Last year I got the opportunity to visit the Four Peaks Amethyst Mine up high in the Mazatzal mountains east of Phoenix. It was a trade, I got the trip comp'd if I'd write about it, which I did and you can read about it here if you're interested in an edited version of my adventure.
Since you're reading about it on my website where I post fractured thoughts from time to time, you can expect to read what I would call the back story.
Rockhounding by helicopter, I would think, qualifies as the extreme version of the sport. Even more extreme if I could have piloted the helicopter with no former piloting experience. It's a good thing these tours provide a capable pilot and support staff to ensure safety and an enjoyable experience.
Okay, I have to admit, as a rock hound my intentions were to loot that mountain of all the purple gemstones I could dig. No il intent mind you, after all it was in the brochure that you could take whatever you could carry out in a ziplock baggy.
As instructed, I arrived at Sami Fine Jewelry about an hour before tour time to be briefed and watch video of what to expect at the mine. I signed my waivers while being told about the mine. Gail took me under her wing, probably sensing my excitement, and fed me some advice, "If you find something good, put it in your pocket and don't tell Kurt."
The first stage of the trip was a shuttle to the helicopter pad, about 30 minutes up the beeline highway from Fountain Hills. Our shuttle driver provided us with more background of the mine and what to expect. He also gave the advice, "If you find something good, put it in your pocket and don't tell Kurt."
I was anxious to get to the mine but also thrilled by the prospect of my first helicopter ride. Scanning the desert foothills at 500 feet was a new perspective on prospecting that really appealed to my aging bones.
We finally met this Kurt that I'd been told to keep my yap shut around. He is the owner of the mine and gave us a background and geologic history of the place.
Finally, we were escorted into the mine. A horizontal shaft that went directly into the mountain about 40 feet. The entrance was squared support beams, much like the mine entrances you might see in a hollywood movie about the old west. I got my picture taken with miners, after which I was presented with a hardhat (with headlamp) and an old screwdriver. The miner gave us all a demonstration of scratching at the wall and told us what was off limits. Obviously the huge area of exposed crystals was not to be chipped at. Then the instructional miner said, "If you find something good, don't tell Kurt."
At Q&A time, I learned more about Kurt and how he'd acquired the mine. As a successful owner of an international software company, he essentially bought the mine as an impulse buy back in the 90's. He was at the Tucson gem show and heard about the mine in a back room conversation. I guess rich guys buy precious gem mines like we buy air fresheners at the gas station.
Let's do some math. Kurt said that they bring down about 1 ton of gemstone material each year. That's 2000 pounds. Of that 2000 pounds, they high grade about 50 pounds which gets sent to China. After the Chinese gem cutters finish, they ship back about a handful of cut gemstones. So, let's round to the nearest decade, say the year 2000. If they pull 2000 pounds per year, that would mean over the past 17 years they've brought down 17 tons of amethyst, of which only 850 pounds have been processed. That leaves 31,150 pounds of second rate stone.
As a professed rock hoarder, do you see where I'm going with this?
Having done the math in my head, I asked Kurt what he did with the rest of the material. His daughter, who helped on the tours, said, "mostly piled in the back yard of their Arizona home." He also said they thought of selling it as driveway gravel.
My thoughts went in two directions, I'm in software, why can't I buy a mine? And, I bet I could make something interesting with some of that 'driveway gravel.'
I told Kurt that I was a rockhound and amateur lapidary with a history of polishing second rate rocks. I politely asked if there was any way I could acquire some of the second rate material. He thought for a moment, obviously he'd never been asked the question, and then responded, "We can fix you up with some." That was exciting news to me.
Several weeks after returning from the tour my article was published and I followed up by email with Stephanie at Sami Fine Jewelry. I thanked her for the experience and asked how I might 'acquire' some cutting stone. She said she was meeting with Kurt over the weekend and would ask him then.
The next time I got a message, Stephanie asked how many pieces I would be 'needing'. First off, I'm not sure I need any amethyst. second, I'm not faceting fine gemstones for resale, nor did I know exactly what I would be doing with the rough. I was just thinking of 17+ tons of amethyst with nothing better to do than get bleached by the Arizona sun when it might provide me some enjoyment as a lapidary artist, and perhaps provide some joy to whoever I gave the jewelry to. I responded if it would be cool to ask for like a shoe box with varied pieces of the 'driveway gravel' that I could experiment with, but would be grateful for whatever they thought apropos.
That was the last correspondence I had with those folks. Apparently I either offended them by my request, or they figured it was too much hassle to make the transaction. Either way, I'm not one to press frictional matters. I was merely a gracious recipient and had nothing to offer them back. However, I never said exchanging a few dollars was out of the question, probably just not enough for Mr. Kurt to be inconvenienced over.
I got my baggy full of amethyst that I brought down the mountain with me. I tried to clean up a couple of the crystal points and made pendants, but they weren't very attractive being bleached/fractured and such. Oh well, so goes life in the prospecting world.
I have one regret about the trip... I didn't snap a picture of the miners' outhouse. Perched at 7000 feet with the entrance facing westward toward the the sprawling Phoenix metro, I could only imagine how inspiring a sunset constitutional might feel after a fulfilling day of prospecting.