Jaime Hill, 46, digs his pickax into a 2-foot-deep cavity in the bedrock at North American Emerald Mines in Hiddenite, N.C., and extracts a quartz crystal the size of his fist.
"Boy, I sure wish that was green," says Hill, of Concord, N.C., who since 1998 has unearthed nearly 18,000 carats of emeralds, including some of the largest and most valuable green gemstones in the world, now displayed in museums, jewelry stores and private collections across the globe.
Hunting for precious stones is Hill's lifelong passion. He found his first quartz crystal in his grandmother's garden when he was 6 years old, and two years later discovered his first emerald in a plowed cornfield near Hiddenite.
But extracting his record-setting jewels from solid bedrock wasn't child's play. After dropping out of college, Hill borrowed $300,000, purchased a used digging machine and devoted a decade searching local farm fields for the elusive emeralds, which first were discovered in North Carolina two centuries ago.
In 1998, as Hill was on the brink of bankruptcy, his intuition and perseverance paid off. He uncovered three quartz veins containing 3,300 carats of emeralds on 94 acres of land purchased by his family three years earlier. His discovery sparked a media frenzy and forever changed the life of the starry-eyed treasure hunter.
One of Hill's precious discoveries was cut into the Carolina Prince, a 7.85-carat oval-cut emerald, and the Carolina Queen, an 18.8-carat pear-shaped jewel. The Carolina Prince was sold at public auction in 1999 for more than $500,000, the highest price ever paid for a cut emerald from North America, and the Carolina Queen was purchased by a Statesville, N.C., jeweler for an undisclosed sum.
In 2003, Hill discovered a 1,869-carat emerald crystal, considered the largest, high-quality uncut emerald in the world, and in 2006, he unearthed a 591-carat, 10-inch-long emerald crystal, considered the longest gemstone of its kind in the world.
Colleagues say Hill has been successful because of his dogged determination. "Those times when he's not finding emeralds, even in his darkest hours, he continues to search," says Ed Speer, 62, a geologist in Marion, N.C. "That perseverance comes from an inner strength that the average person doesn't have."
Today, Hill is CEO of North American Emerald Mines, which employs 12 workers who help him blast and remove the bedrock, extract the valuable green emeralds, and crush and sell gravel from the quarry for road and construction projects.
"That's green acres down there," quips Hill, motioning to the six-acre mine pit that has yielded millions of dollars in emeralds. "It's the place to be. Emerald mining is the life for me."
While he's quick to crack a joke about his good fortune, Hill remains intrigued by the rare, green-colored gemstones formed millions of years ago by extreme heat and intense pressure in the bowels of the earth. And he continues to live his dream and anticipate his next discovery of a record-size emerald.
"I wouldn't change my job for anything in the world," he says. "I get to operate heavy equipment and hunt for buried treasure. What more could you want?"