N.C. gems to shine at museum

An anonymous donor gifts three uncut emeralds and the ‘Carolina Emperor.’

jstancill@newsobserver.com March 16, 2012 

— Today, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences will unveil a dazzling donation that just might land Raleigh a new nickname: Emerald City.

An anonymous donor has given the museum one of the biggest prizes in its 132-year history – a collection of rare and remarkable emeralds that were unearthed in North Carolina. Their value, in the millions, makes the gift among the museum’s largest, along with the $3 million Acrocanthosaurus dinosaur that went on display in 2000.

The stones, along with another rare mineral called hiddenite, will be housed in the museum’s new wing, the $56 million Nature Research Center that opens next month.

The collection has three big uncut emeralds. One weighs 1,225 carats (8.64 ounces) and measures nearly 4 inches long.

The fourth, known as the “Carolina Emperor,” is 64.38 carats, the largest cut emerald originating from North America. It mimics the cut and size of an emerald that belonged to Catherine the Great, empress of Russia in the 18th century. Her diamond-and-emerald brooch sold for $1.65 million at auction in 2010.

It is a triumph that the treasures, found deep under Alexander County soil, will be on display here, Betsy Bennett, director of the museum, said.

“It will be a signature exhibit. There are people who will travel to North Carolina just to see these emeralds. ... It will bring a new audience,” she said.

It seems only fitting that the rare minerals will be showcased in the state’s capital. After all, the emerald is the state’s official gemstone, and North Carolina is the only place on this continent where significant emerald deposits are found. Most emeralds come from Colombia in South America.

Two mines in Hiddenite, a small town in Alexander County, are the source of most North Carolina emeralds. The stones are typically snapped up by big-name jewelers such as Tiffany’s or the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which bills itself as the home of the world’s finest mineral collection.

Keeping gems in state

But an unnamed donor, presumably a North Carolinian, wanted to keep some of the state’s own precious jewels here.

Late last summer, Bennett got a call from the donor, who invited her to lunch.

“After lunch we went into an office; a cardboard box showed up on the table,” she recalled. “They started unwrapping things in the cardboard box.”

First there were pieces of hiddenite, an unusual light green mineral. Then the “Carolina Emperor.” Then the three uncut stones, each one grander than the one before.

“When I first saw these, I couldn’t believe (it),” she remembered. “I was speechless actually. I’m rarely speechless.”

The collection will be placed in a secured case on the first floor of the Nature Research Center under 24-hour surveillance by guards and cameras.

Digging up treasure

That’s a long way from the Adams farm, a 100-acre tract in Alexander County, where Terry Ledford, a lifelong gem hunter, found them. Ledford mines the area in partnership with W.R. Adams, whose family owns the property.

It’s a painstaking process that may take years to yield a major find.

Ledford looks for clues – bits of mica and quartz – when picking a spot to dig. He goes at least 3 feet down below the topsoil to look for veins of minerals. Then he follows the veins deeper as they widen, hoping to hit a pocket where emeralds, hiddenite and other minerals might lurk.

There, he abandons all metal tools so as not to scratch anything valuable. He uses wooden tools, mostly bamboo and occasionally chopsticks.

In 2009, he located a big nugget of something that became the “Carolina Emperor.”

“It was so dark. I said to myself, there’s no way that could be what I think it is,” he recalls. “The more I dug around it, the bigger it got.”

Eventually he extracted it. He hollered up to Adams, who is in his 90s, sitting at the top of a hill nearby.

“I said, ‘Get ready, I’ve got something that’s going to change our lives, I think.’ I took it up there and he felt it. He said, ‘Is that a quartz?’ I said, ‘No, Mr. Adams, that’s an emerald.’ He said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. That big?’ ”

They ran it up to the house, where they scrubbed away clay with a toothbrush. It gleamed like a 7Up bottle.

Last year, Ledford continued to dig on the property in an old hole that had been long abandoned. Close to 20 feet down, he hit the mother lode: three gigantic emeralds. The first was so large, he didn’t think it was an emerald, until he held it up to the sunlight.

“That’s when the praying, and the thanking the good Lord and the whooping and the hollering started.”

Now the museum is celebrating, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

Jeff Schlottman, a longtime mineral collector from Winston-Salem, helped seal the deal so the benefactor could buy them.

Schlottman has watched for years as North Carolina emeralds have ended up in museums elsewhere. Now, it’s time for them to sparkle here, he says.

And when the public gets a look next month?

Schlottman says, “They’ll be dragging their jaw off the floor.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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