You can still pan for gold in California, "if you know where to look," according to Laguna Beach gold and mineral collector Wayne Leicht.
But panning for gold isn't what Leicht is known for. He collects the rarest, and possibly most beautiful, specimens of natural gold: crystallized gold. These are not your average blobs of gold, or nuggets, that flow from California's rivers in the Mother Lode.
Crystallized gold looks like filigree; it forms not from the action of water but as part of the formation of crystals deep in the earth. These delicate, jewelry-like specimens resemble trees, dragons, or any other fantastic formation you can imagine. One extraordinary specimen is called "The Corsage."
Crystallized gold doesn't come from the Mother Lode, on the state's western edge. These delicate pieces are mined from California's interior.
The Gold Rush, which officially started in 1848, ended long ago but, through Sept. 30, many examples of nuggets — including a 10-pounder — and the delicate crystallized gold are being shown in the "California Gold" exhibit underway at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.
"The gold rush was part of the settlement of California," Leicht said. "California became a state much earlier than other western states and was developed much earlier because of it."
Leicht has contributed similar exhibits to a museum in Paris, to the Carnegie Museum, and the Gemological Institute. He has been a mineral enthusiast since the age of seven. Since 1971, he his wife, Dona, have owned and operated Kristalle in Laguna Beach, one of the world's most noted galleries devoted to gold and minerals.
Dona also writes extensively for mineral magazines.
The "gold craze" has actually ramped up with the price of gold achieving extraordinary levels in recent years. Leicht says his best customers are now the Chinese and Germans; he recently sold an 11-inch gold piece to a Beijing museum.
Leicht does not confine his activities to buying and selling: he is actively involved in emerald mining in Colombia and travels extensively looking for new sources of gold and gems.
He has some colorful stories to tell of his many years in the gold business. One of his favorite characters was the man who sold him the 10-pound Mojave nugget on display at the Bowers.
"He insisted on cash, and the cash weighed more than the nugget," Leicht said. "Then three years later we heard he was broke after moving to Las Vegas. He had gone through all his money."
At one time, this huge nugget — now part of the Margie and Robert E. Petersen Collection that was donated to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County — was the largest California nugget in existence. Most large nuggets are melted down, according to Leicht.
And if you think that "claim jumping" is a thing of the past, think again. Leicht said he had to wage a major court battle some years ago after someone tried to take his holdings away from him.
It's still wild in the Golden West.
Kristalle is open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The shop is at 875 N. Coast Hwy. For more information, call (949) 494-7595 or visit .
If You Go
What: "California Gold"
When: Through Sept. 30
Where: The Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana
Museum hours: Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
More information at: www.bowers.org