Georgia gems attract rock hounds

STEPHENS, Ga. --- Clarence Norman learned long ago that Georgia's red clay can produce much more than peanuts and pine trees.

"See this? It's amethyst," he said, showing off a pile of purple crystal clusters wrapped in paper towels in his truck bed. "Every one of them came from right here."

The landowner, Steve Peterman, moved his family to the isolated Six S's farm in south Oglethorpe County 12 years ago to raise chickens. He had no idea his property also held rich deposits of the prized purple quartz.

"We first discovered them after we moved out here and they were building the chicken houses," he said. "Later, we had loggers taking out some timber, and they unearthed more of them again."

The size and quality of the raw gemstone crystals soon attracted the interest of rock hounds, including Rick Jacquot of Asheville, N.C., the president of the 2,000-member Mountain Area Gem & Mineral Association.

Georgia's amethyst deposits, he said, are among the finest in the Southeast.

"There is a belt that runs all the way up the region, through North Carolina," he said. "It'll pop up somewhere, then go under again. But if you put all the mines and places on a map, it would make a line."

The club arranged with the Peterman family to hold organized digs at the site for rock hounds who drive long distances to spend a day in searing heat moving shovelfuls of heavy clay.

"It's definitely a lot of work," said gem collector John Lee, who made a 10-hour drive from his home in Morehead City, N.C., to try his luck. With him was his 10-year-old daughter, Katie.

"Nothing so far," he said as they used plastic tools to shave away slivers of clay from the edges of a deep hole. "But your luck can change fast."

Ed Cansler, a lapidary and gem cutter from Greenville, S.C., said the Peterman farm is one of the best sites he's visited. It took 19 hours to cut one stone from the site -- and it yielded a finished product that weighed 111 carats.

"Probably what makes this place really special is the size of what you find," he said. "You can get some really big pieces here."

Although it has barely been explored, the site holds great potential and is close to the older, more famous Jackson Crossroads amethyst mine near Tignall.

"That site is known for world-class amethysts," Cansler said. "You could find the same sort of thing here."

Digging for amethyst can yield valuable gemstones, but there is no guarantee of anything more than fun, fresh air and exercise.

"It's like anything else," Norman said. "Some days you go home with empty pockets. But some days, you might just strike it rich."

Want to dig?

- The Mountain Area Gem & Mineral Association will hold an amethyst dig at Six S's farm Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

- Only club members may participate, but visitors can buy a membership at the site or online.

- For directions and details, visit wncrocks.com/magma/magmaupcomingevents.htm.