In the rugged high desert of south central Oregon, embedded in ancient volcanic lava under the sage brush and grass, lies Oregon sunstone.
Shot through with copper, sunstone from this locality has mesmerized miners and designers alike. It has inspired vacation rockhounds to put down stakes in Oregon’s mining country, and has spawned a hearty fraternity of diggers determined to bring the Oregon state stone into the sunlight.
“This is really, really unusual material. There’s nothing like it available anywhere else in the world,” says Don Buford, co owner of Dust Devil Mining Co., one of the two biggest mechanized sunstone operations in the state.
“The beauty sweeps you off your feet,” says Albuquerque jewelry designer Paula Crevoshay of Mellika Co. Inc.
The challenge for sunstone aficionados is to familiarize the American jewelry buying public with this unique, sparkling feldspar. Thus far, experts say, the obstacles have been insufficient supply, an inconsistent variety of color, and some high prices.
What makes Oregon sunstone, a transparent feldspar, unique is the brilliant metallic glitter that comes from the reflection of varying amounts and patterns of copper that thread through the gem. This effect is called schiller, or aventurescence. Although sunstone is also mined in India, stones with copper (and therefore schiller) are so far unique to southern Oregon.
Oregon sunstone is mined in two broad areas of the state more than 100 miles apart: the Ponderosa mine in Harney County, in southeastern Oregon, and the Plush mining area in Lake County, southwest of the Ponderosa.
Sunstone rough comes in a range of colors: clear, a very pale yellow, pink schiller, orange, spinel red, green, and the most rare, blue green.
“Pink schiller is very unusual,” says Buford. “It doesn’t look like anything else in the world. Like an opal, every stone is different.” Many stones are bicolored or tricolored. Sunstone is also a color change stone which, like alexandrite, has different colors under different lights; it is also pleochroic, changing colors with different angles.
Native Americans in the Northwest once picked the glittering transparent gems from the ground. Today, tourists and amateur rock hounds still comb the dirt around Plush for sunstone nuggets. Some of them choose to stay undaunted by the rugged terrain and temperatures that can plummet from 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) to below freezing after dark.
Wayne Hartgraves uncovered his first sunstone in 1959, at age 14, when he was rockhounding with his grandparents. Today, he runs the Hart Mountain General Store & Saloon at the foot of Hart Mountain, famed for its hot springs and antelope refuge. Semi retired, Hartgraves also runs Plush Diamond Works, which mines next door to Dust Devil Mining. The company has been bringing up 250 kilos of sunstone per season, working part time. Hartgraves cuts much of his own rough (the rest goes to cutters in Thailand), selling it in his general store to tourists.
“I love it because when you cut it, each is unique,” says Hartgraves. “It’s being sold and marketed, just not in quantity…. It’s not amethyst or topaz. It’s relatively rare.”
Marjorie Teitelbaum of Wareham, Massachusetts, also graduated from sunstone rockhound to mine owner. A college professor, she started rockhounding in 1964 in Maine for garnet and tourmaline, and ventured across the continent as far as Arkansas and Alaska.
“I had hunted for sunstone in New York in an old iron mine. When I saw the [Oregon] sunstones, I fell in love with them, and, learning the first claims filed in the area were for sale, I bought them in 1983,” she says. “I always thought I should specialize. I said, ‘someday I want to be the Sunstone Queen.'”
That’s what she became when she bought 15 claims on 300 acres from miner Bob Rogers for $28,000. Much of that area had been owned by Tiffany & Co. for the first half of the century, and then Rogers filed the first claims in the 1970s.
“When we first went out there, you would go five days without seeing the dust trail of a car,” says Teitelbaum, who mined, cut, and even set gems. She still recalls when the state geologist asked her for a huge block to send to Philadelphia for the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. A monument was being erected by the Liberty Bell that would contain stone from every state. Teitelbaum offered a four ton block which was shaped down and engraved with a map of the state.
Teitelbaum sold her claims in 1992 and 1997, retaining lifetime digging rights. She tossed in the Last Chance claim, which had proven a big disappointment to her when it failed to yield many colored sunstones. “Last Chance was only good because it was a crossroads and a place to hang a sign to get to my trailer,” says Teitelbaum.
But Teitelbaum’s “Lost Chance,” as she called it, was to become a bonanza for the Dust Devil boys, Don Buford and partners Terry Clark and Steve Hackler.
The Boy Scouts Lapidary Explorers Post brought Buford and his family to Plush in 1991. “We needed a place to collect stones,” says Buford. “We found three abandoned claims and filed. It grew out of that. The post folded up, and we still had the claims. It went from a hobby with kids to a business.”
After digging with a pick and shovel on weekends and vacations, Buford and Clark decided to mechanize their operation, building a processing machine from scrap and putting it on a school bus. Five years ago, joined by Hackler, they quit their jobs and started mining full time during mining season, June to October or November.
Then their neighbor, who had bought Teitelbaum’s Last Chance, hired Dust Devil to remove the overburden from his digging. “It was called Lost Chance by a previous owner [Teitelbaum] because she thought it was a totally worthless claim,” says Buford. “We found the biggest, best colored stones we had ever seen and seven times the quantity per yard that we were getting at our mine.” The next day, Dust Devil decided to buy Last Chance and five more claims.
Today, Dust Devil has 12 claims and a smooth running operation. The D 9 Caterpillar bulldozer tears into the ground to chop up the boulders in the prehistoric lake bed. The dirt then goes through the mechanized portable processing plant where it is loaded onto a “grizzly” for sorting, then put in a hopper to separate crystals from the basalt rock. The washed chunks roll out on a conveyor belt, where pickers process 32 cubic yards a day, recovering about one pound of sunstone per ton of material.
This past year was not very good; they excavated fewer than 100 kilos of colored material. “We’ve had a lot of equipment problems, and we’re getting deep in the back of the pit. We’re getting deeper into harder rock, and it’s getting harder to process,” Buford says. The good news is that the front of the pit is waiting to be mined.
The Ponderosa Mine, 160 miles north of the Plush area, is the mine with the biggest potential for production, says Lawrence Gray, owner of The Mines Group, which owns and operates the Ponderosa.
In fact, the Ponderosa produces so much that it doesn’t have to be mined every year, says Gray. He estimates production capability in the “tens of millions of dollars a year.”
Unlike the Plush valley, the sunstone bounty in Harney County was discovered only 20 years ago, when logging crews bulldozing access roads in the Ochoco National Forest dug into decomposed basalt flows and uncovered deposits of the gem. The Ponderosa mine quickly became active, producing most of America’s feldspar output within years.
Gray’s romance with sunstone began in the mid 70s, when he was a gem buyer working with a producer in the Plush area. In 1988, impressed with its potential, he decided to try his own hand at mining the stone.
Eager to retire, today Gray has the Ponderosa up for sale. He canceled a pending sale to Janus International Inc. last year because he didn’t like their “management policy.”
There is not much mechanized mining in Oregon aside from Dust Devil and the Ponderosa. Four miles north of the Hart Mountain General Store right next to the Dust Devil property is a public digging area of four square miles, where rockhounds peck at deposits with picks and shovels.
One “vacation” miner is Judith Whitehead, a gem dealer from San Francisco. Whitehead became enamored by the stone on a mining vacation to Plush. Today, she is secretary of Sunstone Inc., a two year old cooperative of likeminded diggers that leases a 150 acre claim near Plush.
“You drive 25 miles into the desert. There’s nothing there but sage brush. No trees, no shade. You bring everything in,” says Whitehead. “This year we bought a jackhammer and a generator. Before that, it was pick and shovel. You put dirt on a screen and roll it around to get the mud off. Then you pick up anything that looks like crystal. So far it’s been small pieces.”
If the jewelry buying public isn’t yet familiar with Oregon sunstone, the nation’s top designers certainly are, and they’re winning awards with it.
Will Cox of Provo, Utah, took first place in 1996 in the American Gem Trade Association Cutting Edge Awards carving division with a sunstone piece. The next year, Larry Winn of Grand Junction, Colorado, took third place in the combination division with his 13 carat “Paisley Pear” in red orange Oregon sunstone.
Winn says that he had looked “for years and years and years” for a sunstone large enough to carve before finding one with Dust Devil. Besides the unique color, he likes the “intrigue of an American gemstone.”
Designer Crevoshay has a standing order with Dust Devil for red stones with diagonal pink schiller bars. Crevoshay often uses feldspar stones in her work, and has done a series of lily etchings on sunstone and moonstone.
“Peachy, pale with a lot of schiller, sunstone has a beautiful soft ethereal [tone]. It’s gorgeous, it glows. Nature has really astounded us with feldspar. It’s one of my favorites. They’re so gorgeous,” says Crevoshay. “Sunstone is very affordable and very beautiful…. [But] it’s a more recent gem [than emerald, ruby, and sapphire]. It hasn’t had as much time to become a household [word].”
Give it time, agrees Gray. “It’s becoming very much more known. Look at tanzanite. Tiffany introduced it 27 years ago [and it only recently became widely popular]… Look at sunstone, No one knew what it was in 1988 when we started mining. Virtually everyone in the world knows it now. We’ve sold it all over the world.”
Sunstone producers have been encouraging the television shopping channels to promote sunstone, but it’s proven difficult. For one thing, the wide variety of colors makes it difficult to match stones for pieces like earrings.
“People keep telling us this is the new tanzanite,” says Buford. “This would be wonderful. But I don’t know because of the broad range… QVC wants every stone to match.”
Second, Oregon sunstone is still not mass produced in sufficient quantity to create a demand. “There’s not so much out there to create a market,” says Whitehead. “Jewelers need supply, and the price needs to be reasonable. Usually, the reds are way up there [in price]. It makes it kind of difficult to create interest. Usually people don’t want to spend that much on a relatively less known stone.”
Buford estimates that pink schiller cabochons cost $10 to $20 a carat, and faceted stones, $20 to $40 a carat; oranges and reds range from $40 a carat for light color to $500 a carat for very intense shades. “Spinel red” stones have recently been valued at $1,750 per carat.
Sunstone is very expensive to mine, says Buford. Miners get one pound of sunstone out of a ton of dirt and rock. Less than a quarter of that is colored, and probably only half is gem grade.
It’s a catch 22, says Gray, because miners aren’t going to produce and send orders to cutters until they know they have the market. “The market is there. It’s already been established to meet the current demand. We have to increase production from the mines to the cutters.”
For now, however, the market is generally “very upscale” jewelry designers, and not large manufacturers, says Gray. Oregon sunstone is also bought primarily by hobbyists, custom cutters, and, of course, tourists to the Oregon mining sites.
To attract buyers, Dust Devil advertises the fact that Oregon sunstone is “the all natural, all American gemstone,” with no heat treating, irradiation or oiling. “One of the first questions customers ask is, ‘is it heat treated or color enhanced?’ “Says Buford, who hopes that Oregon sunstone’s lack of enhancement will give it an edge over other gems.
Even if Oregon sunstone breaks into the mainstream market, some of the stones will remain collectors’ material because of their beauty and romance, concludes Buford.
“Artists work with it because some of it is so spectacular, the way the schiller can twist around and put feathers [in the stone].”
Many of the things that make Oregon sunstone so appealing – including the wide variety of colors and the unique effects created by schiller – also make it a hard sell to the mass market. But a new source of sunstone is poised to change all that.
Trademarked Golden Sunstone™ by its discoverer, gemologist and author Joel Arem, the material is unlike any sunstone discovered to date.
“It’s all the things that red sunstone is not,” says Arem. For one thing, it has a consistent color – a golden, straw yellow that’s comparable to the color of yellow beryl – with very little variation, even in large sizes.
Second, there’s a lot of it, “enough to supply any conceivable market demand,” asserts Arem. “Any. Supply will not ever be a problem.” He’s currently estimating that production from the mine – located in an unspecified area of North America – will run to several million carats per year.
The material is found in large sizes, an average of five to 10 carats, with stones more than 20 carats “somewhat routine,” and “cut gems over 50 carats available on a regular basis,” according to Arem. The largest stone found so far weighs 258 carats, and he’s confident that larger ones will be found.
Given the plentiful supply, the material is affordable even compared to Oregon sunstone. Arem anticipates that it will wholesale for $8 per carat in sizes up to one carat, with prices gradually increasing up to $50 per carat for stones in the 20-carat range. Because the color is so uniform, he says, “grading becomes a non-issue. Price is strictly a function of size.”
Another plus is that, unlike Oregon sunstone, Golden Sun stone is very clean, making it tougher than its Mohs 6 hardness would imply. An interesting side effect of the purity of the crystals is something Arem calls “pseudo-dispersion.” The facets of the cut gems take such a high polish that they pick up and reflect colors from the stone’s surroundings, producing an effect similar to dispersion in diamonds.
While the material has many assets that its Oregon counterpart doesn’t, they do share one big plus: neither of them are treated in any way.
Given the advantages of Golden Sunstone, Arem is justifiably excited about its commercial prospects. “What makes a stone go from being a collectors’ stone to being a commercial stone is availability,” he says, comparing it to the situation with tanzanite in the early 90s, when a sudden increase in supply led to a meteoric rise in popularity.
“[Golden Sunstone] is going to have the same market impact as blue sapphire,” he predicts. “This will become [the standard for] sunstone, and all the others will be fancy sunstone, That’s how I see the market evolving over the next three to five years.”
Arem has teamed with wholesale gemstone company Cachet & Co. to market the material. As of early February, they were test-marketing Golden Sunstone to a variety of outlets, everything from high-end designers and jewelers to television shopping networks.
“We are not specifically attempting to target any one [market] today,” says Robert Kohut, vice president of marketing for Cachet & Co. “Ultimately, the consumer will give us the excitement response we’re looking for. Then we are prepared to go forward in whatever area is most appealing.”
But if Golden Sunstone takes off, Arem isn’t planning to leave its Oregon counterpart in the dust. He says he’s organizing a co-op of major sunstone producers, and will market their material along with his own. “We can create the niche market that [Oregon sunstone miners] desire without the quantities needed to support a mass marketing program.”