Saturday, February 20, 2010
Rusty James: King of Ajoite and Papagoite
Cornerstone Minerals is a rock and gem shop at the corner of Lexington and Walnut in the heart of Asheville, North Carolina. It sells a variety of minerals, fossils, home decor, jewelry and metaphysical merchandise. At first glance it appears to be a tourist shop, but behind the scenes and in the back are several cases of far more notable minerals and fossils. They are the inventory of two additional and more specialized businesses: Throwin' Stones and Sacred Earth. Each year during the first two weeks of February, the two enterprises share space at the Tucson City Center Hotel (formerly Inn Suites) at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. It is mobbed with serious and seasoned high-end mineral collectors.
The principal item attracting this crowd is the extensive selection of quartz crystals bearing inclusions of the rare and the colorful copper silicates ajoite and papagoite. Such crystals occur exclusively at a single locality in the world, namely an open pit mine in Messina, Limpopo Province, South Africa. Otherwise, the New Cornelia Mine near Ajo in Pinal County, Arizona is the type locality and was long the only locality for both ajoite and papagoite. Even at the New Cornelia Mine, the two minerals are rare, and rather than as inclusions in quartz crystals, both minerals occur in micro-crystals on matrix. They are easily differentiated by color; ajoite is sky blue, papagoite is bright blue. Their presence inside quartz crystals at Messina turned up sporadically between 1970 and 1991. Mineralogists around the world were amazed at an occurrence both so unlikely and so aesthetically pleasing. However, between 1991 and 2007, no new material was uncovered. Dealers horded much of what was available and brought limited quantities to market each year as prices increased at about ten per cent annually.
Then, unexpectedly in 2007, hand digging in a different and relatively shallow part of the mine caused several tunnels to collapse to reveal more included crystals. This area of the mine had been worked for copper in the 1950's before the identification of ajoite and papagoite in quartz crystals. Apparently the miners had encountered the included quartz crystals, but ignored them and dug deeper to reach ore that was richer and readily extractable. They left behind several pockets where the clarity and concentrations of ajoite and papagoite in the crystals therein had rarely been observed in the finds from several decades before.
Rusty James, who owns Throwin' Stones with his wife Nicole, could at first seem an unlikely persona for being a major player in the distribution of such crystals. He quickly refers to himself as a "musical artist" who plays exotic percussion and notes that Nicole is a visual artist. Rusty grew up in Rockville, Maryland, mostly unaware that Hunting Hill even existed. He later moved to Florida. After a trip to India, he "fell in love with stones." A perception that people in Florida"were only interested in fossils" was one reason for moving to Asheville. Its location was more central to his network of family and friends , plus it was a place with "more history and inherent interest regarding minerals."
Soon after Throwin' Stones opened, Rusty purchased a collection with 40 specimens of papagoite included quartz crystals just as they were becoming nearly extinct on the market. He surmises his profit on that purchase to have been approximately one thousand per cent over a five year span of selling them slowly. Since then, he's been to Messina four times to purchase crystals from the owner of the mine. During his most recent visit this past December, he believes he became the first American to be given permission to dig.
The conditions are brutal. With the crystals occurring in small pockets and veins in brecciated quartz, Rusty says it's possible to work all day in temperatures as high as 115 F, while contending with bugs, snakes, and scorpions, only to find a few broken pieces with small spots of color. Once extracted, many of the crystals bear a thick crust that can require not only multiple cleanings with oxalic and sometimes hydrofluoric acid, but also extensive manual work including using an air abrasive or high-power water spray.
The Messina crystals comprise approximately 20 per cent of Throwin' Stones' business. While Rusty doesn't get all of the material coming out of Messina, he believes that he is the source for the vast majority of the the "best" crystals on the market. He also mentions that the quality of most of the crystals being mined today is far superior to those collected between the 1970's and the 1990's. However, because of high operating costs and low yield, he voices concerns over how much longer the mine will continue to produce. He says that the mineralized zones are small and that they run deep into the ground at an angle that could preclude mining the crystals for much longer. In the near future he anticipates that the supply could dry up, leaving the market once again to rely on diminishing amounts of stockpiled material for which prices will continue to rise.
Rusty can keep you posted. You can contact him at "omrhythm at hotmail dot com."