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Turquoise and variscite miners are rediscovering a market for Nevada’s precious minerals.
Photo: Joseph Carruthers (above) & Jordan Clary (below)
Far below the Mountain Top turquoise claim, which overlooks Carico Lake Valley in Lander County, the canyon floor spreads out in muted colors of khaki and sage. Joseph Carruthers, a turquoise miner who moved here 15 years ago, points west to the Shoshone Range. “You can see the thrust,” he says. “Several turquoise mines lie along the fault in the Bullion Mining District.”
Nevada has more turquoise mines than any other state and some of the most important deposits in the world. Eureka County and neighboring Lander County are home to some legendary claims: Blue Gem, Carico Lake, Colorback, Fox, Lander Blue, Number 8, and Orvil Jack to name a few. More deposits can be found further south around Tonopah, where Robert Otteson’s family has been mining since the early 1960s, and others, like Chris Rose, have staked their claims more recently.
While Nevada turquoise mining has slowed considerably in recent years, some believe it’s on the rise again. “In the 1970s, things were really booming,” says Norvie Enns, a member of the Reno Gem and Mineral Society. “Then it went into a decline.” Land purchases by gold companies were partially responsible, but Enns feels it’s mostly a matter of demand. “Things run in cycles,” he says. “For a while prices dropped. Now they are on the rise again, and people are starting to mine.”
Most modern mines are small, independent claims, rather than the large operations of earlier years. Actual numbers are difficult to pinpoint regarding miners who have worked the claims. Gemstone mining is a transient occupation that fluctuates with the seasons and from year to year. It’s also a venture tinged with romanticism that frequently fades with the reality of hard work and unpredictable profits. Nevertheless, the turquoise coming from these small mines is high quality. Carruthers has harnessed top-grade turquoise from his Morning Star and Mountain Top mines, and Enns says, “A couple members of the Gem and Mineral Society are pulling out enough high-quality stones that they plan to go to Quartzite and sell this year.” Quartzite, Arizona holds a popular annual gem and mineral trade show featuring buyers and sellers from around the world.
THE COUSIN OF TURQUOISE
Nevada also produces variscite, a stone similar to turquoise, only softer (turquoise has a hardness of five to six on the Mohs scale; variscite is a four) and more rare. “You could call it the cousin of turquoise,” Otteson says. “You always find variscite and turquoise together, but variscite has more aluminum than turquoise and no copper.”
Variscite is beginning to catch on in the gemstone world. Similar to turquoise, but more of a yellowish-green, variscite is related to a rare phosphate mineral known as strengite. Carruthers says, “Variscite is coming into fashion. People are intrigued by its unique colors. Elwood Wright’s sons, who run the Colorback Mine, are mining some nice variscite with a black webbing matrix. So are several others in the state.”
Carruthers holds out a chunk that he pulled from his Valley View claim to illustrate the matrix. The stone is sea green with spidery black lines winding through it like a web. The matrix is the weakest point, and cutters take precautions not to break it while forming the stones into cabochons to set in jewelry. While early collectors coveted pure blue or green stones, today many think that the matrix adds individuality. In fact, webbing with a precise or unusual pattern can add value.
Gem-quality variscite is found in Nevada and Utah. It has virtually no iron and shows almost no grading into other phosphate minerals, which can weaken the stone. Since the United States is the only place in the world where it is found in pieces large enough to cut, it’s a highly collectible stone. Enns says that he prefers variscite to turquoise because “it’s glassier and takes a better polish.”
The Ottesons’ company, Otteson Turquoise of Tonopah, sells variscite as a semi-precious stone. While buyers from countries as diverse as Australia, China, Germany, and Vietnam have sought it, most of the market remains domestic. “All of the variscite from the Broken Arrow Mine is green,” Otteson says. “Some people cut it into a thin cabochon and just put a bevel around it without backing it. The really high grade, the bright green, is nearly translucent. That’s something you just don’t get with turquoise.” Otteson Turquoise also sells a stone from Broken Arrow Mine that they’ve dubbed “variquoise,” which seems to be a cross between turquoise and variscite; it has more blue than typical variscite.
Chris Rose, a geologist who has a variscite mine near Hawthorne, says he is also mining “an exceptional variety of variscite, some of it with a strong blue color.” Rose has gemstone mines in other parts of Nevada as well as Oregon and California and offers gem tours, on which participants get to dig for stones and learn about Great Basin geology and the formation of gemstones.
HISTORY OF NEVADA’S BLUE-GREEN STONES
The allure of these blue and green stones lies in their lore as much as their availability. American Indians mined turquoise in Nevada long before it came to the attention of European explorers. From about 800 to 1,000 A.D., the Anasazi inhabited southeastern Nevada and traded turquoise gemstones.
During the 1970s, the turquoise business boomed due to the rising popularity of American Indian jewelry. Some Nevada old-timers say it was a bit like the Wild West all over again. Visit any of these mining regions, and you’re sure to hear stories about characters with names such as One-Eyed Jack or Pigeon-Toed Sam.
Driving along a narrow dirt road, Carruthers points out several abandoned dwellings that used to process turquoise and variscite from the neighboring hills of the Bullion Mining District. “It’s rumored that this used to be a meeting place for miners from all over the area,” he says.
Today the wind blows through the slats of the abandoned homes. A refrigerator lies on its side. Rusted tin cans and chicken wire lie strewn about. An outhouse is tilted at a precarious angle. A root cellar and pit sit prominently in the middle of one of the yards, and small chunks of turquoise can still be found scattered along the ground—a reminder of the boom-and-bust nature of Nevada’s smaller, yet equally relevant, mining industry.
Interested in touring a variscite or turquoise mine? The Ottesons will be glad to make arrangements:
If you really have the rock-hounding bug and want to dig for several different gems such as Oregon sunstone, chalcedony, and Smoky quartz, as well as turquoise and variscite, consider a five-day tour with Chris Rose of High Desert Gems and Minerals. This is also a good source for buying natural rough and cut stones. highdesertgemsandminerals.com
WORTH A CLICK
Turquoise shopping in Austin