WHAT’S UP WITH THE ROCKS?
Could it be the shine? Maybe the color? Or possibly the glimmer of jewelry dangling from people’s ears?For some reason, people seem to be interested in collecting stones. We set out to find out why.
Written and photography by Victor Gibbs
THE EASIEST WAY TO GET STARTED
WITH ITS ABUNDANT MINERAL WEALTH, the rock hounding in Southern New Mexico is some of the best in the United States. There are many ways to get involved, and plenty of resources to guide you along the way to begin building your collection. Each year, in the middle of February, the Annual Museum ROCKS! Gem and Mineral Show (lcmuseumrocks.com) is held at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. The event is hosted by the Friends of the Museum, and presented by Las Cruces Event Planning. A $7 entry fee (for ages 5 and up) gets you in to see both the show and the museum itself. Food vendors are also on site.
Over 70 vendors of gems, minerals, and jewelry are laid out in six large galleries inside the museum, as well as an open air bazaar within the museum’s central courtyard. Friends of the Museum coordinator Leah Tookie states that between 1,500 and 2,000 people attend the two-day event, attracting people from all parts of the world. “Several of the vendors are local, while others travel from show to show,” she says.
Wandering the cavernous halls, there is a mystery and delight in seeing the various geological treasures. Each vendor has carefully labeled and priced their wares for easy display. Table lamps are installed in many of the booths to bring out the various qualities of the materials. Many of the stones are uncut, while others are polished, each with their own charm and beauty. Vendors use spray bottles of water help to bring out the natural beauty of the stones.
NEED TO KNOW TERMINOLOGY
Rock Hound: One who searches for rocks in the natural state.
Lapidary: One who cuts, polishes, or engraves stones from raw material.
Cabochon:Domed head polished stone, precursor to jewelry manufacture.
Many of the uncut stones, such as geodes and rose quartz crystals, are found in their natural forms. Fossils, including trilobites and nautilus shells, are largely intact after being removed from their geological strata. Rows of minerals for sale present a dazzling array of bright green, orange, blue, purple, and yellow colors that are more amazing than the local variety of surface rocks. Particularly impressive are two-foot long sections of selenium crystals, similar to those that created the nearby White Sands National Monument.
Many of the stones are cut and placed into trays, waiting for jewelers to fashion them into bolo ties or pendants. Smaller gem stones can also be found for rings or earrings. Strands of beads, silver cords, and mountings are all available for purchase.
If you don’t have the skills to make your own jewelry, many vendors are solely dedicated to selling completed pieces. One local jewelry dealer (Spirited Stone Jewelry; 575- 520-1866) can even provide microscopic TIG welding to effect repairs if your favorite piece is broken.
The Museum ROCKS! Gem and Mineral Show has an educational component to it. Valerie Peebles, with the Las Cruces Gemcrafters and Explorers Club (575-524-9497), allows visitors to look into a dark box with minerals inside. When placed under a black light, these minerals glow with amazing colors of yellow, purple and green. This type of display provides a new level to the fun of collecting rocks.
White Sands National Monument presents an informative demonstration of gypsum dune formations, and representatives from New Mexico State University’s Zuhl Museum (zuhlmuseum.nmsu.edu) display several selections of polished petrified wood from their extensive collection.
The Zuhl Museum contains over 1,000 specimens of fossils, petrified rock, and other minerals.
Places to Flock for Rocks
The Las Cruces Farmers’ & Crafts Market (fcmlc.org) is another good source for gems and minerals. The award-winning market operates on Wednesday and Saturday mornings along Main Street in Downtown Las Cruces, with a larger showing on Saturdays.
Charlie (Chaz) and Jim Enos set up each week at their usual spot outside the Southwest Environmental Center to sell their wares. They operate two separate businesses, Jim’s Slabs and Cabs, and Creations by Chaz. Jim is the raw materials side of the operation. Large tubs of water with half inch slabs of various agates dominate one side of their booth. According to Jim, the water brings out the true colors of the slabs, and is an indication of how the stone will look when polished. When pulled from the water, they have a dull look to them.
Agate: One of the most common materials used in the art of hardston carving, and has been recovered at a number of ancient sites.
In the central portion of the booth, there are flat cases with polished and rounded cabochons, or “cabs.” The cabs have been processed from the slabs similar to those in the adjacent tubs. “Some people like them like this, others make jewelry out of them,” Jim says.
Chaz chimes in, “Once you have these cabs around, you have to do something with them.” She uses them to make the beautiful jewelry on display for her business.
“New Mexico is a mineral Mecca,” Chaz says, listing off an impressive array of stones available for rock hounding in the state: turquoise, crisocola, jasper, agate, calcite, fluorite, silver, gold, copper, petrified wood, fossils, garnets, travertine (candy rock), and geodes. She recommends a book called Gem Trails of New Mexico, by James R. Mitchell, in order to locate and identify New Mexico’s mineral wealth. Chaz says that the stones have a variety of uses, from display, healing, mosaics, and jewelry.
Trilobite: One of the earliest known groups of arthropods and among the most successful of all animals, they roamed the oceans for over 270 million years.
Chaz got into collecting rocks as a child because the minerals were pretty, though Jim’s reason was a little more practical: “The fishing isn’t any good in this state, and I had to figure out something else to do with my time.”
Asked how others become involved in rock hounding, Jim and Chaz recommend attending meetings of local gem and mineral clubs. Las Cruces, Deming, and El Paso all have such clubs. Another idea is to attend gem and mineral shows, and both recommend the largest show in the world, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Showcase, held over a month-long period in various areas of the city. The prices vary a lot at the big shows, so one has to be educated about what the rocks are worth, to ensure a good deal.
A little further down the Farmers’ Market is Jack Shaver, who runs an operation called Cactus Jack’s. He’s quick to point out the amazing variety of all the gem, mineral, and jewelry places available to market goers. As a 16-year veteran of the market, Jack pretty much knows everyone around. He deals mostly in cabs, and shows a beautiful display of polished orange and turquoise stones ready for mounting into jewelry. “These were made with a six wheel grinder by shaping and removing material to make the domed look,” he explains.
Selenite: Some of the largest crystals ever found, selenite is the crystalline form of gypsum. The largest gypsum dunefield in the word is located in White Sands National Monument.
Asked about how one gets involved in the hobby, Jack says: “For kids, it’s fossils. They are fascinated by dinosaurs and the like. Retired folks might try the Munson Senior Center (575-528-3000) which offers lapidary classes.
Whether you’re into rock hounding for finding a great treasure on the landscape, or if you’re growing a collection of mineral specimens, Southern New Mexico is truly the place to be.