By Dan Frank
A lot can happen in five summers. Five years ago, a good friend suggested we catch a rock and gem show. While there, I saw an opal from the Rainbow Ridge mine (a fee dig in the Virgin Valley, NV) and decided, “I need a piece of that.” What ensued was a path that led me to the high desert of south-central Oregon and the sunstone beds near Plush, Oregon. That path also narrowed and focused my rock hounding interests. Right now, most of my efforts are in acquiring, tumbling, and faceting the Oregon Sunstone.
The crystals are a plagioclase feldspar and is a form of Labradorite. What makes the Oregon form unique is the presence of elemental copper platelets, resulting in an effect that’s known as “schiller.” You’ll find the gems in decayed basalt deposits left by volcanic eruptions 17 million years ago. The stone is softer than most gemstones, between 6 and 7 on the Mohs scale, but they can be faceted, and, they also tumble nicely. You will find crystals with colors ranging from pale straw – yellow, pinks and reds, and rarer still, hues of green and blue. There is a great introduction to these beauties here: http://www.oregongeology.org/sub/learnmore/sunstones2.htm
The crystals were designated as the official Oregon state gem in the 1980s, and there are several ways to collect examples of your own. There is a free public collecting area, a patch of ground 2 miles by 2 miles where anyone can scratch around and acquire a good pile for their own enjoyment. The picture above shows a small part of area. The BLM has a nice informational flyer here: https://www.blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/files/brochures/sunstone_rec_brochure.pdf My wife and I, and also rock buddy Rick and I, have been out here many times over the last five years. Two years ago my wife also found a nice arrow head — a small game point — in the public area. There are a few campsites in the public area and a pit toilet but there is no water in the area. Plan on bringing your own if you make the trek.
If you believe, as I do, that man has need of solitude, this might be a spot you’ll enjoy. While it may look a little barren on its surface, this area has some of the grandest sunsets and at night, if not overcast, the view of the milky way and the rest of the visible cosmos is breathtaking. It’s also very quiet! The photo at right is a rainbow the appeared on the heels of a short but hard rain squall a couple of years ago.
Below, one of the sunsets that change nightly in an array of never ending combinations of clouds, sunlight and angle.
There are also several fee digs in the area. These are private claims where, for a fee, the mine operators will point you to a pit to dig, set you up in front of a screenings table with graded ore, or to a moving belt where you pick off the passing gems. The pricing for this varies and there are a couple of business models. The Spectrum mine has the most options and their prices are reasonable. The stones pictured below all came from the Spectrum. You can find out about their operation here: http://www.highdesertgemsandminerals.com/html/spectrum_sunstone_mines.html. You can also stop by the Dust Devil mine. They have a different business model and while digging and belt run fees are nominal, any high-grade stone is additional and negotiated starting from the wholesale value. You can get particulars on the Dust Devil at: http://www.dustdevilmining.com/. There is one other fee dig in the area, the Double Eagle mine. I do not have much experience at this mine but there’s more information on the mine at: http://www.doubleeaglemine.com/. You can set up camp anywhere in the public area if the improved campsites are full and hit all of these locations from there as they are within a few miles of each other. Just remember to bring water, provisions, and the clothing and other means required to remain comfortable over a wide range of climate conditions. It can be wet or dry, well below freezing or well over 100 degrees. Also make sure your gas tank is full as the nearest fill up is 30 miles away in Plush. Cell reception, depending on your carrier is non-existent or fleeting at best.
So far, my pursuits and efforts with the sunstone have had an adverse effect on my power bills due to a tumbler going for months at time and it was also the catalyst for a major purchase. The stars fell into place in late 2016 when I scored a near-new Facetron faceting machine (with lots of extra goodies) from a seller on Craigslist. My rock buddy Rick had up to that point been teaching me how to cut stones on his own Facetron.
The picture below shows a sample of my “hoard.” In the gem holder, two round brilliant stones cut on my Facetron. The jewel on the left is 7mm, weighing 1.5ct, the gem on the right is a little over 8mm and weighs 1.85ct. Surrounding the gem holder is some rough that I’m holding on to until I’m a little more confident in my skills. There are some very nice and potentially valuable gems hiding inside these pieces. Below the rough, some examples of what comes out of the tumbler. It’s a long process — about a month, but the results are stunning when displayed in a clear glass bottle with the sunlight hitting it at the right angle.
These gems have captured my imagination. The of history and lore of these crystals is fascinating and there is beauty and possibility limited only by one’s vision, or the wife’s!