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Opals Fire the Passion of Small Idaho Town

Spencer is located near one of the largest deposits in the U.S. Its four stores carry everything from loose stones to jewelry.

October 20, 2002|Rebecca Boone | Associated Press Writer

SPENCER, Idaho — From Interstate 15, the tiny town passes in a moment, just a blip of brown buildings in the desert.

But inside the local stores is a treasure trove. The fire of opals erupts from jewelry cases lining the walls.

Spencer, population 38, holds one of the largest opal deposits in the United States and is home to rare star opals. Although white is the most common color worldwide, Spencer miners find rarer blue, pink or red gems.

"Our customers are generally jewelers and distributors," said Bob Thompson, who owns Opal Mountain Mines with his wife, Susan. "In the winters, we close up and go to California because you can't mine when the ground is covered in snow. But people do stop in from the highway, and they're generally surprised at all we have."

All they have includes opal jewelry and loose stones, traditional fire opals and opals that have rarer patterns that look like peacock feathers, harlequin squares or stars.

One wall is lined with jars, filled with gray, broken rocks. The rocks are veined with flaky layers of raw opal, the same way it comes out of the mine.

"This is the only place in America where you can sell canned opals, you've got so much," Susan Thompson said.

Two lost deer hunters from Rexburg discovered opals in the area in 1948 as they wandered about 70 miles from the west edge of Yellowstone National Park. The first claim was filed in 1952, and now the town is dominated by four commercial opal companies.

Dennis and Jackie Hooper are the newcomers. Dennis Hooper, a longtime rockhound, mines his claim to supply his store, High Country Opal. Brightly painted signs aimed at the highway proclaim that the store is open 365 days a year -- an idea that his neighbors laughed at.

"They said there's no way I'd stay open every single day of the year," he said. "But I am. In wintertime, this is the only restroom open in 100 miles."

Travelers who dash in for a rest stop pause when they see the gems, he said. They generally leave sporting an opal ring, earrings or necklace.The price ranges from a few dollars to a few hundred.

"You never know what you're going to end up with until the final cut," Hooper said, turning one under a light so the fire flashed. "Opal is thousands of microscopic colors. The trick to cutting it is stopping."

The colors are spheres of silica and water suspended in the rock. The deposits formed when geysers erupted, leaving thin layers of opal that stacked up over time.

Occasionally, opal miners will find a layer thick enough to cut solid stones. More frequently, the opals are made into doublets or triplets. Doublets are opal ground into a thin layer and glued on a basalt or obsidian back. Triplets are doublets that have been capped with a clear, protective quartz dome.

The dome protects the gems. Opals have a high water content and tend to flake or crack as they dry out, unless they are sealed or treated with chemicals.

"I feel like I can cut as good an opal triplet as anyone in the world," Hooper said. "It's not rocket science, just ... tedious, time-consuming work."

Claudia Couture knows that as well as anyone. She owns the Spencer Opal Mine, the oldest and largest mine in the area.

Couture's parents bought their 40-acre claim in 1964, and the family moved to Spencer in 1968 when she was 15. At first, they opened the mine to tourists and rock hounds who paid a set fee for a day of digging.

Now that Couture is in charge, opal-hunting tourists can still pay $30 a day, per person, on summer holiday weekends. But the mine primarily supplies her retail business.

"I've done this my whole life, and I've never had to work for anyone else," she said. "... Opal mining is just a good living."

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