Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dispatches from the Blue Ridge: Part IV

For as long as I can remember, I have scoffed at people who spend any of their vacation time (and money) at roadside "gem mines." While I still can't shake the feeling that many of those places are tourist trap ripoffs, over the last few days I learned that at least one of them is an authentic mining and educational experience.

During our trip to North Carolina we stopped at Doc's Rocks, which is located beside Highway 321 in Blowing Rock. We thought we would be there for about 30 minutes, but instead we were there for two hours and were fascinated the whole time. I didn't catch Doc's name, but I did learn that he is a former military M.D. who has been "a rock head" since the age of six. Eventually he decided to turn his passion into his profession, and he has owned Doc's Rocks for three years now.

For $10 per shovelful, you get ore that has been taken from a handful of mines throughout the state, then you go to a flume and use a garden trowel to scoop it into one of those mining baskets you might remember prospectors using in old Western movies. The ore looks like ordinary black dirt, but when you shake the basket in the flume, the dirt sifts away and leaves you with rocks from which to choose.

Some of the gems (emeralds, for example) are obvious right away, while others look like the kind of everyday rocks you walk past all the time. After selecting whichever ones you think might be more than just rocks, an employee sorts through the remainder to make sure you're not discarding anything valuable. When your mining is done, you sit down with Doc and your education commences.

He goes through your selections and pulls out the worthless ones, putting them in a bag so you can use them for aquarium decorations or give them to your kids or whatever. Then he puts the ones that are worth money onto a sheet of paper that identifies various types of gems, and he proceeds to tell you all about them.

Every bit of information Doc shared with us was intriguing. I learned that diamonds and clear quartz look so alike that most jewelers can't tell them apart. And I learned that amethyst is quartz that gets a purplish hue from its high iron content. And I learned that North Carolina has two volcanoes that are still considered active. The only downside to our experience is that the information was so plentiful I am having a hard time remembering more than a few bits of it.

In any event, after the education is complete Doc will cut any of the stones for you, at prices ranging from $20 to $35 depending on the stone. Then you can choose how to use the finished product. The odds of striking it rich with $10 of ore are long, but the odds of getting more than you paid for are high. We had something that to my untrained eye appeared to be nothing more than a somewhat smooth rock, yet it proved to be a star ruby that cut to 14 carats and appraised at more than $600. Not long ago, a child customer at Doc's Rocks wound up with something that he sold for $113,000.

We went there on Friday and got 49 "worth something" stones from a single shovelful. We chose to have three of them cut (the star ruby, plus an emerald and a tourmaline) and when we returned to pick up the cut stones on Saturday, we mined two more shovelfuls and ended up with an additional 57 "worth something" stones.

From that second batch, we chose to have one garnet and one sapphire cut. Those are being shipped to us and I will post before-and-after photos when they arrive, but in the meantime, below is a picture of the cut tourmaline from our first visit. Erika will probably use it as a setting for a necklace.

With five "worth something" stones cut, we put the other 101 into a bin. They may not be worth much, but they are worth something, and already our two visits to Doc's Rocks have more than paid for themselves. Maybe we will have him cut some of the other 101 at a later date, but whether we do or not, we are sure to visit Doc's Rocks the next time we are in the area. You should do the same.

One final thing I want to mention is that the flume has heated water and is located inside. That won't matter if you visit in June, but it will if you visit in the winter and the temperature is what my car's on-board temperature gauge said it was when we parked there on Friday:


  1. Thanks for the write up. My family and I are in Blowing Rock on vacation this week, and wanted to stop by Doc's. I was a bit skeptical, but a couple reviews on Trip Advisor persuaded me to at least check it out.

    I pulled in the parking lot today to scope the place out, but an employee stopped me and let me know that their power was temporarily being shut off for service and they, unfortunately, had to shut the doors for the afternoon.

    After reading your review, we will definitely stop in tomorrow and buy a few shovelfuls.

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