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You Can Actually Hunt Your Own Gems: Rockhounding In The Us

By Antonia Čirjak February 01 2020


This series of stories is not about building a mining business or getting a commercial success by finding gemstones. It is about rockhounding - a hobby of searching for and finding gems and minerals - as a hobby, adventure, and scientific discovery effort. 

The value of this hobby is in the way it aligns adventure, travel, and learning. There is a thrill in finding incredible natural objects that lie hidden for millions of years deep within the earth until unearthed by our effort. Each one is unique and can teach us a lot about the processes of nature and adjacent sciences (geology, gemmology, mineralogy, chemistry, physics, etc.). Some Rockhounds also travel to pretty interesting locations and spend time hiking or even camping.

What Gemstones Can Be Found In The US?

The United States has a surprising diversity of gemstones; some of them are unique and valued for their specific origin. A few examples are Oregon Sunstones with copper sparkles; Montana is the home for world-famous sapphires; and North Carolina is known for emeralds, rubies, and sapphires found there. 

According to the United States Geological Survey report, the US soil carries notable amounts of gem-quality agate, beryl, coral, diamond, garnet, feldspar, jade, jasper, opal, quartz, ruby, sapphire, shell, pearls, peridot, topaz, tourmaline, turquoise, and other lesser gems. 

Which States Produce Their Gemstones?

The vast majority of the gemstones mined in the US are currently supplied by the thirteen states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, and Utah. Nearly all of them offer opportunities for hobby Rockhounds! Below, we will tell a bit more about the opportunities and options you have if your heart and mind are set on the Rockhounding adventure this season.

Why Is The US Gemstones Production So Low?

Although the US can be proud of the variety of gemstones found in its grounds, the quantity produced is quite small. US imports over $22 billion in gems, yet it produces only around $13 million. It means more than 99.9% of dependence on the imported gemstones supplies.

The US territory is huge, and there is a large number of people strongly interested in gemstones - finding, collecting, or using in the artwork and jewelry. So why is the gemstone production so low? Mainly it is because the commercial viability of opening and operating a mine is quite low. The initial cost of the research and equipment, the cost of labor, and the compliance with the regulations make it impossible to profit from a small deposit - which is the majority of the colored gemstones ones.

Treasure hunting; rockhounding.
Treasure hunting; rockhounding.

Before opening a mine, anyone needs to obtain a permit. The permit must include an enormous amount of information and planning to ensure that the mine would not become an ecological hazard, would not endanger laborers, and would comply with all the laws and regulations. Mining is generally intrusive, and this is not something you want to circumvent.  

In other countries, for better or worse, the business viability of mining operations relies on cheap local labor (and often - careless and insufficient regulations). In the US, labor is comparatively more expensive to provide employees with decent wages. 

There are also significant costs associated with responsibly operating a mine. Equipment and maintenance require substantial investment; more investment is needed to control erosion, groundwater pollution, dust pollution, noise, etc. In most cases, keeping the natural site intact is more valuable than any gemstones that can be unearthed. This means that a typical old-world mine might not be a fitting solution. The US native gemstones exploitation requires a different business model: and it has been found to the benefit of Rockhounds and gemstone hobby enthusiasts. 

Small And Recreational Mines For Rockhounds

Only a few mines in the US operate year-round and have more than a dozen employees. The majority of the mines are very small and employ just one or two workers, often seasonally. Approximately 250 mines are hiring between 1000 and 1500 workers. 

This made rockhounding, amateur rock mining, much more critical for the US gemstones production. And that, in turn, opened up the way for business models that rely on them for benefitting from the natural gemstone deposits. Some public lands are now open for Rockhounds if they comply with specific rules; many mines allow amateurs to mine for themselves, for a small fee. Also, some proven gemstone deposits entirely operate as recreational mines, relying on their visitors to find and pick the stones. 

People go to Arizona to bring home a piece of petrified wood; upstate New York visitors take a chance to find a Herkimer Diamond. There is even an Arkansas location where anyone can try their luck in mining diamonds, for a small fee. These are enjoyable activities, and they help to support the US gemstones industry.

What Is Domestic Gemstones Patronage?

Amateur rock mining
Amateur rock mining.

Some people, especially collectors and tourists, are willing to pay higher prices purely for the locality where the gemstone is found: often far higher than the price of a stone of similar quality and size from another source. This added price comes from charitable or emotional considerations and is considered patronage. This patronage strongly supports a small local lapidary industry, local and native crafts, and the cost of the stones like Montana Saphire or Oregon Sunstone. 

Do I Need A License To Do My Rockhounding?

In most designated areas, no, as they cover you under their license. In some others, or as a commercial activity - yes. You definitely need to research rules and regulations for every specific locality you plan to conduct your Rockhounding activity in!

Will I Get Rich By Rockhounding?

Most likely, no. But you are guaranteed to get entertained, better traveled, and learn a lot of new fascinating things about the world! And, of course, fill your collection with the rocks and stones you found and identified yourself and your journal - with the stories of adventures related to those finds.

There is a recent, considerably entertaining story of “Yooperlite,” a glowing stone a local found on the Michigan beach and turned into a small business thanks to smart internet marketing (that went viral). This is undoubtedly a short-lived enterprise and an example of a good business sense rather than a repeatable model.

Is Rockhounding An Expensive Hobby?

Travelling might be, you also need suitable protective clothing. The rest depends on the scope and depth of your interest if you wish to purchase books, mining and identification equipment, insurance, etc. Some Rockhounds like to supplement their collection with the stones purchased during various events, which, as you can imagine, can be as cheap or expensive as you allow it to be.

Can Rockhounding Be Dangerous?

Any hobby or sport have their dangers. Take things slowly and do not go on wild rockhounding adventures before you gain experience with recreational mines! 

Some minerals are toxic, or radioactive, and it is a valid concern for the mining and stone industry laborers. However, in hobby rockhounding, relative to the accidents related to the collecting hazards, like falling rocks, falls, broken toes, broken bones, vehicle accidents, etc., those are relatively preventable. 

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