North Carolina’s rock stars

A collection of emeralds will dazzle visitors to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

March 17, 2012 

Wow. What else can be said about a breathtaking donation to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences? It’s an emerald showcase that includes the Carolina Emperor, the largest cut emerald in North America, found in North Carolina’s Alexander County in 2009.

OK, “Holy cow” might work, too. A gemstone collection including the Emperor, and three large uncut emeralds, is worth in the millions of dollars, and the donor is anonymous. Apparently, the desire was to keep the stones in North Carolina, and they’ll be quite the centerpiece for the museum’s new Nature Research Center, a $56 million wing opening next month. Needless to say, they’ll be under glass with a 24-hour guard.

That the announcement of the gift would come a couple of days before St. Patrick’s Day, that greenest of holidays, was appropriate, but the exhibit will be all the more special given that the emeralds were, literally, a part of North Carolina, which is at or near the top in the country as a resource for gemstones.

Emeralds are a part of the state’s history, going back to the intense mining of around 150 years ago and the mining that’s still going on.

One of the state’s tourist attractions, in fact, is the presence of a number of mines where gem hunters from around the country come to try their luck.

Up in Franklin near the Great Smoky Mountains, there are advertising layouts and pamphlets showing these happy hunters panning for what they can find, and some do not come away empty-handed.

Spruce Pine’s Hoot Owl Mine invites all the visitors who can get up and down the hills in that steep community.

Then there’s Emerald Village in Little Switzerland. Once you’re in the car going through the North Carolina mountains, in fact, it’s hard not to find a gemstone mine.

There also is Emerald Isle, but that’s on the coast, which lacks the mountains to be big mining country. But the name might well have some connection to the fact that the official precious stone of North Carolina is – the emerald.

(Note: It’s true that North Carolina lawmakers of many generations have picked out all sorts of “official” honors for certain dogs, birds, blossoms, etc. But the emerald really does fit the bill.)

What happened with these emeralds was ... well, a good Betsy Bennett story. Bennett is the director of the spectacular science museum, which is becoming all the more spectacular now. She got a call from the donor, and went up to an office where the emeralds, including the Carolina Emperor, were pulled out of a cardboard box.

“I was speechless,” Bennett told The N&O’s Jane Stancill. “Actually, I’m rarely speechless.” That’s true, but she usually has something to say.

It’s appropriate that these stones are staying at home rather that going off to Tiffany’s or another such place. They’re precious, all right. But they’re North Carolina history, a history that all those folks with their gloves and their plates and their tools are sharing when they get down in the dirt in the mountains, hoping to crown an Emperor of their own.

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