Purple mountain majesties

Did you know that Arizona claims a  precious gemstone, of which there is only one known source on the planet, as its own?

Siberian Red is a type of amethyst originally discovered in the Ural Mountains on the other side of the globe. It is purple, like most natural amethyst that typically originates from South America. However, the Siberian Red variety has a distinctively dark purple hue with flashes of ruby red that attract gem cutters worldwide. The mine in the Ural Mountains was pinched out years ago, but the Four Peaks Amethyst Mine continues to produce the stone. The deposit was known to early territorial explorers who have actively worked the deposit as a business venture off and on for the past century. The crown jewels of several European countries contain Siberian Red amethyst from Arizona’s world-famous mine.

The distinctive Four Peaks range can be seen by gazing east from Fountain Hills. Just look for four mountain peaks aligned of about the same size. Along with Weaver’s Needle, the San Francisco Peaks of Flagstaff and the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Four Peaks is one of the most recognizable geological features of Arizona. If you have excellent eyesight, you might even be able to spot the mine situated between the two southernmost peaks.

Rock hounds occasionally enjoy a vista, but our heads are often tilted down, scanning the ground for lithic treasures. Spotting a rock hound is easy as they often end up with cactus needles stuck in their foreheads. I confess to a lifelong affection for hunting for rocks, and I hold fond childhood memories of adventures with my dad as we searched the desert southwest for interesting stones. There is something thrilling about finding a rock in the wild, and bringing it home to study, cut and polish. When you live in the city, rockhounding requires committed weekends following vague maps from various rockhounding guides, or the occasional tip generously passed along by an old timer or desert rat. Being a Chrysler man, my dad considered ground clearance to be a trivial handicap that could be overcome with mass and momentum.

Recently, Sami Fine Jewelry of Fountain Hills and the owner of the Four Peaks Amethyst Mine gave me the opportunity to elevate my rockhounding obsession to a new level. Less than an hour after arriving in downtown Fountain Hills, I was digging for rare amethyst at a mining camp 7,000 feet above sea level in the rugged Mazatzal Mountains.

Doug Hill, our shuttle driver, drove our tidy group of five adventurers about 30 minutes north on the Beeline Highway to an abandoned ranch where an idle helicopter awaited. Along the way, he provided us with a contemporary history of the mine. He taught us that the word amethyst means ‘not intoxicated’ and that the ancient Greeks believed that alcohol would not make you drunk if taken from an amethyst chalice. Once we arrived at the staging point, we were briefed on safety procedures and promptly boarded the mine shuttle bird. Minutes later we were airborne and headed eastbound toward the peaks.

Approaching the peaks was exhilarating. I was fortunate to be riding shotgun with the pilot, so I got a firsthand view of the unapparent landing site. When the mining camp came into view, I could see it was on a small shelf nestled within the sheer vertical cliffs of the peaks. The pilot lets me know that concern was unwarranted as we hugged the cliff face on approach. Moments later, the skids lighted on a small designated landing zone and we were efficiently escorted off the helicopter and led up a short trail to the main camp amidst the rotor wash.

Greeting us at the camp was the mine owner, Kurt Cavano, who extended our education by providing a geologic history of the mine. He described a recipe for creating the Siberian Red amethyst which included intense pressure, silica-laden, super-heated water, iron and a special ingredient: manganese. The coveted gemstone is produced only after 1.3 billion years of baking in the proper conditions.

Only two full-time miners are currently employed to work the Four Peaks mine. Considering that there is no vehicular access to the area high up on the cliffs, their commute consists of a five-mile hike (with 70-pound backpacks) through the rugged Four Peaks wilderness. The miners take enough provisions for two-week mining sessions because of the access difficulty. Captured rain is a source of water, and a few solar batteries provide a little electricity for some evening television entertainment.

Mining for amethyst consists of digging with screwdrivers in the soft matrix, following seams of the amethyst deposit. Explosives along with other percussive mining methods cannot be utilized as the gemstone is easily fractured – rendering it worthless. Twice each year, in the spring and fall, the mine owner rents a helicopter to recover the mined crystals. About 2,000 pounds of material is removed from the mountain each year. The load is then ‘high graded’ (sifted for quality) to about 50 pounds of potential gem-quality material. This select ‘rough’ is then shipped to China for cutting as China is home to some of the finest gem cutters in the world. Only a handful of cut gems returns to Arizona, where they are then set in jewelry by lapidary artisans such as those at Sami Fine Jewelry.

We were fitted with proper mining helmets and met the resident miners who escorted us inside the mine. The distance from the entrance to the back wall of the mine was only about 40 feet. Kurt explained that there had been six different entrances over the century or so of active mining. However, only one entrance is still currently available for use. Rock slides and diminished returns have kept the mine entrance moving.

Standing inside the mine proper was like being inside of a geode. The light from our headlamps revealed glistening walls and ceiling of amethyst crystals. Certain areas were roped off as they were actively being mined, but there were many other exposed places available for scratching. I found an area that  looked promising and began to dig with my screwdriver. It did not take much effort to dislodge a cascade of fine sand from the hole I was digging. My natural rock hound instincts took over, and I had a hunch there was something there. After poking and scraping, I uncovered a small flat surface, the telltale side of a crystal! I carefully chipped away in the surrounding material as the crystal  became more exposed. After a few minutes of prodding, I noticed the crystal jostle a bit indicating it could be liberated. I gripped the crystal with my free hand and carefully removed it from the wall. In the interest of saving time, I simply bagged the gem and went back to digging. Long before I was ready to end my short prospecting career, we were notified that our lift back to civilization was on its way to the landing zone.

Paving the ground around the entrance to the mine was a gravel made up of sun-bleached amethyst tailings. The violet walkway had my eyes pulled to the ground as, being a rock hound, I am always searching for unusual stones. We were encouraged to take anything that captured our interest, so I filled my Ziplock baggy with unique specimens for further study back home.

As the helicopter lifted off, the pilot turned and dove away from the mountain slope. The ride was a thrilling escape from gravity that took my thoughts back to being with my dad, riding in his Chrysler, floating into the sunset with a trunk full of the desert’s treasures.

When is comes to items on Arizona’s “bucket list” The Four Peaks Amethyst Mine tour would be in the top ten. Tours are available one weekend in October and one weekend in April during harvest times. Considering there are a limited number of seats, reservations are required. For more information, contact Sami Fine Jewelry in Fountain Hills at 480-837-8168 or visit samifinejewelry.com.

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