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Buried treasures in an emerald city

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two green signs over the front door announce “You Mine ‘Em,” “We Design ‘Em.”

Welcome to the Emerald Hollow Mine, the only one in the world that’s open to the public. In fact, North Carolina is the only place in North America where emeralds are found. And it is here that Mike and Dottie Watkins greet hundreds of visitors each week.

Mike works in the lapidary shop--cutting, polishing and mounting stones. Dottie stays outside, leading groups of schoolchildren through the mine. She instructs them on how to recognize minerals, where to pick them up, how to clean them in the screened sluice boxes and how “to love the Earth like we do.”

The Watkinses moved to town 11 years ago to fulfill a dream. Mike, a geologist, had vowed to return after visiting here while in college. He remembered the excitement of walking through the fields, picking up gemstones.

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Their first winter at Hiddenite was spent huddling in a tent because the country road through the mine was so narrow that the couple couldn’t move their mobile home in. Local residents, feeling sorry for them, left boxes and boxes of bananas outside the tent.

Once, Mike recalls, a farmer delivered three live chickens. After killing the birds, Mike began cleaning them, and inside the craw of one, a pea-sized aquamarine glistened. The gravel in the craw had acted like a tumbler, polishing the stone to a high luster. Mike offered the gem back to the farmer. He refused it.

“I wouldn’t take $10,000 for that stone. It was a sign of friendship,” Mike says.

Sixty-three other gemstones and minerals also are found at Hiddenite. The largest emerald to come out of here, weighing in at 1,686 carats, is on exhibit at New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

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Since the mid-1880s, locals have talked about the treasures hidden beneath the earth in this part of Alexander County. Farmers claimed they found strange “green bolts” in the red soil when they plowed their fields. Thomas Edison dispatched mineralogist William Hidden to explore the area, hoping to find platinum needed for coating the wire filaments in his latest invention, the electric light bulb.

After nearly nine months of exploration, Hidden wrote to Edison that his team had turned up no platinum. However, they had discovered a fault line--three miles by three-quarters of a mile--that they described as “the most complex geological zone in the world.” Nowhere else had anyone seen emeralds and sapphires laying within three feet of each other. A neon-green spodumene found by Hidden was named Hiddenite, as was the town.

At Emerald Hollow, all mining is done vertically. There are no caves and no tunnels. Tourists pay from $5 to $10 to pan the mine’s creek, dig down into the earth or sluice buckets filled with dirt.

Some prospectors who “catch the fever” or find a particularly good vein stake a claim. For $90 a month, the claim is roped off and marked with “keep out” signs. In the 11 years since the mine opened, Mike Watkins says, no interlopers have crossed the boundaries of a staked claim.

Besides emeralds, one of Hiddenite’s greatest discoveries is a pyramid-shaped smoky quartz crystal weighing nearly 300 pounds.

James Hill, whose family owns much of the town, says skill and luck brought about his most recent find--a 10.42-carat emerald unearthed from a local farm. Getting emeralds out of the ground requires a lot of patience, says Hill, who along with his fiancee owns a private mining company. The prime example was an emerald cluster of about 4,000 carats that fell into about 350 pieces as the two tried to unearth it.

Such discoveries fuel prospectors’ hopes, and locals joke that it’s easy to spot a visitor: They are the ones walking around with their heads bent toward the ground. Once they are here, they never stop looking for stones.


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