Glowing Talismans Among the World’s Best : How a Blue Stone in the Rockies Added a Wrinkle to Colorado History
The rich minerals folded into the Rocky Mountains have shaped Colorado history. First the miners came for the gold, then the silver. Now it’s lapis lazuli, the gemstone that gave royal blue its name.
Once only royalty owned it.
High on North Italian Mountain in southwestern Colorado is the Blue Wrinkle Mine, a deposit of lapis lazuli that shaped the lives of prospector Carl Anderson and his mysterious son, Ande, a cruise ship accordionist.
Assays have declared Blue Wrinkle ore among the best lapis lazuli the world has ever seen.
War Cuts Off Key Market
As far back as the Pharaohs, those who wanted the best lapis looked for it in Afghanistan. That trade ended with the Soviet invasion in late 1979.
Not long before that invasion, a Tulsa, Okla., oilman heard about the Blue Wrinkle Mine and talked his partners into buying the claims Ande Anderson had held since his father’s death a decade before.
Ande Anderson died in 1981, but the mine he and his father worked with pick and shovel for 40 years turned out to be a big winner after the new owners moved in with modern mining equipment.
Paul Schultz, the Oklahoma oilman, would not say what the takeover cost. “Just say it was for something over $60,000,” he said. He also will not discuss how much the mine is yielding. But one morning in mid-March he shipped 300 pounds of gem-quality lapis to Hong Kong where it will be cut down and polished for the first large collection of Blue Wrinkle jewelry. Polished lapis sells for $10 to $15 a carat.
Lapis is from the Latin word for stone. The Persian word lazulus means heaven.
La'-puhs la'-zu-li. Centuries ago, people knew it as sapphire.
Rainbow of Gemstones
Today, sapphire is used to describe a rainbow of other gemstones--most of them blue, but none of them like lapis.
Diamonds and sapphires sparkle. Lapis glows.
When fresh out of the ground, still bound by calcite and other minerals, miners must spit on lapis lazuli to make the brilliant hue emerge.
Cut and polished, golden specks of pyrite dance across its glowing blue.
Pliny the Elder, historian of the Roman Empire, compared lapis to a blue sky adorned with stars. Marco Polo visited the Afghan lapis mines in 1271.
The scarcity of the highest-quality lapis ordained that it would remain a talisman for the elite through most of history. Charlemagne sandwiched a piece of wood from the True Cross between two lapis cabochons. Edward I of England valued a lapis amulet.
A covering for the King of Tyre and the breastplates of high Egyptian priests were all lapis lazuli. Lapis filled the tombs of the city-state of Ur.
The story around Gunnison County is that Carl Anderson just stumbled across the Blue Wrinkle back in 1939.
Paul Schultz, now the manager of the Blue Wrinkle Mine, tells it this way:
“He had a garnet claim up in these parts. One night, after a day of prospecting, he was heading over the ridge to get back to the Star silver mine where he worked.
“Some say he had a little too much to drink and fell down. Others say he was on horseback. Whichever way he came, it was raining that night. He looks down and sees this blue stone.
“He took some blue stones down into town and nobody knew what they were. Who knows whether Carl knew? We do know he staked four claims in the area he thought the blue stone had come from. And that he worked those claims for about 30 years.
“The last several years, Ande came up in the summers to help his father work the claims.”
Thirty years after finding the Blue Wrinkle, Carl Anderson died at the State Hospital in Pueblo, without a will.
Ande Anderson considered the Blue Wrinkle his.
Schultz says Ande Anderson grew up in northern Michigan in the ‘30s and times were hard. His father left the family, and Ande had to help his mother raise his eight brothers and sisters.
“Ande was the oldest, and when he was 15 he used to walk five miles each way to cook at a lumber camp,” Schultz says.
Large Gaps Remain
But large gaps in Ande Anderson’s life remain a mystery to his friends and colleagues.
In his last winters, ensconced in Cabin No. 2 of the Three Rivers Resort in Almont, midway between the mine and Gunnison, he would sometimes pull out postcard-sized photos that illustrated a glamorous former life, a time when he worked as a musician on cruise ships.
“Ande Anderson, the Singing Accordion Man,” one card says. The photos show a smiling Nordic face above an extended concertina.
Whenever a form called for credentials, Ande always listed life membership in the musicians’ union.
Gus Grosland, a retired Western State College professor, became one of Ande’s best friends in Gunnison.
Sometimes, Grosland would help Ande pack in 30 to 40 pounds of groceries at a time to the one-room cabin that was summer headquarters just below the 12,700-foot level of the mine.
Grosland remembers other weekends when he and his wife would give Ande a lift to Denver and Ande would carry along a carpetbag full of lapis. Somewhere, Ande sold it.
“I don’t think anybody ever knew how much he gleaned from his summers up on the mountain,” Grosland says.
Not Noted for Generosity
Until he died, Ande was never noted for generosity. Grosland recalls that he and his wife sometimes wondered why Ande always seemed to show up for a visit just before mealtime.
Anderson did tell Grosland how he came to own the Blue Wrinkle.
“He was working with his father for three or four years before Carl died,” he says. “The day after Carl died, Ande went down to the Gunnison County Courthouse and put the claims in his own name.
“Technically, that’s what you call jumping a claim. He told me that, if anything ever happened to him, I should go down and register the claims in my name.”
Today, mice nest inside the cook stove in the Blue Wrinkle’s summer cabin. Marmots find refuge under the eaves. No one lives in the one-room cabin anymore.
Now, as soon as the snow is gone, the men come with backhoes and giant earth movers. The heavy equipment does more in a week than Ande and Carl could do in a summer.
These summers, those who work the Blue Wrinkle live in a deluxe cabin a few dozen yards from Ande’s old summer home.
After just a few years, the Blue Wrinkle Mine now cuts twice as deep and wide into North Italian Mountain as the Andersons had managed in their 40 years of digging.
No Letup in Vein
The highest-quality lapis taken from the mine came out after Ande sold his claim, and Schultz said the vein shows no sign of narrowing in any direction.
In the winter, when the mine is inaccessible, Schultz spends his days in a workroom at the rear of The House of Art, a jewelry store-rock shop owned by Hugh and Nancy Pressler.
With diamond-edged saws, Schultz spends hours slicing and carving the chunks of lapis ore removed from the Blue Wrinkle the previous summer. He sorts the stones into six grades and polishes some.
Hugh, a skilled jeweler, has placed a clutch of Grade 1 examples in glittering hand-wrought, 18-karat gold settings that Nancy often wears about her neck, her wrist, her hand. Sometimes Hugh teams the royal-blue stone with diamonds.
Nancy handles requests for Grade 1 stones from as far away as India and West Germany.
“It’s the distribution of pyrite that makes the difference,” she explains, holding a ring so the light dances across the pyrite that speckles the Blue Wrinkle stone.
She explains that on the scale of hardness for minerals, diamonds are 10, followed by rubies and sapphires. Lapis lazuli, like turquoise, is a 5.
‘Better Than Royal Blue’
“Describing the blue is the toughest part,” she says. “It’s really better than ‘royal blue.’ ”
Nancy Pressler recalls how surprised Ande was the first time he saw a piece of lapis that Schultz had polished properly.
“In all those years up there, I don’t think Ande had ever seen truly good lapis.”
At the Gunnison Public Library, a pen-and-ink portrait of Ande Anderson hangs in a corner of a 1,500-square-foot music and reading room added in the last few years. A small plaque acknowledges that he donated the room.
When Ande died in late 1981, a couple of years after selling the Blue Wrinkle to Schultz and the Anchor Coal Co., he left $70,000 in certificates of deposit that were payable to the library on his death.
It took Schultz more than a year to gain clear title to the mine because all Carl Anderson’s children were his heirs under Colorado law.
Schultz chuckles as he remembers how Ande made sure that there was no question about what would happen to his CDs once he died.
Burrowing Through Papers
Grosland remembers one of Ande’s sisters and a sister-in-law burrowing through the accumulated papers and tossing nearly everything out at the Almont cabin and the mountain cabin. Stacks of sheet music, diaries, whatever.
“They had no idea what was there and they didn’t care.”