Rough to Refined
“Colorful Colorado” is not just a sign at our state’s border. Deep beneath the soil, precious stones are waiting for their colors to shine in the hands of skilled gem designers. Earth’s hardest and most colorful harvest, scattered all over Colorado, makes for a gorgeous center in necklaces and bracelets… but first it needs to be discovered.
The prospect of finding gemstones and precious metals has enticed people to come out West for centuries. The state’s terrain holds hundreds of different gems and minerals, including turquoise, quartz, amozonite, rhodochrosite, and the state gem, aquamarine. Cindy Peratt is the owner of Rock Doc, a prospector’s haven between Salida and Buena Vista. She said it takes a lot of perseverance to be successful as a prospector but finding a stone on your own is well worth the time.
“Prospecting is a cheap hobby— which is rare to find these days. It is a great family activity because it gets the kids away from their screens and sparks an interest in science,” Peratt said. “Most kids naturally love rocks. We call them pebble pups. If they stay interested they can turn into rock hounds.”
When a rock hound finds a worthy specimen they often want it refined by an expert in the field. That is where shops like By Design Gems in Old Colorado City are vital to the process. By Design Gems is a family owned business that employs the most advanced faceting technology, cat optimization, to create modern cuts alongside classically styled designs. Cut and uncut minerals are on display with background stories from the miners who found them. Owner Matthew Flynn credits the unique gemstones found in Colorado to the formation of our signature Rocky Mountains. “When the mountains formed, minerals shifted and collided. Now prospectors are able to find stones on surface level that formed closer to the center of the earth,” Flynn said.
Over hundreds of thousands of years, microscopic minerals reacted to intense pressure emanating from earth’s core by forming tough clusters of rock. Tectonic plate movement forced these minerals to the outer crust where lucky prospectors may find them. Colorado still has vast amounts of unclaimed land that sparkle with colorful potential. “These coloring agents are created through specific geological occurrences,” Flynn explained.
“Gemstones of a certain color may only exist in one place in the world because that environment was perfect for their creation.”
Most minerals in the state do not appear in large concentrations but are widely scattered in small sites around the state. Prospectors have to be careful not to take minerals off of claimed land. Even if the property itself is public, it is not difficult to purchase the
mineral rights for a plot from the Bureau of Land Management.
Colorado’s terrain is rich in many different types of stones, so rock hounds can be picky when prospecting or purchasing for their collection. Lane Mitchell Jewelers offers hundreds of gemstones to admire in both their Colorado Springs and Manitou locations. Customers often come in with a gem or style in mind and owners Lane and L’Aura Williams help design unique pieces to fit their tastes. “It isn’t always about the quality of the stone itself,” L’Aura Williams said. “The custom creations we have here are all based on the person’s taste. For example, some people like uncut, raw aquamarine, and others want crystal blue, faceted aquamarine. We work with what speaks to them and make sure the piece is unique and personalized.”
Buying a custom piece does not have to come at an outrageous price. Non-traditional wedding and engagement rings are usually better quality without the overhead of a typical jewelry store. Price often depends on the type of stone and complexity of the materials used in the making.
Turquoise is a defining beauty in indigenous jewelry from the Four Corners (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada). Mike Velez sells authentic indigenous jewelry from the native people of North and South America. He owns Velez Galleries in Old Colorado City. He said people who come in are interested in buying one of a kind pieces instead of mass collections sold in bulk at stores across the country. He designs many of the pieces himself, and turquoise is his favorite trademark of the Southwest. The vivid blues and greens vary based on the mines the stones come from. When a few women adorned with diamonds strolled into his shop, Velez took the opportunity to pull out the turquoise and teach them a bit about originality and local flare.
“Diamonds are boring!”
Velez held up a handcrafted necklace with deep blue turquoise and green flecks. “This will get you noticed. This has the color and personality of the Four Corners.” The gemstones we see in shops today reveal the magnificent variety hidden under the surface of the earth and available in artistic and scientific design. After a gem is found in the earth, cleaned, and polished, the collector can look through a magnifying glass to inspect impurities. Gem cutting, or faceting, is a process of refining a gemstone to carve along the cleavages and reveal the sparkle within.
It takes a lot of practice to make the cut. Jim Barzee is a lead artist making eye-catching custom pieces at By Design Gems. Barzee is passionate about continuing the trade, readily giving out advice and teaching classes at the shop on gem examination and faceting. When he’s asked how long it takes to turn a rock into a piece of art, his answer draws from his many years of experience and what he has gleaned from his mentors. “It takes 15 years of practice and 4 hours of work.”
Gem cutting has evolved into a scientific art form. The classic cut was developed by mathematicians and has a recognizable rectangular shape. Nowadays, computer technology creates optical illusions inside a gem in dazzling ways. “Faceting is becoming more and more advanced; now when you look into a gemstone that is cut perfectly, the light bounces around that gem dozens of times, and the sparkle is magnified,” Flynn said.
It may take less than a lifetime to master the art of cutting gems, but it takes millions of years for those gems to get close enough to the surface for prospectors to find. Since Mother Nature makes no two gems equal, gem designers like Barzee take great care in faceting cuts to make their colors shine bright.
The Denver Gem and Mineral Show brings gem enthusiasts from all over the world to Colorado. This year it is September 15-17 in the Expo Hall of the Denver Mart. If you are serious about gem prospecting and faceting, or just want to take in the colorful bounty of the earth, the Gem and Mineral Show is a must-see.