Here is a bit of history about this avocation of mine! And here is a picture of a batch I brought over from my old home in Arizona a bit over a year ago and my little "rock hound" Rojito who was fascinated by what Mama was doing, washing them.
Playing With Rocks
Maybe my fascination with stones was due to growing up in a mining camp on the side of a rugged
mountain. I used to joke that there was nothing for kids to play with in Jerome
except rocks. While most of the kids learned to throw them, I brought the
pretty ones home and started a collection. That isn’t quite the whole story but
there is a grain of truth in it. Arizona
Like a lot of kids before the days of video games and electronic devices, I enjoyed playing with junk as much or more than with my nice toys. I used cans, bottles and boards, cardboard boxes and yes, rocks to build and imagine in many ways.
In most mining towns there were always people who scrounged on the dumps. In mining terminology, a dump is not a garbage heap but the place where “overburden” or rock without high grade minerals was placed while the mine was dug to get to the good stuff. If there was a tunnel or drift going into the side of the hill, such debris was just thrown down the slope. When there was a vertical shaft and later an open pit, it usually had to be hauled away and piled somewhere.
There was always some good stuff that got overlooked, mostly small amounts that were not worth the effort of the mining company to retrieve. People went after them, though, whether legally or not. Often the dumps were off limits, allegedly for safety reasons. Still, rare was the household in a mining camp where there were not some crystals, a bit of turquoise, or some heavy “peacock copper” or “peacock iron” maybe serving as a door stop. The latter were medium ore-grade dark rocks, almost black but with iridescent rainbow colors that were usually most visible at a specific angle.
By the time I was eight or ten, I had some of all that and more. Then, since my folks went out on many photography and exploring trips, I got into the habit of picking up odd rocks that I found wherever we went. Most of my early collections fell by the wayside as I left home and went off to higher schooling and a life of my own, but a few treasured pieces went along. By the time I finished college and got my first job in southern
shortly settling in another old mining camp, Bisbee, the collection began to
grow again. Arizona
Like my parents, my fiancé and soon husband was one for trips out into the hills and remote places, too. He used to joke that I had married him just to have a pack mule to help me carry home my finds. He knew the locations of a lot of abandoned mines and we explored many, driving up roads that would make 4-wheelers cringe in a regular old GMC pickup.
Up to that point, I didn’t do anything with my rocks except keep them. Then we moved to
and by chance,
a co-worker my husband shared an office with at Peterson AFB was into lapidary.
A whole new world soon opened up to me. Colorado
I first got a couple of tumblers. There are simple little machines where you put rocks into a rubber barrel about the size of a small Dinty Moore Beef Stew can along with some water and a tablespoon or two of carbide grit, starting out with coarse and in stages moving to extra fine. The barrel was then placed on a rack with two shafts, one of which was powered to turn and make the barrel roll around. It took about a month to develop a rough stone into a smooth one. The final stage was a week with a powder, usually titanium or another mineral oxide, as fine as talc. This put the real polish on the rocks.
It became quite an adventure to throw twenty or thirty small rough stones into the machine and see what emerged at the end. Some stayed very ordinary but others eventually revealed amazing beauty. At that time, the middle 1970s, rock hounding was a popular hobby, especially in the southwest. There were many places to find rocks and many to buy the supplies and equipment the hobby utilized.
Once I got the tumbling process down, I wanted some new worlds to conquer. Ultimately I got a trim saw which used a diamond sintered blade to cut rocks, keeping the stone and the blade from overheating with a stream of cutting oil or other coolant. Water will do but not as effectively. The blade has tiny diamond chips embedded or sintered in the cutting edge, It turns very slowly and will not cut you although it would abrade some or friction-burn if you touched it very long. Next came an expanding drum machine that used belts with carbide grit on them where I could hand-shape thin stones into cabochons, the form of gem stone that is just polished and rounded, not faceted like most translucent or transparent jewel quality stones are cut for jewelry.
For several years in
Colorado and later in north central California up the valley from , I made a lot of small rocks out
of middle sized ones and many shiny or shaped stones as well. And of course I
kept collecting. When we moved back to Sacramento Arizona,
my daughter hauled about fifteen five gallon buckets of mom’s rocks in her new pickup since I was
not allowed to ship them in the moving van at government expense. Well, they
were pretty heavy! There is a family story about this, how she took a wrong
turn in Toyota San Diego, where she had dropped off her brother at MCRD, and wound up in Mexico, having a heck of a time to get her truck
and the rocks back into the . USA
While in California, I also took a couple of courses in silver smithing and learned how to fabricate, the craft of piecing and soldering various shapes of silver together around a gemstone to make a ring, pendant, belt buckle or other jewelry item. I also did some lost wax casting which did not work for me as well. I still have some of the things I made, first in class and later on my own.
, I still
collected rocks and did some lapidary work but never got new tanks of oxygen
and acetylene to do the soldering with. I finally got rid of some of the
machines and the tumblers simply wore out. These days it is much harder to
acquire stones unless you buy them at shows or know someone who has a mine or a
source on their property. Arizona
You dare not pick them up out on government land lest the agency in charge of that area come down on your case severely. That’s not to say I may not slip a small one into the pocket of my jeans on occasion but no back packs full come home any more.
To this day, though, there is probably close to a ton of varied rock neatly stowed in buckets and crates and more or less sorted into kinds in my back yard. I also have a number of cans and bottles of smaller stones in various stages of lapidary improvement in my corner of the garage/workshop.
Several crystals repose on the stand of my computer monitor along with an early product of my tumbler which has bands of amethyst atop a base of dark red jasper. It’s just a special sentimental piece. I still have the small saw, stored for now, and the remains of several defunct tumblers that I may resurrect if the opportunity arises.
The past year or so I have given away perhaps a third or more of what I brought to my home here inI know now that my fascination is not unique. Many cultures regard certain types and colors of stones as magical or powerful.
I “freecycled” them to some other rock hounds or rock hound wannabes. They were
all excited and happy to have a new batch of treasure to search through, new
favorites to claim and add to their special collection. I may soon do this
again, further weeding out the “overburden” from my years of collecting New Mexico
I’m not sure I believe that but I will always enjoy the beauty and variety of rocks, keep certain ones around me, and probably pick up even more unique ones that I find for the rest of my days. So, for many decades, I have played with rocks. Why stop now? It’s an amusement that’s almost free, involves healthy outdoor exercise and harms no one—well, I did break my ankle once trying to get to an area where there were crystals on an old mine dump but that’s another story for another day.