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Digging for gems with a 24-karat friend

Two jewel-hunters come up empty at a San Diego County mine, but the casino and winery are pure gold.

November 20, 2005|Samantha Bonar | Times Staff Writer

Pala, Calif. — MY friend Carolyn and I wanted to become gold-diggers.

But because we couldn't find a goldmine within driving distance, we decided to become gem-diggers instead.

We headed for the Pala Indian Reservation in north San Diego County, home to one of the oldest tourmaline mines in the country -- and a casino, hotel and spa -- in hopes of scoring some gorgeous gems.

The Stewart Mine in Pala is still turning out tourmaline more than a century after forty-niners discovered the crystallized gemstone there. It comes in yellow, blue, ruby-red, black and several shades of green and pink, including the coveted "watermelon" tourmaline, a combination of pink and green.

Gem-quality pink tourmaline is five times as rare as gem diamond and 10 times as valuable as pure gold.

Miners who didn't strike it rich during the Gold Rush in Northern California made the first expeditions to this area to explore for gems. They quickly discovered that Pala contained huge deposits of what is called pegmatite mineralization. Erosion had laid bare rich deposits of the gemstones, including beryl, apatite, topaz, quartz, feldspar, lepidolite, morganite, kunzite and tourmaline.

Tourmaline fever hit a high point in the late 1800s, when Tzu Hsi, the dowager empress of China, developed an insatiable hankering for the pink version of the stone, buying up almost all the Stewart Mine could provide. Tiffany & Co. acted as the middleman.

But with the death of the empress in 1908 and the beginning of the end of the Qing Dynasty, the mine shut down for the next 60 years, giving poachers a chance to grab all the gems their thieving mitts could carry.

The mine reopened in the 1970s. Today it is still privately owned but is surrounded by the Pala Indian Reservation.

The Stewart is a maze of several miles of underground tunnels. Although it has been worked for more than a century, more than 80% of the pegmatite has yet to be mined.

Forty-niners, empresses and thieves. Now it was our turn. Carolyn and I just wanted to find enough tourmaline to make pendants for two necklaces or maybe a pair of earrings for each of us.

We headed down Interstate 15 on a sweltering Saturday morning in late May. After about 50 miles, we took California 76 east.

Visits to the actual Stewart Mine are not allowed, but for $15 gem hounds can reserve a bucket of "tailings" from the mine, then pan for tourmaline and other gems.

The mining outpost was not much more than a shack surrounded by piles of rocks, including blue-green, opaque smithsonite and rusty-orange feldspar.

Carolyn and I joined a group of about a dozen prospective prospectors waiting for directions in the 103-degree shade.

"Grab yourselves two screens, a tray, a bucket and a coffee can!" Lynn, the instructor, hollered.

A hill of rocks and dirt had been brought down from the mine, and Lynn told us to dig in with our shovels, filling our buckets.

We heaved our filled buckets onto rough tables, then we scooped cupfuls of dirt and rocks onto our screens and shook them. We poured water over the remaining rocks.

"Pink, green, blue or black," Lynn said. "Those are the colors to look for. Walk your fingers through the rocks. That's how you catch a buzz. It's your chi. Get on the crystal highway."

We scooped, shook, poured and walked our fingers for two hours, producing only a tiny emerald-green tourmaline sliver and a minuscule pink tube between the two of us. Lynn came by to see how we were doing.

"We're exhausted," Carolyn said.

"What have you found?" Lynn asked.

We showed her our meager trove.

"You gals have got a couple of dead buckets," she said.

"What about these pretty purple ones?" Carolyn asked.

"That's lepedolite. People used to grind it up and take it as a sedative. It's like natural lithium," she said. Then she moved on to another table.

"Fabulous, darling! We've got to try it," Carolyn said.

We decided to depart and check into the Pala Casino Resort & Spa down the road, where we had reservations for a deluxe room with two queen beds and a whirlpool tub. The $215-million resort, owned by the Pala Band of Mission Indians, opened in 2001. The complex has 507 rooms and suites, four entertainment venues, a pool with cabanas, a spa, fitness center, salon and boutique. The casino boasts 2,250 slot and video machines and 85 different games.

We high-tailed it to the pool.

"We forgot the lepidolite!" Carolyn exclaimed.

"Darn it," I said. "We'll have to make do with margaritas."

We spent the next couple of hours dipping and sipping by the pool.

"I'm exhausted, darling," Carolyn said. "Let's go to dinner."

We decided on the Oak Room steakhouse, one of eight on-site restaurants. To get to the restaurant we had to pass through the smoky casino, so we decided to stop and gamble.

"Look, it's only 5 cents," I said as I stopped at a video machine called "Lobster Mania." But the smallest denomination the machine would take was a dollar bill.

I inserted the bill and buttons started flashing. "What do I do?" I asked Carolyn.

"Press a button!" she said.

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