Rock Hunting Begins as a Visual Skill

Rock Hunting Begins as a Visual Skill

Some stones are easier to recognize than others.

It is not a bit unusual for someone to start an avid rockhounding lifestyle purely by accident. One day you see a curiosity lying on the ground and pick it up to find a beautiful specimen of gemstone and you are hooked. That’s how it started for me. I had no education in geology, and though I’d seen specimens here and there, I really didn’t think the average person could just go out and find the things we see in jewelry stores, museums, and gift stores. Finding those first crystals was a life changing experience.

Unfortunately, after a first terrific strike, it is very easy for the beginner to give up in frustration, thinking that all finds will be as easy as the first. Even a beginner that has taken the time and effort to study, may find they have a lot of difficulty finding prizes out in the field. If you are becoming discouraged with telling your friends “well, I needed the fresh air and exercise anyway” instead of “wow, you should see what I found” there are a few things you need to know.

Finding minerals does not require an education in geology. When you are in the field, brain power doesn’t hurt a bit, don’t get me wrong here. In fact as your hobby grows, you will probably become more and more interested and involved with geological study. Recognition, however, is the key to beginning to find excellent gemstones. You can spout geological facts all you want while you are in the field, but if you can’t recognize a stone in the raw or the rock it is associated with when you see it, no amount of knowledge is going to help you out. The plain fact is that many stones just don’t look the same after being cut and polished as they do in the rough and if you don’t know what the gem bearing rock looks like in any specific area, you can be very close to a great outcropping of incredible stones and walk right by it without a glance.

Needless to say, when starting out your rockhounding lifestyle, you need to gather all the visual information you can get about minerals and gemstones, and the particular areas you are going to search in. While most people have heard of rubies, sapphires, agates, jasper, and the more common stones, there are hundreds of lesser known stones that you may have never heard of where you are going to search. For instance you may never have heard of orpiment, yet it is a common mineral you may run into out in the field in many areas of the states. So your first quest is to actually see as many different stones as you can to get an idea of what types of minerals you can find.

You can find pictures of minerals on the Internet or in books. While these pictures do help immensely, you’re going to want to see as many different types of minerals up close and personal in the raw as you can, too. Museums and rock and gem shops and shows are a good place to go to see samples of mineral specimens. Sometimes these will be displayed “raw”, with no touch-up other than cleaning. Just as importantly, many times the matrix (host) rock will be attached to some specimens. Learning to recognize matrix rock is vitally important because the matrix rock will often be what you use as your beacon when figuring out exactly where to hunt when you’re in the field. Remember, even when you are following a guidebook to get to a good location for a mineral, you still will have a wide area that you’re going to have to cover to find what you’re looking for once you get to the “x” that marks the spot in the book. Knowing the name and composition of the host rock may be important later as you become better at finding stone, but as a beginner, you just need to learn to recognize it when you see it.

It is important to note that matrix rock for a given mineral may different from location to location, too, so you will want to be aware of the matrix rock in the particular area you are going to hunt. For example, if you find garnets at Ruby Hill in Colorado then go to Idaho to find garnets, you will not find them in rock that in any way resembles the garnet bearing rock at Ruby Hill, Colorado. If you then go hunt garnets in Upstate New York, you’re not going to find them in rock that resembles either of those locations. You could spend ages walking past garnet bearing rock and just not recognize it if you use what you found elsewhere as reference.

Shape also varies from location to location. Keeping with the example of garnets, you are not always going to find them in nice little stones with multiple faces. In some locations they will be massive, different colors, or rounded from water wear.

In the field there’s also the added problem of the minerals not being clean. What you have seen at rock shows, museums, and in pictures, no matter how “raw” they are…they’ve still been cleaned up. One of my favorite dogtooth crystal plates had been walked over by many people. All I could see in the mud coated cavity were a few telltale prism shapes poking through the dirt. When cleaned up, that rock was a beautiful half of a geode. Only because I recognized a few shapes under the coating allowed me to take home the prize that so many others had missed. My niece learned to quickly recognize agate by the way it looked when struck by sunlight. I took her to an agate field and just started pointing them out to her, then pointed out the waxy look when we picked them up. She was off and running in no time, able to distinguish agate from quartz or other rock with ease.

While you might be able to tell you have a particular mineral, sometimes you have to have that specimen cut before you can see the full quality of what you have picked up. Agates are often very misleading, even after cleaned up. Yet a good eye can be developed so you can tell which specimens have the best odds of being incredible when cut.

Below is an example of one agate in the raw and after cutting.

Owyhee agate
On the left is this agate as it looked in the field. On the right is the same agate sliced.

A little bit of instruction can go a long way in starting your hobby. It’s a good idea to connect with experienced people who will take you out with them on a hunt. You may have a local gem club that will allow you to go on field trips. They may charge a small fee to join the club, but you will save a lot of time learning what to look for in the field. If you have fee digs in your area (mines that let you dig for a small fee), those are excellent places to start learning to hunt on your own. There are attendants there that can help you learn what you are looking for. There are forums, just like the one on this site, where people are willing to meet-up for hunts with other forum members.

Be patient if you are having trouble finding great gemstones when you first start your hunting trips. It takes time and practice to train your eyes to see what you are looking for. Once your eye is trained to recognize what you are seeing when you see it in the raw, you won’t be telling your friends “at least I got some fresh air” nearly as much as you will be showing off the specimens you brought in with you. Until that time comes, just remember, even the best of the hunters get skunked sometimes. Trust me on that one.

© Sally Taylor

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