A cut above the rest

Whether you’re an earth-sciences scholar or a material girl scouting new glitter, an upcoming show at the Colburn Gem & Mineral Museum offers a wealth of attractions.

Let’s start with a brief geography lesson: Minerals are natural, inorganic, solid constituents of the earth’s crust; in other words, anything that’s not animal or vegetable. Gems are minerals that have higher qualities of rarity, beauty and durability, and are thus prized as ornaments.

Plucked from the very guts of the earth, minerals have always held a primal appeal. From the weekend hiker who stashes shiny rocks in his pocket to the millionaire who collects only the rarest crystals for her private enjoyment, some people just like possessing minerals. Mineralogists, meanwhile, are captivated by their endless intellectual challenges, and lapidarists and jewelers view them as raw materials to be shaped by their creativity. Rockhounding is especially popular in the Appalachians, due to the surrounding natural beauty. (Having surface-collected in the Mojave Desert in 100-plus-degree temperatures, I can attest to how much pleasanter rock hunting is around here!)

But with the price of some mineral samples running into five and six figures and beyond, many collectors sensibly keep their treasures under lock and key. Most gem-and-mineral shows are sponsored by local mineral societies; it’s quite rare for a museum to sponsor one. In doing so, the Colburn created a big buzz among collectors — and several came forth with offers to display their private collections.

“With museum sponsorship,” confirms show Director Linda Wilson, “we’ve been able to gather significant — really significant — mineral samples, some of which will be displayed to the public for the first time.” This weekend holds the chance to see some pieces that may never be displayed again: the world’s largest faceted Hiddenite crystal, the largest emerald mined in North Carolina, and many exquisite pieces of mineral and gem jewelry.

If you haven’t been to the Colburn Museum, you’re missing out on one of Asheville’s civic jewels, pun intended. Most mineral museums are a stone’s throw from a nearby mine — old, cramped, dusty and badly lit. But the Colburn sparkles. Beautifully designed, it also boasts contemporary educational displays for all ages.

Here’s a sample: Did you know that, way before the famous California ueberlode, North Carolina experienced the country’s first gold rush? (The first vein gave up its largesse in 1799.) And our state’s mines continue to be the source of the country’s finest emeralds. But our most famous claim to mineral fame is a gem called Hiddenite, named (like many minerals) after the man who first discovered it. For some, this gem-quality crystal, a deep chrome green, rivals emeralds in splendor.

But don’t be intimidated by all these riches: The Colburn prides itself on being visitor-friendly. It has child-level tactile displays on the floor, “so everyone can actually touch huge crystals and feel their jagged edges,” says Executive Director Dan Lazar, who updates the museum’s display and keeps the place humming with year-round activities.

All well and good. But to many, simply witnessing minerals in their rough stage — most notably, the enormity of a first-unearthed specimen before it’s cut into fine jewelry — is significant treasure.

Marcianne Miller is an archaeologist and former California desert rock hound. She can be reached at mmnc1999@earthlink.net.

The fourth annual Asheville Gem, Mineral, Jewelry Show & Sale happens at the Colburn Gem & Mineral Museum (located in the Pack Place Education, Arts & Science Center) June 16-18.

Hours are Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sunday, 12-5 p.m.

Rare gemstones, metaphysical crystals, fossils, meteorites and mineral samples from around the world will be featured.

The museum is waiving its admission fee for the show. For more info, check out the Colburn Museum Web site at www.main.nc.us/colburn, or call 254-7162.

Want more? Asheville’s local rock posse, the Southern Appalachian Mineral Society, meets the first Monday of every month at the Oakley Community Center (7 p.m.) Call 298-4237 for details.

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