By Dean (Dino) Nasco
Mining Mason Mountain rhodolite is truly a labor of love,
in that a ton of work, and I do mean a "ton" is necessary to produce a
mere palm full of cutting quality gems.

This gem is unlike its Indian and African counter parts as this garnet
derives its name from the mountain rhododendron which grows here in
the mountains of North Carolina where Rhodolite "was first discovered".
It is a true rich rhododendron purple color without the red and brown
overtones of other "so called" rhodolite garnet. It occurs in a granite
type vein in mica pockets, on top of Mason Mountain near Cowee Valley
just outside of Franklin, NC.

It forms in typical rhombic dodecahedral
crystals, from peppercorn and pea size to golf ball size, and sometimes
larger. This sounds real good to us cutters, but thereís a small problem
and itís called mica. These particular crystals decided to form with layers
of mica through out them. This makes them separate easily into many pieces
or thin plates which leaves a small percentage of material thats good for
faceting. Along with this and a few other nasties is what makes cutting
material so rare and sought after. The majority of this rhodolite is locked
up in solid granite rock for which there is no way to remove it in tact.

"It almost makes me cry as a cutter",
when right before me is a boulder the size of a pickup truck, packed so
full of rhodolite that the whole thing looks purple and thereís nothing
I can do to getíem out. So now we do the next best thing, we move huge
boulders and tons of earth in search of deteriorated granite with mica
pockets, where we hope to find what we lovingly call a "ball". Mica
layered rhodolite crystal that we can easily remove with hand tools.

We start by removing loose overburden and rocks with the track hoe and dig
down in an area where we hope to find those elusive pockets of blackish gold
mica containing rhodolite.

Once we start seeing the right color dirt coming
out, I climb down to check the bottom and sides of the hole to see if they
contain any color. Sometimes I even get a bucket ride into the hole when the
sides are to steep to climb or when water and mud surround the adjacent areas
where we're digging. If I find color then the machines stop and we start
digging by hand, carefully scraping through the deteriorated granite and
mica hoping to find a pocket. And then, there it is and our hard work has
paid off.
Now comes phase two. After we have cleaned out the pocket, on average about
the size of a shoe box, we shovel up the surrounding dirt so as not to miss
anything and head to Tomís house to wash and grade it. This consists of
screening off the dirt and mud and picking out the ball sections and pieces
that look promising. After thats all done we dump all the good stuff into a
bag, thereís roughly about 1 to 2 lbs. of material. I then take the rhodolite
pieces and ball sections home with me to finish cobbing and clipping them at
a later time.

Finally after about 16 hours nipping and clipping and multiple
cut fingers I end up with about 200 cts. of facet material, the majority of
which is from .50 cts too about 1.50 cts in size. We usually end up with a
few nice pieces in the 2 to 5 ct. range, sometime one or two from 6 to 9 cts.
and rarely and I mean rarely a piece over 10 cts.

The main thing to remember
here is that all this takes place over several days, but on occasion we do
hit a small pocket on the first day, which is nice, as Tom and I have shops
to take care of and donít get to dig that often. Now hereís why mining this
material is a labor of love. Tom and I receive no pay for doing this mining
until we cut and sell the stones or sell the cleaned rough. Brown Johnson,
Tomís father provides us with the place to dig, and the machines to dig with,
from there were on our own.

By the time you add up man hours, machine costs,
such as fuel and maintenance, the many hours cobbing and grading the material,
Tom and I will probably do well to break even. But itís worth it!! Itís a
great way to spend a day off. I can tell you now from experience, that theres
no feeling like being down in that hole, tired from working all day and suddenly
see a rhodolite ball the size of a golf ball split open right in front of you,
with that beautiful color staring you in the face. All the while, knowing that
your the first person on earth to ever see it. Thatís a feeling that money canít
buy. There are also many pieces of nice rhodolite in the surrounding float
material around the pockets and beautiful specimens in rock. This material
is loaded into a dump truck and taken down the mountain to be sold to the
public. The Johnson family, who own Mason Mountain also own and operate Mason
Mountain mine and Cowee Gift shop which is located on Hwy. 28 N, outside of
Franklin, NC.

For a small entrance fee the public can buy buckets of gem dirt
and screen them out at their covered flume line. You can buy buckets containing
all types of gems or as many do, just buy the native rhodolite buckets. There
is also beautiful blue kyanite and another gem that looks like catís eye iolite.
I donít think this material is iolite. In fact were really not sure what it is
so we just call it Johnsonite. There is also almandine and pyrope garnet to be
found on the mountain, the combination of which is rhodolite. It is possible
to find some or all of this material in the buckets. Due to insurance
restrictions, the public is not allowed access to the mine itself, but this
doesnít mean you canít find gem rhodolite. The ore they sell in the buckets
is unsearched! So anythingís possible. Be patient, each bucket isnít going to
contain the mother lode, but all will have something in them.

On occasion the elusive 10 ct. plus piece is found by a mine patron, as one happy
gentleman found out for himself! Take your time, wash your material well, and
you might get lucky and find a big one too. You will for sure find some smaller
pieces and nice specimens. If you would like more information about Mason
Mountain Rhodolite mine you can contact Tom Johnson at the mine itself.
If you would like more information about price and availability of high grade
cutting rough contact: Dean (Dino) Nasco at

Remember if your going to mine you own, where old clothes, this
NC red clay doesnít come out easily. There are rest rooms and picnic tables at
the mine, also drinks and snacks are available in the gift shop. So, come spend
a day or two and have some fun. Who knows, you might be the lucky one and find
that Big One!!

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