Twenty-four million years ago, pressure deep within the earth pushed up this mountain range. When the volcanic forces subsided eons later, they left behind a small cache of red emeralds.
WAH WAH MOUNTAINS, Utah − Twenty-four million years ago, pressure deep within the earth pushed up this mountain range. When the volcanic forces subsided eons later, they left behind a small cache of red emeralds.
The gemstones, also known as red beryl, are found nowhere else in the world.
They are so rare that in the 50 years since their discovery by Utah uranium prospector Lamar Hodges, fewer than 60,000 carats have been cut, or faceted, into jewels. Only one red emerald is found for every 150,000 diamonds. Cut stones can bring more than 1,000 times their weight in gold.
"Red beryl is the Holy Grail for rock hounds and mineral collectors," said Carl Ege of the Utah Geological Survey.
Red emeralds are rare because they are the result of a unique set of geological conditions that occurred when the rock that formed the Wah Wah Mountains was still molten. Lava flowed over an area where groundwater was abundant. As it cooled, vertical fissures formed in the rock, offering a pathway for hot gases to rise and deposit the red beryl crystals, said Brigham Young University geologist Jeffrey D. Keith.
"A very narrow temperature window also needed to occur before the crystals could form," he said. "Everything just seemed to come together at that one location."
Hard work: For nearly 25 years, Utah gem hunter Rex Harris and his family, most often using rock hammers, chisels and an occasional track hoe, mined a small fortune in red emeralds from the soft volcanic rhyolite rock that holds the six-sided raspberry-red crystals. The work was hard, and at times discouraging.
Each ton of the pale-gray host rock, on average, contains about a quarter-carat of red emerald crystals.
"Sometimes we'd go two, three months without finding anything," Harris said, sitting in the shade of a pinion pine growing near the mine. "Then all of a sudden, someone would pull down some rock and there would be several hundred thousand dollars worth of crystals."
Those were the high-blood-pressure moments well worth the work and the wait, he said.
Harris and his brother Ed, who ran a gem and mineral shop in Delta in the mid-1970s, were bit by the red beryl bug when Hodges walked into the store, pulled a crystal from his pocket and asked that it be shaped for use in a piece of jewelry.
"The only references to the stones we could find at the time were a couple of articles in the Smithsonian Journal published years earlier," Harris said, noting he and his brother acquired the mining rights to the property known as the "Ruby Violet Mine" in 1976.
Demand for the red gems, however, grew slowly.
"We thought it would be easy to develop a market," Harris said.
"Here we had stones that no one else in the world could offer. It just made sense that people would want them."
Red emeralds carry a price tag similar to diamonds, with a top-quality one-carat stone wholesaling for approximately $8,000. Yet there are few red emeralds larger than one carat. The largest red emerald ever cut weighed slightly more than 4 carats.
The largest cut diamond in the world is The Star of Africa, which weighs in at a staggering 530 carats, or about 3.5 ounces at 155 carats per ounce.
Looking back through years of dust and drudgery, Harris said he vastly underestimated the capital it takes to bring a new product to market -- even if that product is one of the world's rarest natural treasures. "We always did what we could, though, with what we had."
From a financial standpoint, Harris struck the mother lode in 1994 when Kennecott Exploration took an interest in the mine and acquired a three-year lease with an option to buy the property. Kennecott wanted to survey the mountain to determine if there were enough gemstones on site to mine commercially.
It developed a method to crush the ore, then dissolve it so the crystals would be left behind, said Earl Foster, who by that time, along with partner Marlo Cropper, had acquired Ed Harris' interest in the mine. "But they found out that it was just as easy to pick out the crystals by hand."
Although Kennecott's initiative has been described as a success, the Gemological Institute of America said the company eventually stepped away from the project due in part to internal corporate politics and downsizing at RTZ, its London-based parent company now known as Rio Tinto Plc.
However, international interest in the property continued.
With Kennecott's exit, a Gibraltar-based company operating through a Utah subsidiary known as Gemstone Mining Inc., or GMI, stepped in. GMI inherited all of Kennecott's cut and uncut gems, its production and marketing data.
Yet within a few years, GMI missed a payment on the property and the original owners found themselves back in the gem-mining business.
GMI's parent company still holds a sizable inventory of crystals and faceted gems, Harris said. "We're not sure exactly how much they are holding or the quality of the stones they have."
Harris estimates he that holds about 1,500 carats of faceted stones and upward of 50,000 carats of crystals. But only about 10 percent of the uncut crystals will be suitable for shaping into jewels. The rest will be sold as mineral specimens to collectors.
Colorado gem cutter Mark Krivanek, who shapes many of the gems recovered at the Ruby Violet Mine, said internal stress within individual red beryl crystals can make faceting difficult and accounts for the low percentage of carats that each stone can produce.
"Nature wasn't kind to those crystals when they were formed," Krivanek said. "They had to work hard to grow in an incredibly harsh environment."
And sometimes after having studied a crystal for hours or even days under a microscope, trying to figure out how to get the best or largest gem from the stone, a red emerald can still shatter unexpectedly while being shaped, he said.
"They're very similar to a regular emerald, in terms of hardness, the inclusions you find within the crystals and the way they behave while being faceted," Kirvanek said. "The only drawback is there are just not that many of them around to work with."
Keith, who heads the department of geology at BYU and has studied the occurrence of red beryl in the Wah Wah Mountains, said that chemically, red beryl is similar to emerald except for the trace elements that give the stones their color.
Green emeralds get their color from traces of chromium and vanadium.
Red emeralds carry trace amounts of iron oxides and manganese.
"Some of the purists within the gem trade object to the use of the term 'red emeralds,' " Keith said. "But they are essentially the same stones."
The geologist speculates, however, that there may be other areas within the Wah Wah Mountains where red emeralds may be found.
Tiny red beryl crystals are found in the Thomas Range near Delta and the Black Range in New Mexico. The gem-quality stones, though -- those large enough to shape into jewels -- only come from a single mountain overlooking the small town of Milford. "If you talk to some of the old-time uranium prospectors, they'll say they ran across them before," Keith said. "So maybe there are other locations out there where they can be found."
For Harris and Foster, the future of the Ruby Violet Mine eventually will lie in others' hands. Both men have expressed an interest in eventually selling their properties. As he stood to leave the shade of the pinion tree, Harris noted that he is now 75. "And really, I'm just getting too old to be out here breaking rocks."
Red Beryl Facts
Also known as red emerald, red beryl is one of the world's rarest gemstones. It is chemically similar to the more familiar green emerald, differing only in the trace element that gives it its red color.
Gem-quality red emeralds are found only on the eastern slope of the Wah Wah Mountains in Beaver County.
Red emeralds are similar in price to diamonds.
The largest cut red emerald weighs just more than 4 carats. In comparison, the largest cut diamond is The Star of Africa, which weighs a hefty 530 carats.
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News