Franklin, North Carolina is well known throughout the Southeast as a gem mining mecca and refers to itself as “the gem mining capital of the world.”
Franklin, NC sits at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in the southwestern corner of NC, 125 miles north of Atlanta, GA, and about 65 miles west of Asheville, NC. While it boasts numerous attractions, from the scenic beauty of the encircling mountains ranges to its kid-friendly Fun Factory, gem mining remains one of its longest-running and most popular pastimes.
Gem Mining Has Unique History in Franklin & Macon County
Once home to the Cherokee Indian Nation, Franklin and the valley which surrounds it was a native land referred to as “Nikwasi,” or “Star.” It was also a site rich in natural resources and thus open to commercialization. As early as the 1870s, minerals including corundum, mica, and kaolin were being mined commercially and shipped from Macon County, NC. Two major companies, American Prospecting & Mining Company, and the U.S. Ruby Mining Company spent decades looking for rubies in the corundum mine. While the source of rubies was never located, the companies left behind golden opportunities for rock hounds to hunt to their heart’s content.
The Three “C’s” Every Gem Miner Must Know
Whether expert or novice, every gem miner should begin with the “Three C’s,” color, clarity, and crystal. When looking for keeper gems, color is king. Rubies are silky red; garnets reddish-brown; and note that sapphires come in every hue. Quartz, a favorite among gem hunters, is a smoky clear color.
Clarity has to do with the amount of foreign substance in any stone. Gas or water can be carried in gem cavities.
Crystal means the crystallized structure of the stone.
Salted, Enriched, and Native Mines
For the beginner, gem mining looks difficult but is really a simple process according to Mountain Traveler (Franklin Press)
It helps to know the difference between the three major types of mines. Salted mines have native stones brought in from all over the area. Enriched mines harbor stones not native to the region. Native mines have stones native only to the area. In Franklin, there are more than half a dozen gem mining sites including Rose Creek Mine Rock & Gift Shop, Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine, Sheffield Mine, Mason’s Ruby and Sapphire Mine, Cowee Mountain Ruby Mine, Gold City Gem Mine, and Jackson Hole Gem Mine. Visitors can purchase a bucket of dirt to mine with costs ranging from $10 – $30 depending upon bucket size and the specific mine. Prepare to get down and dirty, literally.
Free Gem Museums in Franklin
If just looking sounds more appealing, there are four free gem museums in Franklin. One of the oldest and most interesting is the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum housed in a steel-encased jail dating back to the 1850s. Located one block from the local courthouse on Phillips Street, the jail was used until 1972. Manned by volunteers and 89-year-old Della Samuel, the museum features a massive local ruby highlighted on the Travel Channel, NC emeralds, a 346-pound aquamarine, a dinosaur egg in the Fossil Room, and an impressive variety of minerals and gem from around the globe.
Samuel, who has been gem mining for over 50 years, says she is still an avid rock hound. Her favorite find is a 15K ruby, round and flat, that she had made into a ring for her husband and a necklace for herself. She wears the ring proudly today.
“What do I still love about gem mining? It’s like a treasure hunt. Every piece is different and every slice is different.”
The museum is open May – October and November – April with hours that vary. For more information call (828) 369-7831. For details on Franklin or Macon County gem mining and gem shops contact the Franklin Chamber of Commerce toll-free at (866) 372-5546.