Desert Prospecting: Discovering California Turquoise
My day started out as it usually does, walking up and down the side of this particular mountain prospecting for gold. Prospecting in the Mojave Desert in April is an interesting experience. You never know what kind of weather you’ll encounter: a hot summer day or a windy, beautiful spring day. This day was sunny and very hot. Throughout the day, my thermometer read between 102° and 107° F. I had difficulties dealing with the heat. Since I wasn’t yet acclimated, I had to take regular water breaks to keep hydrated.
After a long hike up and around the mountain, I began my descent as the heat intensified. Two thirds of the way down the mountain, I sat on a rock and had something to drink. The beauty of the desert never fails to captivate me. This day was no different. Due to the absence of air pollution, the sky was blue, clear, and translucent.
When I reached the bottom of the mountain, the landscape changed abruptly. The mountain shifted steeply from sheer cliff to flat desert. At this point, I typically look for a spot to leap down the last few feet. However, this time I was tired and thirsty. So, I sat down to drink a bottle of water and acclimate my eyes to the harsh sunlight.
After a few minutes, I looked down at the ground. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Right between my feet lay a beautiful 8-carat turquoise gemstone devoid of most of its host rock. I picked it up and admired its beauty. The stone was shaped like a small egg with a mottled blue and white pattern. Since the desert was mostly shades of tan and brown, the stone really stood out. In the flats, the color of the sand varies very little. Therefore, you can easily pick out surface deposits of different minerals, like magnetite and copper, while hiking. Only when exploring the mountains do you see the different layers of mineral deposits, due to erosion.
As I surveyed the land around me, I realized I sat in the middle of an exposed turquoise deposit. All around me lay blue stones of all shapes and sizes. I found turquoise ranging in size from the head of a pin to two hundred carats. Their shapes varied from round to oval. Some were elongated. I always carry a plastic bag with me, so I walked around and filled it with blue stones.
In the months since that fateful day, I’ve found four new deposits. Each one incorporates a slightly different hue of turquoise. Some specimens are so soft you can scratch them with a fingernail. Others are so hard you can barely scratch them with a pen knife. I’ve found turquoise stones in different shades of blue as well as green.
Below, you can see my favorite gemstone. As it turned out, a laboratory analysis confirmed it was a chalcosiderite, an entirely different mineral. It’s part of the turquoise mineral group that also includes faustite and planerite. Chalcosiderite is very uncommon. In the United States, you’ll find it only in a few places, including California and Nevada. All the specimens coming out of this particular area show this same multi-color pattern.
For the next seven months, I found turquoise gemstones at different locations. In November 2014, as I was collecting surface turquoise, I sat down again and surveyed the area. After a few minutes, I heard two hawks calling to each other. I turned to look at them but didn’t see them. Instead, about two feet behind me, I saw the turquoise vein. What an amazing sight.
I can’t explain why I keep finding turquoise when I sit down or bend low to the ground. In this area, I’ve found cans and bottles left by hikers and brass casings from bullets used for target practice. How have people missed these deposits? I’m just grateful my adventure started because I was thirsty and had to sit.
Since discovering these deposits, I’ve joined the International Gem Society (IGS) to become a certified gemologist. Now, I spend my time working with special needs students, studying gemology and geochemistry, and searching for more turquoise. The deposits seem to have a nice amount of turquoise stones in them. Each time I go to the desert, I find more turquoise than the previous time.
Desert Prospecting Advice
If you decide to go into the desert and prospect for California turquoise, I have some advice.
First, drink lots of water. Take breaks and don’t over exert yourself.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is sit down and look around. The desert reveals its treasures when you take the time to appreciate its beauty. The difference in the sun’s angle can make colors pop from a seated perspective. When prospecting, sit at different locations and look in different directions.
Take the time to enjoy the beauty of this majestic place. You never know. The desert may expose concealed treasures just for you.