Mining the Gem Capital of the World

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on April 27, 2011
Stuart Englert Rebecca Scheidt and her husband, Dan O'Brien, scour creek gravel at Cherokee Ruby and Sapphire Mine in search of deep red rubies, which can be found in the Gem Capital of the World.

Rebecca Scheidt, 30, dumps a bucketful of creek gravel into a screened tray at the Cherokee Ruby and Sapphire Mine in Franklin, N.C. (pop. 3,490), and dips the loaded tray into a stream of water flowing through a wooden chute.

Using her hand, the Auburn, Ala., woman gently washes the dirt-covered rocks, eyeballing each one for colorful hues, hexagonal shapes and smooth surfaces that reflect the sunlight.

“Sometimes they jump out at you, and sometimes they don’t,” says Scheidt’s husband, Dan O’Brien, 58, washing his own tray of gravel.

“Here’s a sapphire,” exclaims Scheidt, plucking a small stone from among the pebbles. “See the bluish tint and the classic shape?”

People have been plucking gemstones from the streams and hillsides in and around Franklin since the Appalachian Mountain community was the site of Nikwasi, a Cherokee Indian village. In 1870, colorful stones discovered on the Hiram Crisp farm southeast of town sparked a search for the source of the gems and led to commercial mining of rubies, sapphires and garnets for jewelry and industrial abrasives.

“That’s why we call it the Gem Capital of the World,” says Fred Plesner, 71, a spokesman for the 120-member Franklin Gem and Mineral Society. “It’s not because we have more gems, but because we have a greater variety.”

Tucked amid the mountains of western North Carolina, Franklin is home to six recreational mines, seven rock shops and jewelry stores, three annual gem shows, and the Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum.

Housed in the 1850 Macon County Jail, the museum exhibits thousands of animal and plant fossils, American Indian artifacts, and geological specimens from around the world, including a 2.25-pound ruby unearthed at the nearby Corundum Hill Mine, which produced tons of gem-quality and industrial-grade stones through World War I.

While commercial mining ceased in Mason County in the 1930s, Franklin remains a mecca for rock hounds and gem enthusiasts, drawn by its recreational mines, rock shops and gem shows, which feature dozens of vendors selling fine jewelry, minerals, and rough and cut gemstones each May, July and October.

From spring through fall, treasure hunters pay daily or per-bucket fees to scour for gemstones—amethyst, garnet, quartz, moonstone, ruby and sapphire—among the native and “enriched” bucketfuls of dirt, sand and gravel offered by recreational mines on the outskirts of town.

“It takes a good half hour to get through a bucket if you’re doing it correctly,” says Tom Sterrett, 53, owner of the 13-acre Rose Creek Mine, who calls gem mining “good, clean, dirty fun.”

Sharp-eyed miners take their sparkling treasures home as souvenirs or pay local jewelers to cut, facet, polish and mount their precious finds into bracelets, necklaces, pendants and rings.

“I’m going to take this one to show and tell (at school),” says Caitlyn Jacobsen, 8, of Asheville, N.C., pointing to a cluster of amethyst crystals she found at the Sheffield Mine north of Franklin.

Meanwhile, in the Macon County Community Facilities Building across town, Della Samuel, 91, facets a large amethyst crystal that she discovered while traipsing through the Appalachian foothills.

“This is a slow process,” says Samuel, during a stone-cutting demonstration last October at the 21st annual Leaf Lookers Gemboree. “One of the things I’ve learned cutting stones is patience.”

Patience: a worthwhile virtue for any treasure-hunting rock hound who ventures to the self-proclaimed Gem Capital of the World.