Legend says that an evil spirit, enraged at his own ugliness, vowed to destroy all which was beautiful. One day while sitting in the mouth of a cave, the spirit gazed up to the sky and saw a rainbow. Filled with spite, he grasped the rainbow, shattered it, and buried the colorful shards deep within the cave. And in doing so, gave the gem tourmaline to mankind.
With legends and folklore as colorful as the gem itself, it comes as no surprise that tourmaline remains one of the top five most desirable gems of the modern world. Coveted by the Rajas of India, the Czars of Russia, and the Emperors of China, few jewels rival the brilliance and chromatic array of tourmaline. And few places on earth produce such jaw-dropping specimens as Southern California’s Pala Gem Mining District.
At the turn of the 20th century, Tz’u Hsi, China’s last Dowager Empress, loved San Diego’s pink tourmaline so much that she directly funded the mining operations there, leading to the rise of the Pala Gem Mining District and The San Diego Tourmaline Mining Company.
Today, of those 72 mines pocking the mountains of San Diego’s Pala Gem Mining District, the Oceanview Mine remains one of the last operating underground mines. Thanks to the dedicated men and women of the Oceanview Mines, mineralogists and gem enthusiasts, such as myself, can dig alongside the miners in search of the next big payload.
Located an hour north of downtown San Diego, Jeff Swanger, CEO and owner of Oceanview Mines, LLC, opens his gates to welcome the public three days a week. “We produce about 50 tons a week to be sifted. Many think we go through it first but this is false. There’s no way we could go through it and continue mining! When we open a pocket with a blast, we recover what’s stuck to the mine wall but most gets blasted into muck or rubble to be found by our guests. You would be amazed what’s been found by our guests over the years!” Best of all, guests keep every single gem they find, no matter the size or value.
But before diving bucket-first into a gravel pile, what exactly do we as guests need to look for? I headed to Oceanview Mine to find out. After a dusty, bumpy drive an undulating mountain road and through a massive citrus orchard, I arrived in a gravel lot overlooking the yucca covered valley below. As the sun steadily crept towards its zenith, Janie Amsler, one of Oceanview’s knowledgable rockhounds, gathered us all there to dig that day around to demonstrate how to identify the gems and minerals regularly unearthed at Oceanview.
Holding up a large sparkling crystal, she explained how the mine continually turns out pockets of verdant green and violet tourmaline, but peachy morganite, brilliant aquamarine, lavender-hued lepidolite, and lilac kunzite also make appearances within the gravel pile. Within Chief Mountain, the Oceanview Mine produces colors and matrixes found nowhere else in the world.
Now that we knew what to look for, Janie then established the proper etiquette of gathering gravel and working efficiently and respectfully with fellow diggers. With the buckets and shovels provided, guests needed to quickly fill their buckets from the gravel pile without lingering or “pile digging” and return to their station in order to make room for others. At our screening stations, we dumped the buckets into the wooden 1/2” mesh tray stacked directly on top of another 1/4” mesh tray in order to dry sift the contents.
To preserve the equipment, the gravel gets sifted by hand instead of sliding, banging, or shaking the trays. This dry sifting technique reveals large chunks of granite and clay, making them easy to remove. The now-sifted tray undergoes a rinse in the water bath, revealing any crystals hidden amongst the large rocks. The same process is repeated for the 1/4” tray before returning to the gravel pile for another bucket of gem-rich debris.
Between sifting, sluicing, and searching, Jeff and his team take each guest on a personal jeep tour of Chief Mountain. Diggers see first-hand the mining operations and historic tunnels crisscrossing Chief Mountain as well as the Pala Chief Mine and Tourmaline Queen Mine.
In the darkness of one of the tunnels, illuminated only by headlamps, I asked why anyone would want to be a miner. While prying a chunk from the tunnel wall with a small pick, miner Jason Evans eloquently stated, “Personally, I find it absolutely fascinating to be able to unearth something that has been hidden away for millions of years. It is truly breathtaking to be able to physically pull a crystal from within the earth and bring that crystal into the light for the first time in its history.”
Running his fingers inside the decades-old scars left behind by ancient pickaxes, my guide and drilling-blasting expert, Steve Carter, expounded on the advancements made in modern mining and blasting. As we bounced our way back towards the dig site, he said, “The great thing about my job is I get paid to make one heck of a mess,” with the slightest ghost of a smile.
While speaking with Jeff about the rise and fall of Pala Gem Mining District, he credits his team for allowing Oceanview to stay active when so many others failed. “We have been open so long on sheer will. And tourism allows us just to be able to do what we love. We have found so many historic finds and I feel blessed to have such a hard-working crew who works well together and makes it happen!”
After hours of chipping away at the gravel pile the dig finally winds down. Guests and miners pour over the days find and congratulate each other on the day’s find. Covered in a fine layer of monochromatic dust with bags of brightly colored stones, the day ends as most days do, I imagine. With sore backs and scraped knuckles but genuine enthusiasm and eagerness all the same. For more information or to schedule a dig, please visit their website at www.DigForGems.com.