rock hounds from all over the world come to Franklin to gem mine, visit the museum or attend a gem and mineral show.
So what makes Franklin the Gem Mine Capital of the World? Kurt Rhoades, owner of Gold City on U.S. 441, said it’s the vast amount and variety of gems found in the region that gives Franklin the well-deserved title.
“We don’t have the biggest or even the most valuable, but we have the most quantity and variety,” he said.
Al Pribble, a member of the Franklin Gem and Mineral Society, said the region has a deep history in ruby and sapphire mining that dates back to 1870. Commercial companies came in droves to mine for corundum — a rock-forming mineral known for its gem varieties of ruby and sapphire.
Since corundum is the hardest mineral after diamond, Pribble said it was commonly mined and crushed down with other materials to make sandpaper and grindstone before the turn of the century. However, the need for corundum dropped when companies started to use silicon carbide for abrasives instead.
Mica and kaolin were also frequently mined in Western North Carolina and used as a filler component when making everything from plastic to rubber. Pribble said Franklin was once home to a Revlon factory that used mica to add a shiny pigment to its makeup products.
Corundum and other minerals were hauled to the railroad by horse and wagon and shipped out of Macon County in large quantities. While mining for those minerals, they also found quite a variety of gems, which turned the heads of big jewelers up North, including Tiffany and Co. and DeBeers.
American Prospecting & Mining Co. and U.S. Ruby Mining Co. began work in the area looking for the source of the rubies found in the corundum mines. According to historical accounts, both companies ended the search in the early part of the 20th century, leaving the area open to rock hounds and gem enthusiasts. The source still hasn’t been found — not yet, anyway.
Pribble said the area is so rich in gems and minerals because of the Appalachian Mountains. Most gemstones form within the earth’s crust — the top layer of earth that can reach down up to 25 miles. The movement of tectonic plates puts heat and pressure on igneous and sedimentary rocks and minerals and can change their chemistry and turn them into a crystalized structure.
Franklin is near the Eastern Continental Divide that runs along the high ridges and peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. When landmasses collided and pushed upward to form the Appalachians, all that sediment and minerals mixed together under the earth’s surface to create the vast array of gemstones found today.
“The geology of this area is like a mix master — the layers of earth have been turned over and lifted up so much,” Pribble said. “And the mountains here are much older than the ones out West — that’s the one thing that draws rock hounds here from all over.”
Many of the large commercial companies abandoned their mines in Macon County, leaving them available for smaller mom and pop businesses to take them over. While there were once more than 40 active mines in the area, only a fraction of them remain.
Tom Sterrett, owner of Rose Creek Mine and current president of the Gem and Mineral Society, said he had been coming to Franklin from Atlanta since the ‘70s and finally decided to buy the Rose Creek Mine property about 14 years ago.
“I loved to come up here for the rock hounding and I just got the bug,” he said. “I started collecting rocks in the ‘60s when I was a kid. I’d always leave them in my pockets for my mom to find while doing laundry — still have them in my pockets — and messed up quite a few washers.”
He’s found that people young and old still have an interest in rocks and minerals just like he did as a child and the “good clean dirty fun” found at Rose Creek Mine is something the entire family can enjoy together during their visit.
“It’s the thrill of discovery and even if you don’t find anything, a day of mining is still a good day,” he said. “And there does seem to be a resurgence in gem mining because of more focus on science and geology in the classroom.”
Rose Creek Mine used to be a commercial garnet mine before it was privately owned. In the last 30 years, three-fourths of an acre on the property has been mined and 6 acres still remain available for digging. Visitors to the mine get to go fill their own buckets from the pills of dirt that have been excavated from the mining tunnel.
In addition to large garnets found at Rose Creek, the most impressive find has been a pigeon blood ruby, which is the most rare ruby hue in the world. Someone else found a 2,300-carat pink sapphire at the mine.
For those who don’t like the gamble of not finding anything, Rose Creek also offers buckets of dirt that have been “enriched” with gems.
Gold City Gem Mine and Gift Shop is one of the most visible gem mines in Franklin as it’s positioned on the side of U.S. 441 coming over Cowee Mountain. Rhoades has owned the 40-acre property for 25 years, but it’s been open to the public since the 1960s. It once operated as an old western amusement park with a chairlift to take people to the top of the mountain. Rhoades said he kept the chairlift running for eight years after he purchased the property until it was no longer financially feasible because of liability insurance and maintenance.
However, the idea of making his gem-mining business a diverse tourism draw is something he’s tried to hold onto. Gold City offers native and enriched buckets for its visitors to pan through but it also offers a large gift shop with gemstone jewelry from all over the world. Some mines refer their visitors to other jewelers for cutting, polishing and setting, but Rhoades has his own equipment at Gold City so customers can leave there with a gemstone they found already polished and mounted in a piece of gold or sterling jewelry.
Rhoades said he’s still waiting on a better economy before deciding what phase two of his business will look like. With 40 mountaintop acres with roadside frontage, he said there are several options for development.
“The gold and gem mining business is based on retail sale, so right now we’re hoping for more spending by consumers to make that happen,” he said.
Rhoades said the large investment needed to operate a gem mine is why there are only a handful of them left in Macon County. But having less mines means the remaining mine owners get a larger slice of the pie. The number of gems in the area is thought to be finite, but the abundance of gems found locally doesn’t seem to be waning anytime soon.
“They keep saying we’re gonna run out of gems at some point, but we never do,” Rhoades said.
Gem mines in Macon County
• Rose Creek Mine
• Rocky Face Mine
• Mason Mountain Mine
• Mason’s Ruby & Sapphire Mine
• Gold City Mine
• Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine
• Old Cardinal Gem Mine
• Cowee Mountain Ruby Mine
• Jackson Hole Gem Mine
Upcoming gem and mineral shows in Macon
• May 11-14 — Echo Valley Gem & Mineral Show, 6456 Sylva Rd., Franklin.
• May 11-14 — Highlands Road Gem Show, 1602 Highlands Road, Franklin. One of the area’s longest-running and most popular retail gem shows. Admission is free. Dealers come from across the United States and feature a wide range of products.
• May 12-14 — Mother’s Day Gemboree hosted by the Franklin Gem and Mineral Society is cancelled for 2017 because of renovations being made at the community center venue.
Things to know about gem mining
What do I bring?
• A plastic bag or a plastic butter dish to take your stones home. Don’t use glass.
• Rubber gloves.
• Sunblock and a hat
• Wear old clothes and tennis shoes or boots.
• A picnic lunch
• A camera
How do I mine for gems?
Most mines sell gem dirt in a bucket or bag — only a few allow digging — and you may have to pay an admission fee for the day. You are provided with a screen for washing and there is a flume — a trough of running water — with a bench along it’s length. The dirt goes in the screen, the screen goes in the water and the mud is washed away. Mine operators are on hand to help with technique and identification.
What am I looking for?
The three C’s of gem mining are color, clarity and crystals. Gemstones come in every color from white to black. Garnets are glassy red, pink or reddish brown. Rubies are silky red, sapphires are every other color, and both have a crystal formation with six sides. Moonstones are pearly white to gray and peach to chocolate brown with a flat box-like shape. Quartz comes in many forms, sometimes clear colors like amethyst and citrine, sometimes opaque colors with mica flecks like aventurine and clear with sides — quartz crystals.