Amateur prospectors dig for sunstones in Oregon's lonely sagebrush country
PLUSH, Ore. — Out where the sagebrush hugs the sky and the antelope roam nearby, sunbeams in stones are there for the taking.
“Plush diamonds” they were called by the lonesome cowboys who first stumbled upon sparkling stones while riding across the Rabbit Basin — a vast, flat stretch between Hart Mountain and Lake Abert in southeast Oregon, 20 miles north of the hamlet of Plush.
“Heliolite,” said the geologists, using the scientific name for the transparent crystals of feldspar.
Oregon sunstones is the name these sparklers of the purple-sage country commonly go by now, and their glitter in hues of yellow, pink, red and (rarely) blue and green attracts people looking for a gem of an adventure and maybe a chance to make a little money.
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Charlie and Ruth Freeman drove 420 miles from Beaverton — the last 22 on a dusty, washboard gravel road — to sift dirt through a screen in search of sunstones.
Like many Oregonians, the Freemans had never heard of the gem until recently, even though the 1987 Legislature designated the Oregon sunstone the official state gem (not to be confused with the thunder egg, which is the state rock).
The Freemans came to the Spectrum Mine because “we saw it on TV, and she likes digging for pretty stuff,” Charlie Freeman said.
Spectrum Sunstone Mine was first featured on the Travel Channel’s “Cash and Treasures” show a couple of years ago, and the program has rerun several times since then. Spurred in part by that publicity, about 7,000 people visited Spectrum Mine last year, according to manager Jessica Schenk. “This year it’s been a little less because of the price of gas.”
Many sunstone seekers also prospect for free. The Bureau of Land Management in 1972 set aside four square miles in the area where hobbyists can collect sunstones for free. Called the Oregon Sunstone Public Collection Area, the free public-use area includes a camping site with one pit toilet and a couple of covered picnic tables. But there’s no water and the nearest power line is 20 miles away.
Nearby, the privately-owned Spectrum Sunstone Mine provides piles of sunstone-bearing soils that anyone can sift through without charge and keep what they find.
“It’s unprocessed, so you have a good chance of finding sunstones,” Schenk said. “You can find about a half a sandwich bag of sunstones if you work at it all day.”
But the odds of finding lots of high-quality sunstones improve by sifting through the highest-grade ore, selected for commercial processing.
Visitors can get access to that ore for a fee, and many serious rockhounds are willing to pay for the opportunity to collect more sunstones in less time.
For example, Californian David Knox — a white-bearded gent who looks like a prospector right out of Central Casting — paid $200 for the right to pick sunstones off the mine’s commercial screening plant conveyor belt for one hour.
“We keep hearing about this place and thought we’d give it a try,” said Knox’s wife, Cynthia.
Less than 30 minutes later, she was as giddy as a girl grabbing Easter eggs on a park lawn — only she was gathering a jar full of gems.
“This is like living a dream,” David Knox said. “It’s amazing. … You’re not working hard at all — I didn’t know you could do it this way.”
The Knoxes collected three to four pounds of sunstones in their hour, during which the plant’s mechanized screens sifted likely material from about six tons of dirt and larger rock.
Sprayed with water as they moved along the belt, the sunstones sparkled, making them easy to spot among similar-size rocks.
“We definitely got some nice sunstones — nice size and some with nice color,” Cynthia Knox said.
“The picking belt is probably the most popular tourist thing we have,” said Chris Rose, owner of Spectrum Sunstone Mine. “They get as much in that hour as they would get in three or four days of digging.”
Reed and Debra Grote of Redmond, Ore., preferred to prospect for sunstones the old-fashioned way. They paid $125 for the right to spend a day digging in a pit “claim” where a layer of high grade sunstone-bearing ore had been exposed by a backhoe.
They were hoping to find a vein or “nest” of the crystals that formed in an 11 million-year-old lava flow. The basalt has since decomposed, revealing loose gemstones. Erosion helps bring the gemstones to the surface, making them easy for modern-day sunstone cowboys to spot.
“If we find a vein, then we’ll be doing good,” said Debra Grote, who already had a plastic bag with a handful of glittering stones she’d found one by one.
“It’s fun” to chip sunstones out of the surrounding rock and soil with a small miner’s hammer, she said. “You can see what you’re getting right away.”
Grote hoped to find a stone she could have made into a nice ring.
Sunstones are becoming increasingly popular with jewelry makers, said Rose, who purchased the Spectrum claim about 12 years ago after visiting the area to write an article about sunstones for a lapidary magazine.
“Actually, the Japanese and the Germans appreciate sunstones more than anyone else,” Rose said. “They’re avid collectors of it.”
Sunstones, however, are softer than many other gems and are susceptible to scratching. They rate about a seven on the Moh’s scale of gem hardness compared with a 10 for diamonds, nine for rubies and sapphires and eight for topaz.
Oregon’s sunstone area is “one of the biggest gemstone deposits in the world,” Rose said. It measures seven miles long and up to three miles wide in spots.
Sunstones are found several other places in the world, he said, but only in Oregon do they contain traces of copper, which gives the gems the dark colors prized by gemologists.
More than 95 percent of the sunstones found in the Rabbit Basin are clear or yellow in color and have a value of $5 to $10 a carat, Rose said. “You’ve got to go through a lot of yellows to find a colored one.”
Red sunstones “usually go for $50 to $500 a carat, and the greens are at least $100 on up to $1,000 a carat,” Rose said.
But wholesale values are a fraction of what a prime sunstone can sell for after being cut and turned into jewelry. For example, Rose pulled a red sunstone the size of a quarter from his pocket. “This is worth about $1,000 wholesale, but if it gets made into a gem by a good cutter, it could end up being a $15,000 stone.”
One of the largest sunstones to come out of the area was a 478-carat piece found by Kelly Anderson of Eugene in September 2005 at the Dust Devil Sunstone Mine, about a mile south of the Spectrum Mine.
Dust Devil’s owners allow anyone to dig clear stones for free, but charge 25 to 30 percent of the wholesale value of any colored stones people want to keep.
He said the giant sunstone was in a “pocket” of several stones totaling 990 carats that his wife found when she broke open a football-shaped boulder.
“It was our first visit and pure luck,” Anderson said. “The entire pocket of stones only cost us about $750 in the rough form.”
Too large to facet, the honey-colored stone was carved into an award-winning art piece which has been appraised at more than $50,000, Anderson said.