Rock World Tales
I had the priveledge of giving a talk on the Baker Ranch thunderegg deposit and the genesis of thundereggs at the EXPO Symposium on July 7th, 2016.
The presenters of this symposium, The Gem Shop, videotaped the proceedings and with careful editing produced a wonderful set of four DVD’s. This handsome set contains all twelve presentations by many major figures in the agate world, a bargain for 99$! Find out all about it and order a copy for yourself at The Gem Shop.
When I was a cabochon cutter in the late 1900’s I felt that plume agates were ideal for jewelry because most jewelers prefer to work on a smaller scale. Their frequent transparency and delicacy of pattern makes plume agates ideal for earrings, rings for the finger and so on. Here are some rings from my selection of antique agate jewelry in The Jewelry Shop that show how well suited plume agates are for fine jewelry.
I began to search for plume agates to cut but the ones I found seemed very rare and special to me and soon I decided I’d rather collect them than cut them. I was living near Boston in those years and the market there was more interested in precious opal, tourmaline and other boring stuff like that… it was frustrating because I preferred to cut cabs with pictures in them. As a result I still have my plume agate collection which after many years is now for sale.
I hope you will enjoy the talk I gave at The Celebration of Agates in Minnesota in 2012, it shows fine examples of plume agates from six different states in the western US.
In the early days of rockhounding in America it seemed like there was an endless abundance of wonderful agates and jaspers. The hobby of making cabochons grew so large that it was second only to woodworking as the most popular hobby in the US. During that time the great agate discoveries were exploited freely and many were quickly exhausted. Beautiful material was usually cut into slabs and the slabs were used to produce cabochons. It is still possible to find slabs that were set aside by collectors or were never cut into cabochons but it was uncommon to cut a rock in half and polish the face. Toward the end of that period I was making my living cutting cabochons but I was also a collector and a painter and when I saw a slab that was highly artistic I rarely cut it into cabs, it went into my slab collection.
Those who wish to collect the fine early materials should recognize that for the moment it is still possible to collect fine slabs and they offer many advantages to a collector. They are easy to store and display and they are reasonably priced given their rarity and beauty. Slabs and half nodule specimens can be combined in a display with the heavier specimens in the foreground and slabs mounted on stands above and behind them.
A few dealers at today’s rock shows still offer fine polished slabs of the rare early materials but it is not often that one sees a specimen of great beauty that is a saw cut rock with a polished face.
Precision polishing of a flat surface requires special equipment and knowledge and that may have further lessened the interest in flat lapping during the cabochon era.
Morrisonite is considered the King of Jaspers. I fell in love with it when I began cutting cabochons which are like miniature paintings. I felt that the images I could create with Morrisonite were the ones that really made it and I began my quest.
I met Darell Jakobitz, AKA Jake, in the late 1970’s. He sold at the 4th of July show in Madras, Oregon in the summer and once again at the PowWow in Quartzsite during the winter. On those occasions he had unbelievable slabs and many of the ones I bought went into my collection. An entire slab can equal the finest paintings in the world. In the 1980’s Gene Mueller became the principal miner and I went to Cedarburg to buy Morrisonite from him. With his permission I visited the mine in 1994 for a week with my son Miles and saw the mine for the first time. Several photos in Agates II are from Miles collection.
My first visit to the mine was in 1994
When Gene, my son Miles Lane and I arrived at the top rim of the Owyhee River Canyon Gene pointed out the road to the mining claims which goes across the hill and down the canyon wall beyond. From where we were the road dropped down very steeply to the visible area below but the next morning we went to the far side of the hill and down the side of the canyon, that’s when we really hung on for dear life. The dot in the center of the photo is the cabin on the right. It was built by the late Tom Caldwell, the first resident Morrisonite miner.
Gene and I began to talk about geology as the sun rose on the first day, a conversation that went on for years. The time I spent with Gene was a great learning experience. During our visit there Jake and Gene were working together at the area Gene eventually claimed under the name ‘Jake’s Place. As you can see in the photo of Gene tamping the nitro into a six foot drill hole this is indeed hard rock mining.
In 1995 I participating in the mining for a month
I volunteered to help and my reward was being able to buy freshly mined morrisonite at the end of the operations. I didn’t buy much because I was cutting cabs, I wish I had a time machine so I could go back for more!
Gene used an old loader to complete a treacherous road down to his new mining spot, the Christine Marie claim far below Jake’s Place. The loader was also used to remove the muck or waste after an area had been blasted and the jasper had been carefully mined out by hand.
The host rock at the CM Claim is broken up by nature which meant that it could be worked without explosives. We broke out the jasper by hand and Gene removed the muck with the old front end loader, shown above.
The host rock at the Christine Marie mine, above, has been shattered by forces in the earth long ago. The brown junky Morrisonite in the photo on the right was fairly abundant in certain areas and I include the photo because it shows how the jasper occurs in the rock. When it comes to gem jasper Gene said you get about a pound of Morrisonite per ton of rock.
The year before Miles and I had slept in a cabin up above so I just brought along a sleeping bag. When I asked Gene where I could sleep he said “anywhere you like”. Since there was no place for me in his cabin I tried to sleep on the ground but after about ten minuted I had rats in my face. The only way I could get off the ground was to sleep for the whole month in the five foot bed of the Ford Scout. It had front and rear positraction and was ideal for going up and down Gene’s road and I was always so exhausted that I slept fine. Gradually I began to fit in.
Here are some photos of Gene’s cabin which he built against a large boulder from mostly found materials at a cost of 37$.
Jake (right) was working above and came down for a visit. Inside Gene’s hut was the kitchen and across from it his sleeping loft and not much else.
After about a week working in the CM Mine Gene took me further down the road to where there was a large compressor. It was parked a hundred yards or so to the south of his cabin, the compressor was just around the corner in this view of the road from Gene’s cabin. The post sticking out above the road is one of the roof poles of the cabin.
From the compressor we headed up a scree slope and reached the Lower Cliff Dig up a ravine in the canyon wall to the left. The hose from the compressor was dragged up to the dig to run the drill from the compressor. To mine there you had to bring everything we needed for a day’s mining up the scree slope and every bit of Morrisonite was carried down in five gallon buckets. Tough work if you can get it.
In the photo on the left which was taken from about half way to the dig you can just make out the twelve foot long yellow compressor behind the long boulder on the road left of center. The photo on the right is from all the way up to the mine. You can see a red dot far down the scree slope, that’s Gene climbing up from the road.
Once you get to the mine the fun begins. On the left Gene stands on a ledge of solid rock which he is drilling in preparation to blast. You can tell the second photo is the next week because he’s changed his shirt. The blasting is a delicate process actually, too much explosive and the rock is blown apart and the jasper shattered.
The Lower Cliff Dig went directly into the base of a shear rock wall that went straight up above us for a hundred feet or so. The fact that I was willing to mine directly below it is evidence that I assumed that Gene knew what he was doing. Wherever he went I followed, simply putting my life in his hands and enjoying a great adventure. Thanks Gene, we made it!
The shear rock wall can be seen on the left. At the end of many days we had uncovered a vein of Morrisonite that was six feet long that yielded 600 pounds of high quality jasper. He set his camera on a rock and took this photo of us sitting at each end of the vein. He had mined it with such care that at this moment the vein was exposed but still unbroken.
1996 This year I brought a good tent
Jake joined us for this month of mining. He has been prospecting for and mining gem agates and jaspers his whole life and is also a very artistic cabochon cutter. On top of that he is one of the smartest and most considerate men I’ve known. In spite of having a hard youth and only a sixth grade education he is looked up to by everyone who knows him, Gene Mueller and Hans Gamma are close friends of his.
We had a village of 3, truly remote. Gene’s cabin is behind a huge boulder just beyond Jake’s white ten which you will see below. I pitched my tent far off the right, I guess I couldn’t stand the crowd.
Jake’s tent was the most livable of our three camps with a comfy cot and a stove. When I got up in the morning I’d wander in front of his tent and eventually he would call out “Hey Thom, want a cup of bean? The best coffee I ever had.
Here is the man himself in front of his camp that the early Native Americans would have appreciated. He spent more days living like this than under a house roof, almost always by himself, mining and prospecting.
When I arrived the Lower Cliff Dig it had just been blasted and I spent the month mining there. Eventually it was drilled and shot a second time by Jake and he spent some days up with me showing me the proper way to work it. I took these photos then.
On the left Jake had just found a piece of black Morrisonite with lovely orbs, he looks happy! In the center balanced on a rock face is Jake at work. I never saw him rush and I never saw him stumble and he spotted a lot more Morrisonite than I ever did. If nothing else that summer I was the most fit I’ve ever been.
During the time I mined at the Lower Cliff Dig I was mostly working alone except for the happy visits from Jake. Gene was mining the whole time for Christine Marie jasper and produced many great pieces of the highest quality.
TheGemShop.com is the place for great accounts of his many mining operations. I was involved in mining with Gene Mueller for a month in six different years.
He did a lot of mining by himself using heavy equipment in remote places which is more than just risky. In the evenings we generally had a fire and a lot of our talk related to mining. We talked a bit about our families and friends and other miners and various agate deposits. We avoided the areas where we might have disagreed for the most part since I’m an old hippie, for better or worse, and he strikes me as more patriarchal. My life was always in his hands under these conditions and I’m still here so well done, Gene, thank you. I was there for the adventure, I was a cab cutter then and so I never bought much, a pound of rock will cut lots of cabs and my income came from jewelers who were craftspeople.
The internet made it possible for me to become a specimen dealer many years later and as a lifelong collector it suits my temperament much better.
Gene told me how he got started with his life in the rock world. While he was still in college studying painting he went with another guy to Mexico just for travel, they went down the highway toward Ciudad Chihuahua. In Villa Ahumada near the Laguna area he noticed a fine agate specimen by the cash register of a restaurant. He didn’t have enough money to buy it so he talked his fellow traveler out of his wristwatch and made the trade. He bought his friend a new watch when they got home and his painting career ended there. He has worked tirelessly to make a good living for his family while following his love of mining and appreciation of great agates and jaspers and he is as tough as a two dollar steak. A good man.
A big factor in the value of an agate, jaspers, and thundereggs is fashion.
Between 1950 and 1980 there was such an abundance of fine agate coming out of the ground in the US and Mexico that the supply seemed endless. People made a hobby of digging up agates or getting them at shows or at the hundreds of rock shops all over the country. Slabs of this material were used to create cabochons that were worth ten or twenty dollars which was a good profit from a top quality slab or a pound of Laguna rough, either of which might cost less than $5! A half nodule of beautiful agate had little value so good rough was usually cut into slabs. Now, cabs are almost worthless because of mass manufacturing, mostly in the Orient, and half nodules have become very expensive, so this represents a great change in taste and value. The large quantity of slabs left over from the earlier days are inexpensive in comparison to the value half nodules.
If you consider the agates from antiquity very few had flat surfaces. Modern lapidary equipment makes it possible to flat lap an agate so that the pattern in the stone is presented as if looking at a painting and that is now the style. In earlier times a domed surface was considered more desirable because the cutter could bring out the pattern and remove blemishes and thus create a piece that would be seen as the art of the lapidary. Sawing a rock in half and polishing the surface is a craft that requires great skill but little art. Agates that are cut according to the current taste have greater value, at least for the moment.
I cut the specimen below from a chip I picked up while I was working at the Morrisonite deposit. It had damage around the edge and the piece was thin. By doming it I was able to remove the damage and also save the pattern. The price would go up if it had the same pattern with a flat surface.
Another factor that affects price is the condition of the specimen itself. If the face of the agate has a crack, even a tiny one, or a chip on the edge or even a flake off the back the value of the specimen is less. Even minor flaws in the condition of the agate will affect the price. Other factors are the size of the piece and how it sits. A specimen that has to have an elaborate support is less desirable. A small specimen is difficult to appreciate but a large piece shows off the details of its pattern, size does matter. A specimen which has little contrast and is dark is rarely as valuable as an agate which has striking colors and pattern.
There are factors that depend on the life the agate has led such as having been in a famous collection or played a role in history. Some collectors desire specimens which have been featured in publications or major exhibits.
As everyone knows, from a dealer on the street to a graduate from the Harvard Business School, the main factor is supply and demand. If a material floods the market prices will drop and rarity will usually enhances value. Since agates are a surface phenomenon once a good deposit is located it is usually not long before it is worked out. Of course if social or political forces stop production or the source is very large and widely distributed it may be around for a long time. When a type of agate rough is no longer coming to market the price is sure to shoot up.
As with paintings aesthetics are very important. If viewers are struck by the art, the beauty and the elegance of an agate it can bring a fantastic price… the value of an agate is whatever buyers are willing to pay in order to add it to their collection and most collectors are very sensitive to beauty.
The agate below is very valuable because it is at the top of all the above criteria, you can go down the list and each criteria has been met in spades.
I look forward to hearing your comments on this topic, as a dealer I don’t set the prices, ultimately you decide.
In 2012 the Celebration of Agates in Minnesota gave me the chance to talk about plume agates and to show examples of some fine specimens from six different states in the western US.
To see fine plume agate slabs from my collection you should visit The Slab Shop.
To see the plume agate cabochons I have for sale please visit The Cabochon Shop. The Jewelry Shop is the place to shop for antique agate jewelry. There are rings and pendants set with Priday Plume cabochons.