All You Want to Know About Gem Hunting

Gemstone Spinel
SI Neg. 77-14895. Date: 1977. Spinel is found in a broad range of attractive colors. Spinel is often confused with rubies. From the Gem and Mineral collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Credit: Dane A. Penland (Smithsonian Institution). Public. Resource.Org is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We all have played treasure hunts throughout our childhood and there are no two views about the fact that we all loved those exciting, adventurous and rewarding games.

How about playing a treasure hunt to find real gems? Sounds great, right?

Put simply, gem hunting is a treasure hunt, but one that is performed at an advanced level, utilizing modern tools and professional techniques.

Most everyone loves to look at these shiny, sparkling jewels. But, unfortunately, hunting for minerals isn’t as easy a sport as our childhood treasure hunts were.  

As someone rightly said, it is like playing the geological lottery. If luck is on your side, you may find some precious gems without hunting for days, but if luck isn’t kind to you, you may hunt for days on end. Even if you use the most advanced tools and machinery, you might only end up getting your hands on a few semi-precious gemstones.

So before we get into discussing the details of gem hunting, let us take a look at some basic information regarding these beautiful and colorful minerals of nature.

How Do We Define a Gemstone?

Rose Quartz Healing Gemstone
Rose Quartz Healing Gemstone

Despite the fact that human beings have been hunting and pursuing gems for thousands of years, we still lack a proper definition of them.

Coming up with an appropriate label has been challenging, not only for laymen but also for lexicographers (linguistic experts who compile the dictionaries).

For the sake of understanding, a gemstone, alternatively known as a gem, mineral or jewel, can be defined as a piece of rock or any other organic material that is generally formed inside the earth. After cutting and polishing, they are used for adornment, architectural or decorative purposes, due to their beauty and preciousness.

Do you know that the study of gems, called Gemology, was classified as a science during the 1930s?

What Decides the Value of a Gemstone?

The emerald gemstone jewelry cut with dark stone background.
Emerald gemstone cut. Photo: iStock

Multiple factors contribute to determining the value of a particular gemstone. These include:

    • It’s a natural occurrence inside the earth. This is why rare gemstones are expensive.
    • Beauty
    • The four C’s i.e. color, carat, cut and clarity
    • Supply and demand 

While the above-mentioned factors determine the value of these entities, there is no universal measurement or classification system in place for any gemstone except the diamond.

Due to the absence of a uniform classification system, numerous gems are not considered as precious as diamonds despite the fact that they are much rarer than diamonds. Following are some of the highly rare gems:

    • Red beryl
    • Alexandrite
    • Musgravite
    • Painite
    • Poudretteite
    • Jeremejevite
    • Benitoite
    • Grandidierite
    • Tanzanite

Synthetic Gemstones – A Cheaper Alternative

Thanks to the advancements in technology, we now have synthetic gemstones. These are made in a laboratory but mostly contain the same chemical properties as the natural ones. In fact, if you put one synthetic and one natural gemstone next to each other, they will be hard to tell apart.

They make a good option for those who are only concerned about appearance and not the veracity of the mineral. In fact, synthetic gems sometimes may have fewer blemishes than real ones. Not to mention they are much cheaper.

Where to Look for Gems?

Ever gone bird watching?

Sorting and picking of valuable stones from the excavations debris of swat emerald mine in swat valley, Pakistan.
Photo: iStock

If yes, then you know that you have to travel to a certain spot of a particular destination to view a specific species of bird. To find out the right destination for bird watching, one has to find out the species’ habitat, migration patterns, food choices, etc.

Knowing these things will help you figure out the location where a particular species of bird is likely to be found. You cannot simply wander around the forest in the hope of finding the species you are looking for; it would be nothing more than wasting time.

Experts say that gem hunting is much like bird watching. You cannot hope to find gemstones in the soil or under the rocks outside your home (well, you might if you live in an area where gemstones are naturally found).

However, the practical approach to getting your hands on a particular type of mineral or gem is to first research the areas where the gems are naturally found and then use the right technique to access the deposits.

For example, since diamonds are formed as a result of extreme pressure, they are either found deep inside the earth, in areas where various geological processes have pushed the mantle rocks from the depths of the earth to the surface or alongside the rivers that flow from such areas.

Similarly, if you are looking for malachite, you have to look for it near copper and limestone deposits.

The occurrence of gemstones may also vary across countries, depending upon their geological processes, volcanoes, storms and earthquakes, as they cause shifts in the tectonic plates and bring the buried bedrock to the surface of the earth.

Crater of Diamond State is a park in Arkansas City where visitors are allowed to dig and hunt for diamonds upon paying a fee. The park was once a diamond mine.  So, when are you visiting the park?

Methods for Gemstones Mining

From basic to advanced, there are various methods for gemstone mining. They include:

    • Underground Mining

When gem hunting is done within the pipe and alluvial deposits, it is called underground mining. The methods used for underground mining are:

    • Block caving
    • Tunneling
    • Chambering
    • Open Cast Mining

Open-cast mining uses different techniques to remove the upper layer of rocks to reach the bedrock buried deep inside the earth that contains gems. Any of the following methods are used to excavate gems from the deepest layers of the earth:

    • Terrace Mining
    • Pit Mining

Open-cast mining methods are widely used in various parts of the world including the United States, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Myanmar etc.

    • Sea Mining

Sea mining, marine or undersea mining, as they are alternatively called, is used in areas where marine deposits are present.

    • River Digging

As evident from the name, river digging is performed in and around rivers and lakes to excavate the gems that have been buried in the river soil and rocks naturally, by the water current or geological processes over time. It can further be classified into two types:

    • Wet Digging
    • Dry Digging

Gem Hunting Tools

Hammer used for gem hunting
Image by arodsje from Pixabay

As with any other specialized task, you cannot expect to have a successful gem-hunting experience if you don’t have the right tools and equipment.

For example, there is no point to go fishing without a fishing tackle and/or bait. It is highly unlikely to catch a fish with your hands. Similarly, searching for gemstones without the proper gem-hunting tools is nothing more than wasting your time. Tools for gem hunting are easily available at affordable prices, which means that even occasional hunters can easily buy them without exceeding their budgets. For gem hunting, you would need the following basic tools:

    • Shovel
    • Rock Hammer
    • Magnifying lens
    • Bucket and collection bags
    • You may need some specialized equipment to excavate some particular types of gems, such as a metal grid frame for screening, a pan for gold, etc
    • Permanent markers for labeling

For your own safety and comfort:

    • Wear comfortable clothes and shoes
    • Apply insect repellent and sunblock
    • Wear goggles
    • A GPS device or map to find your way
    • Water
    • Hat
    • Gloves
    • Walkie-Talkies for communication

Top Places to Go For Gem Hunting in the US

Gem hunting is an exciting family activity. This is why many people include a gem-hunting adventure in their vacation plans. If you want to experience the adrenaline rush by finding precious gems at places where you least expect them, then take a look at the following list to know about the places considered amazing for gem hunting:

    • Crater of Diamonds State Park, Arkansas
    • Emerald Hollow Mine, North Carolina
    • Cherokee Ruby Mine, North Carolina
    • Gem Mountain, North Carolina
    • Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine, Montana
    • Diamond Hill Mine, South Carolina
    • Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine, Nevada
    • Woodward Ranch, Texas
    • California State Gem Mine, California

Whenever you plan to go gem hunting, make sure to check the legalities before you start the hunt at a location, apart from those that are specifically meant for the purpose and are open to the public. This is important to ensure that you would not end up being arrested for violating laws or trespassing. Unless you have permission, you can hunt for gems at any private or public property.

Join a Club!

There are many mineral clubs you can join. In New York State alone, there are 15 locations throughout the state.

Final Note

Gem hunting is an exciting, adventurous and rewarding activity that can be taken upon both as a career and for recreational purposes. So, let loose your inner explorer and experience the exhilaration this amazing activity has in store for you.

Top Three Gem Hunting Mines

Gorgeous gems like diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires are usually unearthed in places like India, East Africa, Sri Lanka, Australia, and Myanmar. The truth is, there are mines all over the US where amateur mineralogists can go and dig for gems themselves. These following mines are family friendly and some even feature on site gemologists that will analyze your findings.

Crater of Diamonds State Park

Located 120 miles from Little Rock, this 37-acre field found in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, was once a gem creating a volcanic crater. The Crater of Diamonds State Park lets you rent shovels,  buckets, and knee pads for your diamond searching quest. Any shiny gems you find can be appraised on site and are yours to keep. The park’s many visitors have so far found over 30,000 diamonds. Most of them have been small but recently in June 2015, one lucky visitor found an 8.52 karat stone, worth about $1 million. Your chances of finding diamonds here are high, and the park also provides camping sites and is open year round.

Emerald Hollow Mine

The Emerald Hollow Mine is found in Hiddenite, North Carolina. It is the only emerald mine in the US that is open to the public. For a small fee, you can do your own digging here. The mine is open year round and features beautiful scenery. Located on 70 acres, you can not only find emeralds but also sapphire, tourmaline, garnet, topaz, and aquamarine. If you don’t feel like digging, the mine also offers unsifted buckets ranging from $5 to $1,000 that are enriched with gems for you to sift through and find.

Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine

The Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine is found in Virgin Valley, Nevada. The mine is open only May through September and you are expected to bring your own buckets and mining equipment. Digging for opals here is hard work, but it can pay off big time. Opals valued up to $50,000 have been found here. A camping site is found 5 miles away that offers outhouse facilities and a swimming pond. Other than opal, gold has also been found in this mine. The mine offers two digging options. A hefty fee of $600 will allow you to dig through a virgin ground load that has been excavated that morning. A $100 fee will give you access to a tailings load. Tailings are previously mined loads that are a great place for newer diggers to start with lots of material to sift through. Small hand tools for cutting through bigger rocks are available to borrow on site.

New Uranium Minerals Discovered!

 The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established in 1946 in an effort to stockpile uranium. Experts and amateurs used radiation detectors to confirm uranium deposits in Utah and so began the uranium boom. By 1955, 800 mines produced high-grade uranium ore, with Utah alone providing nine million tons of ore. After eight years, the AEC had more than enough reserves and ended their program. Left behind were hundreds of abandoned uranium mines. That didn’t stop air and water from finding its way into the mines and helping create new minerals.

Recently, a graduate student from Notre Dame, Travis Olds, has discovered three new uranium minerals. Olds studied uranyl mineral compounds to learn where these radioactive materials are found and how they change in different environments. Just this past year, Olds found new uranium minerals while exploring the old uranium mines in Utah. Along with a small team that includes scientist Owen Mills and Shawn Carlson, they characterized the new minerals.

Leesite, the first new mineral discovered is like uranium rust, containing uranium and oxide layers as well as potassium. Leesite occurs in tiny, bright yellow stacked blades and radiating needles. It also forms powdery masses that rest against companion minerals, mostly gypsum. Due to its structure and chemistry, it belongs to the schoepite mineral family.

The second discovered mineral, leószilárdite, is a pale yellow carbonate formed through uranium ore interacting with air. It was found in the Markey Mine in Red Canyon. Its bladed crystals are barely visible in hand samples. It was named after Dr. Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-born physicist that worked with uranium and constructed the first neutronic chain reactor.

The last uranium mineral discovered is redcanyonite. It was named after where it was found, in the Blue Lizard Mine in Red Canyon. This ultra rare mineral can only form in organic-rich layers that produce ammonium with access to manganese ions. This rare uranium mineral is not water soluble since it is a sulfate, unlike leószilárdite. Its color ranges from orange to red-orange.