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Searching for Oregon diamonds

PLUSH — It’s like searching for a diamond in the rough.

Looking for “Plush diamonds,” or Oregon sunstones, isn’t done easily. The “diamonds” are feldspar crystals formed thousands of years ago in basaltic lava flows. They’re found in many areas of the world, but Oregon’s are unique, with colors ranging from yellow to peach, pink, champagne, red and green. Some shimmer with coppery metallic flashes called schiller.

Because of their rarity and uniqueness to Oregon, sunstones were named the state’s gemstone in 1987.

They’re literally diamonds in the rough because they’re found in a region about 25 miles north of Plush, a Lake County ranching community.

From Memorial Day to early fall, people make their way to the remote area, using shovels, pry bars, pick axes and wire screens to search for sunstones. On holiday weekends it’s not uncommon for the four commercial mines to have hundreds of diggers. Although neighboring Bureau of Land Management lands offer a seven-square-mile area with free public digging, most of the searching is done on private claims, including the Dust Devil Mining Company and Spectrum Sunstone Mines.

“We get people from all over the country, even internationally,” says Chris Rose, owner of the 20-acre Spectrum mine, who admits, “We’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

One of his neighbors is Don Buford, one of the owners of the Dust Devil since 1992. “I’m the old guy,” he laughs of his tenure.

Buford says the lure is “the excitement of the hunt. It makes it a real treasure hunt.”

Oregon sunstones, the sought-after treasure, vary in size, some as thin as flakes, others as big as a thumb. Jewelers shape faceted sunstones into earrings, pendants or necklaces, or carve them into imaginative designs.

The hunt is done by different methods. At commercial mines, high-grade conveyor belts allow treasure hunters to pick sunstones off a screen conveyor belt. Rose says nearly six tons of ore is produced an hour, while Buford says the method equates to six days of hand screening. At Dust Devil, there is an hourly fee plus a charge for “color.” As he explains, “Ninety-five percent of what they find will be free,” but the fee for colored stones is one-quarter its wholesale value.

Treasure hunters can also screen through concentrated, high-grade, sunstone-bearing ore piles or use their own picks, shovels, hammers, screwdrivers and other digging tools to hack through basalt rock sunstone pits.

Buford and Rose note most sunstone seekers stay for a day, but others stay overnight or, sometimes, a week or longer.

“We get a lot of families, and we get a lot of age groups,” says Rose, noting Spectrum offers rental teepees and cabins, while “a lot of people just camp.” Buford says the Dust Devil offers four travel trailers that can each sleep four.

“We get a lot of families with young children,” he says. “We get a lot of grandparents with their grandchildren. And a lot of individuals.”

Among those who have spent days and weeks searching for sunstones is Garwin Carlson of Klamath Falls, a longtime member of the Rock and Arrowhead Club, which meets at 7 p.m. the second Monday each month at the Klamath County Museum. In June the club hosted a sunstone digging on three sunstone claims the club has near the commercial and BLM mines.

“It’s kind of nice to get out and away from everything,” Carlson says of the pleasures associated with sunstone mining. “We can see the stars and the moon at night.”

Exciting, too, is the joy and surprise when making a good find, and then faceting and polished stones into jewelry.

“Everybody will find colored sunstone, but some will be more valuable,” says Rose, noting yellow stones are the most common sunstones. More valuable are red, green and dichroic stones, which change colors from side-to-side. “I like the variety — there are so many different colors. I’ve even seen a rare purple.”

“The way I like to look at it,” says Buford, “is if somebody finds a beautiful stone and makes it into jewelry, it’s a family heirloom. It’s something that will be a memory, possibly for generations.”

For information about the Spectrum Sunstone Mines, call Chris Rose at 775-772-7724, email him at info@highdesertgemsandminerals.com or see www.highdesertgemsandminerals.com/html/spectrum_sunstone_mine.html.

For information about the Dust Devil Mining Company, see www.dustdevilmining.com or call 503-559-2495, 503-559-9338 or 503-559-5129.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.


BLM’s public sunstone area

Sunstones have been available for collection by the public since 1970, when the Bureau of Land Management established the Sunstone Public Collection Area 23 miles north of Plush. The site measures four square miles and covers about 2,500 acres.

Hand tools, such as shovels and picks, may be used for digging, but people are asked to fill in any holes and remain within the marked boundaries of the designated public area because commercial placer mines border the site.

Larisa Bogardus, public affairs officer for BLM’s Lakeview District, say black-tailed jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, short-horned lizards, sagebrush lizards and the western skink are often seen during daylight hours and with a variety of songbirds. Nighthawks may be observed collecting insects in the evening and coyotes can often be heard howling at night.

Facilities at the public site include a pit toilet, shaded picnic tables and tent pads. The terrain is rugged and rocky, so sturdy shoes or boots are recommended. People should also bring plenty of water and other field supplies, such as a hat and sunscreen. The nearest services, including gas and potable water, are in Plush. For more information, contact the Lakeview office at 541-947-2177 or see www.blm.gov/visit/sunstone-collection-area.

Photo by Lee Juillerat A tray of yellow sunstones.
Photo courtesy Lakeview District BLM Sunstones in the rough before being polished.