Rapaport Magazine
Colored Gemstone

Deep Purple

An amethyst mine in Arizona yields especially high-quality gems.

By Mark Lepage

Payson Jewelers
The Four Peaks Amethyst Mine in Arizona is the only amethyst mine in the U.S. producing high-quality purple amethyst that is priced above African and South American sources. It also has a great American tale to tell.
   “It’s one of those crazy stories,” says Kurt Cavano, owner of the mine and Four Peaks Mining Co., based in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. In 1998, Cavano was an amateur jewelry maker attending the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) Tucson GemFair and was musing aloud about how it might “be really cool to own a mine. And a guy behind me said, ‘I know one that’s for sale’ — just some guy who knew a guy.” Before Cavano knew it, he was in a helicopter flying to the Mazatzal Mountains, 40 miles northeast of Phoenix, Arizona, to meet Four Peaks owner Joe Hyman. He quickly purchased the mine for an undisclosed sum. “It was either a momentary lapse of judgment or the coolest thing I’d ever done,” Cavano says now.

Remote and Rugged
   “It’s the most difficult mine you can imagine,” Cavano says, adding that it was discovered in the early 1900s by gold prospector Jim McDaniels, who patented the claim by purchasing it from the government. The mine was worked on and off by successive owners but had been idle for ten years when Cavano first visited the site.
   At 6,700 feet altitude, the mine is completely surrounded by the Tonto National Forest, with no roads into the 20-acre mine area located between two mountain peaks. The only access is provided by helicopter — “and it can’t always land anyway due to wind,” says Cavano — or a three-hour rough wilderness hike. Two-man teams of miners stay six to seven days, filtering rainwater for drinking. The site is furnished with a small equipment shed, a generator to power the mining lamps and solar panels and batteries to illuminate and ventilate the mine.
   Twice a year, the company helicopters in canned food supplies and brings out amethyst, which is dug only by hand, using hammers and chisels. Air chisels are used on larger stones because blasting is prohibited by local authorities and besides, it would damage the amethyst crystals. Under the current owners, the miners have managed to dig six to ten feet per year, reaching a depth of 110 feet deep in 15 years.

Modest Volume
   In addition to its remoteness, the mine does not produce huge volume. “About 1,000 pounds of rough amethyst are mined out every six months,” says Mike Romanella, cutter and distributor of Commercial Mineral Company in Scottsdale, Arizona, and partner with Cavano in the mine. “Of that, 30 pounds is considered good enough for cutting, which will in the end produce enough cut gemstones to fill your cupped hands.”
   Then why bother? Because of the stone’s beauty. Dudley Blauwet, owner of Dudley Blauwet Gems in Louisville, Colorado, deals mostly in Zambian, Brazilian and Uruguayan amethyst, and confirms that the high-quality standard in amethyst “is Siberian color, which is deep purple with rose undertones. The best quality I had was Zambian 12 years ago, and I haven’t been offered amethyst rough from there for a very long time.”
   Meanwhile, Romanella describes Four Peaks material as “a special stone of beautiful Siberian-type amethyst, purple with red flash in it.” Four Peaks amethyst is the only American production of the gemstone. “The color saturation is beautiful due to the zoning,” Romanella explains, with superheated water underground dissolving minerals and quartzite and leaving color zones. “The result is just beautiful dark purple-red. We get some of the lighter color as well, but the deep, dark purple with the red glint in it is generally not produced anywhere else.”

Costs Reflect Challenges
   Because of that high quality, and the considerable overhead costs, prices for the U.S. amethyst are five to ten times those of Brazilian material, with a price-per-carat range from $10 to $100 a carat, unusually high for amethyst. “Size-wise, most of this is smaller,” Romanella says, “between 4 carats to 8 carats and lots of smaller half-carat and 1-carat stones, although I have an 80-carat and a 118-carat stone.”
   “What keeps the mine alive is that it’s American amethyst, mined here,” Romanella adds. “We showcase that fact — that it’s an American product. You can go to Forever 21 and buy a $20 necklace and throw it away after a year. When you can own a gem that has a story, it’s really special.” Blauwet agrees. “You often get a premium price for any American stone just because it’s American and there is a limited production of it. A lot of local people — scavengers — will collect it and it won’t come out of the region.”
   Sami Fine Jewelry in Fountain Hills, Arizona, is the top retailer of the mine’s stones, with first choice on everything that emerges from it. Stephenie Bjorkman, president of the company, says the store sells 10-carat to 20-carat stones for $95 to $150 per carat in a sterling silver and gold line of earrings, pendants, rings, bracelets and pins. “The American gem theme is important in our store,” she says. “We focus on local amethyst gems, which are special due to that dark purple with a bright magenta flash.”
   Robert Higginbotham, co-owner with wife Melissa of Payson Jewelers in Payson, Arizona, retails Commercial Mineral Company amethyst. “For us, it’s a local celebrity stone,” Melissa says. At its peak, before the 2008 economic crash, we were selling 10 percent of our gross in amethyst.”
   Payson Jewelers sells rings, pendants and bracelets, with stones priced between $50 to $100 per carat and set in gold. “We sell mostly to locals who want to own the highest-quality Four Peaks amethyst for its deep, deep grape-jelly color — and deep in the gemstone is that red flash sparkling at you.”
   All of that matters, but only if the stones are available. Cavano admits the mine is “more of an adventure than an investment” that is only now coming close to breaking even. However, time is on the owners’ side. “Everywhere we turn in the mine, the vein goes in different directions,” he concludes. “There’s no visible end to it, and plenty to dig for the next 25 years or more.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - September 2014. To subscribe click here.

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Tags: Mark LePage