Some people cherish fine antiques. Others are moved by beautiful paintings. But those who scour the earth for rare rocks are sometimes considered just a little ... strange?
Rockhounds, as they say, get no respect. Yet their finds can be exquisite.
Southern Oregon is prime territory for rock hunters. Nicoli Alexander settled here after a career scouring the world for rare rocks, many of which he sold to museums, including Paris' famous Louvre, home of the Mona Lisa. Twenty-seven other museums also have rocks he dug out of the earth.
Alexander's family has been involved with rocks for 500 years, either as jewelers or miners. Alexander has been both. His true family name is Van Geldern, but because so many people have trouble with the Dutch pronunciation, he uses only his first two names at his jewelry shop, Alexander Jewelers, in Grants Pass, where he specializes in repairing antique jewelry, as well as tea sets, glassware and old art frames.
Born in Colorado, Alexander spent his early years traveling the world with his mining-engineer father. His jeweler grandfather taught him the basics of jewelry making and got him an apprenticeship with a diamond cutter in Antwerp, Belgium. There, Alexander was allowed to cut only four stones in six months, but he says he still learned a lot by watching.
"You have to learn all about the stones," he says, "how to select stones for quality, how to orient the stone so it cuts the brightest, how to cleave — to break the diamond right at a flaw."
After Antwerp, Alexander went on to an apprenticeship in Germany, where he learned advanced silver and goldsmithing and stone-setting techniques. But though he loves making jewelry, the rocks called to him. He lives for his rock-hunting trips.
"In the U.S. I concentrated on Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona." Alexander says. "I'd read the geological histories of the areas, then go to the places I read about."
He also mined in South Africa, , Honduras, Chile, Peru and Bolivia.
He discovered museums often had particular specimens they wanted to add to their collections, and he learned the bidding process.
"The Museum of Natural History in Denver was looking for a specimen of rhodocrosite. I offered to get what they wanted for $22,000 and won the bid," Alexander says.
Alexander came back to the U.S. from Peru with a quarter-million dollars worth of specimens, which he took to mineral shows around the world and sold after giving the Denver museum their pieces.
"People don't realize how lucrative this can be," he says, "but it is a lot of work, and you really have to know what you are doing."
Nowadays Alexander leads select rock hounds on annual searches.
"I'm going to Montana this summer for a week to dig sun stones, and we'll probably stop in Idaho for garnets," he says. "And I am thinking about doing a trip to the Illinois Valley at the end of summer.
"Years ago, an old miner told me he found some emerald crystals there. He was looking for gold and didn't think they were worth anything — they were just jamming his dredge — but he described them as blue-green crystals. It couldn't be anything else but emerald that color and that hard. I once found an amethyst mine by listening to two old miners complain about the 'damn purple rocks' they kept finding instead of gold."
Research is key, according to Alexander. And there is the Indiana Jones element of unknown danger. He once fell down a mine shaft and broke his back.
For those who want to learn, the Roxy Ann Gem and Mineral Society offers local rock-hound excursions.
"Most day trips last about four hours," says Eric Lindquist, the society's vice president. "We find jadeite (Oregon jade) soapstone, petrified wood, different colors of agate and jasper and lots of quartz and fossils."
The society also sponsors a lapidary workshop at Crater Rock Museum in Central Point, where they teach people to cut and polish their finds.
Lindquist says even though he has a house full of specimens from his lifetime of rock hounding, it never gets old.
"Just recently I found a piece of jadeite in the Applegate with gold in it," he says. "There's something about the thrill of going out and finding it — it's like finding treasure."