In scenic Alexander County, men, women and children are pulling stones out of the earth that have been there for thousands and thousands of years, some are even mining native emeralds.
“It’s a thrill to find something no one else has seen before,” Mike Watkins said, who is a geologist and gemologist as well as the master faceter for gemstone cutting at Hiddenite Gems Inc., where Emerald Hollow Mine is located. “We have found over 63 different types of gems and minerals.”
Emerald Hollow Mine is located in Hiddenite and on its website boasts of being “the only emerald mine in the United States open to the public for prospecting.”
Watkins is proud of the mines distinction.
“We are the only emerald mine in the entire world that allows the public to come in and dig for a fee and they get to keep what they find,” Watkins said, adding, “North Carolina is the only place in North America where emeralds have been found.”
In 2009, an emerald was found on a farm near Emerald Hollow Mine, which was compared to an emerald worn by Catherine the Great of Russia.
Watkins himself has been interested in geology and gemology since he started collecting arrowheads and quartz when he was young. His fascination became something more and he attended North Carolina State University and graduated in 1976. He also is a graduate of the Gem Institute of America.
Emerald Hollow Mine has been in business since 1986, and since that date, the mine has been visited by gem-seekers from all 50 states and several countries. Some of whom were successful in finding emeralds, but Watkins warns that the task of finding an emerald isn’t an easy one.
“Emeralds aren’t easy and the digging part of it is really, really hard work,” Watkins said, adding that those who are willing to be persistent can be rewarded. “Usually we have some found two or three times a week. Persistency and luck are the two keys to digging out here.”
In addition to emeralds, the mine also is home to other gems and minerals, including hiddenite, which is a greenish color.
“The hiddenite gets its green color form chromium,” Watkins said. “We’ve found some topaz that is very bright. We also find sapphires here and that is just unheard of.”
In addition to the mine, the property is home to two streams that can be panned, sluicing stations and a lapidary shop, where gems are cleaned up and cut on site and can be made into jewelry.
For those who don’t want to put in the labor needed to dig in the mine, buckets of dirt can be purchased to be sorted at a sluicing station. Buckets of native dirt can be purchased, “salted” buckets, which guarantee the purchaser some sort of gem or mineral is in the dirt.
While the visitors the mine gets from around the world are important to them, perhaps the most important visitors the mine gets throughout the year are the school children that visit during field trips each year.
“In spring and fall, we concentrate on the school field trips,” Watkins said. “They are taught how to look for minerals and gems. We do a gold panning demonstration. It’s a really, really good program.”
The mine is located in the Hiddenite community of Alexander County and is open seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to sunset.
“We’re off the beaten path a little bit so when people come here they have to go out of their way to get here,” Watkins said. “We have people from all over the world come here, it’s a mecca of the gem industry.”
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