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California visit leaves her star-struck

Austrian tourist finds a rare, five-pointed piece of benitoite, the state gemstone.

August 18, 2013|Bob Pool
  • Henry Carradine and Karina Ille inspect the star-shaped benitoite Ille found at the California State Gem Mine.
Henry Carradine and Karina Ille inspect the star-shaped benitoite Ille… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Forget the Hollywood Walk of Fame refrigerator magnet, the Mickey Mouse ears beanie and the postcards of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Tourist Karina Ille will have a much more memorable souvenir of her California visit when she returns Sunday to her native Austria.

Last weekend the 21-year-old Ille discovered a rare star-shaped piece of benitoite in San Benito County, where this country's only mining spot for the gem is located.

That exclusivity prompted officials to proclaim benitoite as California's state gemstone in 1985.

And it was that proclamation that led Ille and her boyfriend to a spot outside of the Central Valley town of Coalinga on Sunday, where she and Henry Carradine and his parents spent the day searching for the elusive benitoite by sifting through piles of rocks hauled out of the California State Gem Mine.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 18, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Rare gem: In the Sept. 17 LATExtra section, a photo that accompanied an article about the value of a star-shaped gem found by an Austrian student did not show the gem in question but another piece of benitoite. The same photo also was published with an article in the Aug. 18 California section announcing the discovery.

The mine's operators pull the rocks from their open-pit dig and charge visitors $70 each to spend the day searching for the mineral. Once suspected benitoite is discovered, visitors wash the rocks and study them under black lights in a darkened room outside of the mine. They are allowed to take home in quart zip-lock bags what they find.

That's how Ille discovered what she had. "This looks like a star," she said when the tiny rock glowed florescent-blue under the black light. "The guy who runs the place got freaked out when he saw it."

Mine owner David Schreiner acknowledges he was astounded when he looked at her find. "I got really excited by seeing that. Benitoite is the rarest gem in the world, and stars are even more rare. I suggested she photograph it and sell posters of it. What she found is worth a lot of money," he said. But he said he was reluctant to place a value on Ille's stone. "I'd probably put a price on it too low," he said. "It's worth more than a diamond."

The most sought-after benitoite star is the six-pointed "star of David," which can be worth as much as $50,000. Only about two dozen of them are known to exist.

Ille's tiny star has five points. Schreiner gave her a cotton-filled plastic pill bottle to carry it in so its points would not be damaged by other gems in her zip-lock bag.

She plans to carefully pack her star and her other benitoite samples in her carry-on bag when she and Carradine return to Austria. Both are students and concert musicians studying and performing in Vienna -- she is a violinist and he is a pianist.

Carradine is a member of the family of actors. When prodded, he explains that actress Martha Plimpton is his cousin, actors Keith Carradine and the late David Carradine are his uncles, and the late actor John Carradine is his grandfather. His father, Christopher, is an architect and retired Disney Imagineer, and his mother, Carolyn, is an actress and artist.

Henry Carradine, 22, said he was looking up state trivia online when he discovered that benitoite was California's official gem. Further research told him that benitoite deposits are known to exist in Arkansas and Japan, as well as Coalinga.

He said the four of them learned of the rarity of benitoite when Caroline Carradine checked the Internet during their long drive back to Malibu, where Henry's parents live.

Ille said she was becoming worn out from hours of rock-sifting before the group went into the darkened room to look at their rocks under the black light.

"I'd started to fall asleep. It was getting boring," she said. But the florescent gems' purple glow under the black light energized her.

Next time she returns to California, she'll go back to the benitoite mine, she says now. "It was fun."


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