"Look at those," Garwin Carlson whooped. "Plush diamonds."
Sure enough, several small stones in the wood-framed screen glistened and glittered. Most were transparent or yellow, but some shimmered with flashes of peach and pink.
"Plush diamond" is the local name for sunstones, Oregon's state gemstone. Sunstones were designated the Oregon state gemstone in 1987. The word plush comes from the name of a ranching community 25 miles south of the seven-square mile patch of Bureau of Land Management lands where Garwin and I were searching. The word diamond comes from the stones sparkling appearance.
Sunstones are feldspar crystals formed thousands of years ago in basaltic lava flows. They're found in many areas of the world, but Oregon's are unique, with colors ranging from yellow, to peach, pink, champagne, red and green. Some shimmer with coppery metallic flashes called schiller. Because of their rarity, and uniqueness to Oregon, sunstones are the state gemstone.
Sunstones vary in size. Some are as thin as flakes, others as big as a thumb. Jewelers shape faceted sunstones into earrings, pendants or necklaces, or carve them into imaginative designs. Theyre found in scattered about the region.
By pre-arrangement, I met Carlson, a friend, geologist and avid sunstone collector, near the BLMs free digging area. Carlson in turn introduced me to Don Buford, an owner of the Dust Devil Mine, a private mine open to fee digging.
"This area has been known for hundreds of years," Buford said, adding that American Indians used them for barter and Vikings used them as protective talismans.
From Memorial Day to early fall, people use shovels, pry bars, pick axes and wire screens to search for sunstones. On holiday weekends it's not uncommon for the Dust Devil to have 75 to 100 diggers. Adjacent Bureau of Land Management lands are designated for free public digging, but most of the action happens on private claims. The Dust Devil claim was owned by Tiffany's in the early 1900s, "But they discovered they couldn't manage a claim from New York City," Terry Clark, another Dust Devil owner, told me. The facilities aren't fancy, but the owners and staff are friendly and helpful. "It's about having the way of life, and having fun."
"It's a nice getaway," agreed Mike Funk, who travels from the Oregon Coast several times a year. "It's a totally different world out here."
"This is the way I spend my vacation," laughed Kathy Dilley, who was searching for sunstones at the mine with her husband Jerry. He told of finding a sunstone that was appraised at $17,310 he sold for $10,000.
Sunstones can be found on the ground, but veins also run 15 to 25 feet deep. The Dust Devil uses a D-9 tractor with a ripper to gouge pits in the basalt soil. Front-end loaders move mounds of loosened soil to their nearby commercial operation, a mishmash of sorting and sifting machines. The exposed pits and pit walls are left for fee digging.
Earlier at the public area, under Garwins guidance, I dragged a flat shovel across the ground to disturb the soil and tossed a shovel load of soil onto a screen set atop a tall sagebrush. After picking out large rocks, I jiggled the screen to filter out loose soil, jiggled some more, then held the screen above my head. Garwin told me to look up through the screen with my face toward the sun. Thats when I spotted a handful of plushies sparkling enticingly.
The prospecting method was much the same at the Dust Devil, which provides tools and screens. "All of it produces. Your chance of finding good stuff here is excellent," Clark assured me.
He wasnt kidding. I soon became selective, saving only the larger sunstones. Later, I showed them to Clark, who put them in a baggie. Theres no charge for clear and most schiller stones. The fee for colored stones at the commercial mine is one-quarter the wholesale price. There's no charge at the public site.
"The public area is meant to be used by people collecting for their personal use," said Rebecca Lange, BLM biologist. She also cautioned visitors to plan visits carefully. It is remote. It is well worth being totally prepared.
Sunstones found can be made into finished jewelry, usually mounted in gold or silver. The Dust Devil sells loose, fauceted and carved sunstone, and commercially sells rough and cut forms. "We supply sunstones to the world market," Clark said. "The market is getting bigger all the time. The colors are pleasing and warm. It's a stone that people enjoy."
I enjoyed the experience, and my findings. Now I hope the sunstones and their shimmering colors, made into wearable art necklaces and earrings, will give the same glow and pleasure to people I love and treasure.
If You Go
For more information about sunstones contact the BLMs Lakeview office at (541) 947-2177 or Web site at www.or.blm.gov/lakeview. Lange says people should be cautious - "It is remote. It is well worth being totally prepared." Information is also available from the Dust Devil Mining at www.dustdevilmining.com, which has information on sunstones, directions to the mine, a mining checklist and digging methods. In the community of Plush, visit Wayne Hartgraves at Plush Diamond Works. Call him at (541) 947-3194.
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Lee Juillerat is the regional editor for the Klamath Falls Herald and News.
He also is a freelance writer-photographer who contributes stories to such magazines
at Northwest Travel, Range, Horizon-Alaska inflight publications. He has written
or co-written several books about Crater Lake National Park. He can be reached