One of the driving forces in the settlement of this country was the pursuit of wealth. Settlers pushed ever deeper into the unknown wilderness, as rumors of gold and other precious minerals reached civilized lands. Today, gem mining in areas like Franklin offers the public a chance to experience the search that drove their ancestors, as well as the slight possibility of striking it rich.
According to Ray Montoya of the Cherokee Ruby and Sapphire Mine, modern gem mining is deeply rooted in the panning of America’s youth. He says that mining in the Franklin area started in the 1800s, with companies like Tiffany’s vying for control.
While gem mining was once a hard, sometimes lifelong job, now families can come to areas like Franklin and spend a couple hours searching for treasure at the modest charge of about $10.
Montoya says that this inexpensive fun can draw a lot of people.
“I don’t know what it is about this season,” Montoya said. “But we’ve been getting up to 30 miners per day.”
The mines are open on a seasonal basis—usually from April to October. This is for the customer’s benefit. Gem mines are generally outdoor facilities, so that while a sunny day is enjoyable, a hard rain can close down most mines.
Just as gem mining has its own schedule, it also has its own unique set of tools. Luckily for the customer, many mines provide these.
Gem mining is performed much the same way today as it was hundreds of years ago. Most mines have a flu—a trough of running water—with a series of benches beside it for patrons. Customers are given a 2 gallon bucket of pre-dug dirt (few places still have customers dig their own dirt) and a screen. Mines often include cushions for the benches in this kit, or offer them for an additional charge.
The customer picks a spot along the flu and runs handfuls of dirt through the screen, keeping an eye out for anything that looks like a valuable gem. Emptying the bucket usually takes 2 hours.
Though every mine has at least one story about a high quality gem, not many customers strike it rich. According to Montoya, this is because the mines around Franklin were not dug by companies looking for gem quality gems, but abrasives to use in products like sandpaper.
Unfortunately for the customer, mines can play on their hopes by “salting” or “enriching” mines.
“When someone salts a mine” Montoya says, “they buy loads of rubies (you can usually buy a bag for $20) and shine them up. But they’re not gem quality. They take a ruby and put one in each bucket.”
While salting a mine gives the customer something to find almost every time, it devalues the contents of the customer’s bucket. That’s why Montoya emphasizes that his mine, the Cherokee Ruby and Sapphire Mine, contains only native gems.
So what can a customer find? Montoya says that the highest quality gem found in his mine was the Cherokee Chief, 1,070 K ruby.
Montoya says the customer who found it took it to an institute California to have it evaluated, and it was deemed priceless.
“I think he had it insured for $1 million.”
Montoya adds that the institute that appraised the Cherokee Chief noted fractures in the gem that indicated it had broken off of a larger piece. “So that big piece? It’s still down there.”