Sunday, May 26, 2024

Cashing the first stone

Cashing the first stone

Hard rock, once the bane of Jamie Hill’s existence, turns out to be a real gem for the Hiddenite emerald hunter.
By Maggie Frank

Even with summer slipping away, greenery envelops Hiddenite, sheathing the hills sliding down from the Brushy Mountains and the pastures flanking the two-lane highway leading into the Alexander County hamlet, about 15 miles northwest of Statesville. If you hang a right, green soon gives way to gray and brown, the colors of stone and soil, the latter also the color of a trailer that squats at the end of the dirt road. Here they hunt a different kind of green. The trailer houses headquarters of the mine that produced the most expensive emerald found in North America and thousands more carats of the gemstone.

Next to the trailer, a machine that resembles a tractor sits idle for the moment. The custom-made rock crusher had been running seven days a week since June, when Jamie Hill went into the gravel business. “I’m not chasing gravel — I didn’t found this company to be a granite quarry,” says the 42-year-old chairman of North American Emerald Mines Inc. “But it’s everywhere, and I’ve got to go through it, and I’ve got to pay to move it. And everybody wants it.” Hill wants the world to know him as “The Emerald Man” and does not relish a reputation as a rock star. But crushed stone from his open-pit mine could be the cash cow that carries on his quest indefinitely. If he can keep selling even half the amount he sold in September, it might bring him in four years what he grossed from all the emeralds he has found in the last eight years — about $2 million.

He has hired a subcontractor to crush the stone — actually migmatite, a metamorphic rock that resembles granite — to sell to paving and construction companies, which haul it away. In September, he was charging $10 a ton; Birmingham, Ala.-based Vulcan Materials, one the nation’s largest producers, was charging $14.20 a ton for crusher-run rock in Charlotte. He says he grossed about $40,000 in August and double that in September. That should increase each month, he says, as the crushing process becomes more efficient and he raises prices a dollar or two per ton. He turned away $53,000 of business in September, he says, because he couldn’t keep up with demand.

Since 2000, Hill has told many a media outlet he was on the brink of finding “the big pile,” a cache of gemstones that would make it all worthwhile. He spent nearly a decade combing fields, making deals with farmers to dig up sections of their land and chip at rocks with a rusty screwdriver, before buying his 100-acre parcel in 1996. In 2001, he told a reporter for Men’s Journal magazine: “Give me one good year of hard-rock mining on that site, and I’ll show the world what’s really there.”

Five years later, what’s really there, even he admits, is a variety of gemstones, some perhaps Tiffany-quality, others certainly not. He has sold several recent finds, uncut, to museums, including the Houston Museum of Natural Science. In early 2004, one of its benefactors bought it a 1,869-carat emerald crystal he unearthed in December 2003. Hill says it’s worth $3 million retail. Though he didn’t want to reveal what the museum paid, he did say he sold about $1 million of emeralds — most not of gem quality — in 2004. A museum in Raleigh wants a 300-pound quartz crystal he found in 1990, says his mother, Lynn Hill, North American Emerald’s president. “We’re not able to donate it right now.” But she adds that it’s available for the right price.

Robert Simon, who owns Windsor Jewelers in Winston-Salem, is skeptical that Hill will again come up with anything that matches the quality of the Carolina Prince, one of the gems cut from an 88-carat crystal plucked from the pit in 1998. The find brought Hill national attention. Simon and a private collector paid $500,000 — $63,694.27 for each of its 7.85 carats — for the dime-size cut stone, making the Prince, carat for carat, the most expensive gem ever found in this country. The collector eventually bought Simon’s share, but the jeweler still has it for safekeeping in a vault at a bank.

“We’re certainly very proud to have sold that gemstone,” he says. Simon also has sold a pair of earrings, each containing a 4-carat emerald from Hill’s mine. Though the jewels’ quality doesn’t compare with the Prince’s, the earrings retailed for between $100,000 and $120,000, he says. But Simon takes pains to distance himself from North American Emerald Mines, mentioning three times during an interview that they are not affiliated in any way. Hill, he says, also has sold some “promotional green gravel that I feel sorry that people have bought, because it has very little value.” As for high-quality emeralds, “common sense tells you there’s more there, but how much money and resources will it take to get it out? And what’s it worth?”

Hill counters that he is only mining two of his acres, that he hasn’t blasted his pit as deep as it should be, that he needs more workers and better equipment to reach its riches. Two geologists, he says, have estimated that he’s sitting on 10 million carats of emeralds of varying quality. But Simon’s question echoes: “What’s it worth?”

Even as a kid, Hill knew he wanted to “chase emeralds.” He grew up in Winston-Salem but spent many weekends with his grandmother in Hiddenite, digging in her garden. Eileen Sharpe, whose husband started Pilot Freight Carriers in 1941, ran the Hidden Crystal Inn. “One day, my grandmother said, ‘Look, Jamie, there’s green stone out there somewhere.’ And I know I wasn’t 6, 7 years old at the time, and she said, ‘If you find one, it’ll be worth a lot of money.’”

Perched on an ancient fault line, Hiddenite has long been a Tar Heel jewel box, a trove of diverse minerals. In the late 1870s, Thomas Edison dispatched two New York mineralogists to what was then called White Plains in search of platinum, which he wanted as filament for his light bulbs. They found no platinum but 62 kinds of minerals and gemstones, including emeralds. One of the mineralogists, William Earl Hidden, discovered green rock that resembled emerald but was a spodumene crystal, rather than beryl. Until recently found nowhere else on earth, it would come to share the discoverer’s name with this community.

Others have come searching for the big pile. Michael Finger found a 1,438-carat emerald on Hill’s site in 1969. But nobody built a business around an emerald mine. Until 1998, most residents and prospective investors rolled their eyes when Hill talked. “But let me tell you, when I had a handful of them — and I picked the best dark-green ice, beautiful crystals — I didn’t have to say a word. When you hold that, you don’t have to talk.”

But that hasn’t shut up the admitted publicity hound, who says he has an agent shopping his autobiography and has shot a pilot for a reality show he would like to sell. “I’ve done 186 interviews in the past seven years, and I’ve been on Oprah Winfrey and in People magazine, Inside Edition, Good Morning America, CNN, I could go on … .” He’s told the story so many times that it seems to reel off from a pre-recorded section of his brain. His voice is hoarse from talking nearly nonstop about his latest find: a 10-inch-long, 591-carat emerald he found in August. He’s hoping to sell it to a museum for around $500,000.

What he has been selling is crusher-run rock. There’s no other source in Alexander County, he says, and customers are hauling it off as fast as he can get it out of the ground. “This isn’t a very glamorous story,” says his mother, who has an MBA from Pepperdine University and also sells real estate in Blowing Rock, a trade she took up three years ago at age 62. “We were just blessed with the fact that this overburden is a desirable product.” Hill says he recently struck a deal to sell his stone to the state Department of Transportation, which will use it to pave, among other projects, the road leading to the mine’s headquarters. “They’re gonna put a road in here 2,700 feet long, 32 feet wide. That’s 10,000 tons of crusher right there. Basically a $100,000 deal right here, literally outside our doorstep.”

A few feet below the surface lies the migmatite, which hides pockets of quartz, some embedded with emeralds. After dynamiting and digging out the loose rock, Hill explores the surfaces uncovered with hand tools. Ed Speer, a Marion geologist Hill first hired in 2004, estimates a sheet of migmatite 500 feet deep runs across the property — more than 62 million tons of it. That’s not much more than a guess, he admits. Drilling and sampling can’t pinpoint where the underground formations begin and end. Speer was one of the geologists who estimated the amount of emeralds on the site. A few hundred feet past the fence that marks its boundary, the migmatite vanishes. Denver, Colo.-based Esmeralda Exploration International has dug nearly 25 feet deep to find nothing but dirt.

Smithsonian Institution mineralogist Michael Wise has visited the mine five times and is as excited about it as Hill is — but for a different reason: Here he can study how, and why, the quartz and emerald deposits formed. No scientist has conducted a major study of Hiddenite’s geology since the 1940s, he says, and that one just cataloged the minerals found there.

Though he’s a heavy smoker, Hill bounds down an uneven path to the bottom of the pit to show off a section of rock he’s planning to blast. The charges are set precisely, their pattern a secret, foreman David Jarrell says. A piece of quartz peeks through cracks of a section of rock. Hill rubs it, slicing his thumb. An occupational hazard, like a paper cut for an office worker.

A twice-divorced father of three, Hill says his finds haven’t made him wealthy — most of what he makes, from emeralds and crushed rock, goes back into the mine. Until recently, he lived in the Hidden Crystal Inn, which his mother sold last year. (His grandmother died in 2004 at 94.) An aunt is secretary of the company; an uncle, its treasurer. Since 1998, he has attracted big-name investors, whom he’s reluctant to name, and says he’s not seeking others. He has nine employees, but he’s hiring. “I do make a living. And I do meet my needs. I’m not filthy rich today. I may very well be eventually. So what?” His mother wears a ring set with a gem from the mine. But he vows he won’t sport his jewels until he can consistently find emeralds of the Carolina Prince’s quality.

Until then, he waits for the next big find. His most recent blast produced nothing but rock, but chasing emeralds has taught him nothing if not patience. After all, it was 26 years from the time he found his first in a plowed-up field as an 8-year-old before he discovered the crystal that bore the Prince. But he also knows the quicker he can blast and sell away the plain gray rock, the faster he can reach those precious green stones he covets.

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