North Carolina sparkles with emerald find

Farmer digging in field unearths 88-carat crystal of dark green hue

March 05, 2000|By Jon Goldberg | Jon Goldberg,Knight Ridder/Tribune

STATESVILLE, N.C — STATESVILLE, N.C. -- Rock hound Jamie Hill knew he had found an impressive batch of emeralds in November 1998 while digging near his Alexander County home.

Now gem experts are calling one of his emeralds the finest ever mined in North America. Cut from an 88-carat emerald crystal, the pear-shaped "Carolina Queen" has been weighed in at 18.8 carats and boasts a remarkable dark green hue rare for North Carolina.

The oval "Carolina Prince," cut from the same rough emerald, tipped the scales at 7.8 carats. Some experts say the Carolina Queen is finer even than Tiffany's 13-carat "Carolina" emerald, found 30 years ago in the same field where Hill works.

Appraisers won't finish their work on Carolina Queen for another few months, so no one knows how much it could be worth. Rick Gregory, a jeweler who now owns it with 11 other Statesville investors, said he believes it could be worth more than $1 million.

"It definitely stands above everything else [from North America]," said Gregory, whose group bought the rough emerald from Hill last summer for an undisclosed price.

"This is going to set the world on its ears." Large, high-quality emeralds usually come only from Colombia, Brazil or the African country of Zambia. They're rare in North America and are found almost exclusively in the small Alexander County community of Hiddenite, about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte.

In 1970, a Lincolnton man found a 59-carat emerald crystal that Tiffany's later cut down to the 13-carat, $200,000 Carolina emerald. Hill himself unearthed a 300-pound quartz crystal in 1990 that's now on display at his family's inn there.

Deep in debt, Hill started digging in November 1998 at a former public mine he owns in Hiddenite. He hit the jackpot a month later by tapping into a vein that generated 3,000 carats -- including the prized 88-carat whopper. His life changed forever after word spread of his find. "Oprah" and "Inside Edition" came calling. People magazine featured him. Single women he didn't know were dialing his number.

"It's been a really wild ride," Hill, 35, said. He decided to sell the 88-carat emerald crystal last summer to help pay $200,000 in debts. Gregory and his group, CQ Marketing Syndicate, hired gem cutter Allan Koo of New York to pare the emerald chunk to reveal only the finest parts of the gem.

Koo said he expected the stone to produce a 14-carat emerald -- tops. He said he couldn't believe it when it yielded two stones weighing a combined 26 carats. He was even more surprised by the emerald's deep green hue. North American emeralds are often light green, making them less valuable.

"This one is a gorgeous green," Koo said. Even better news came when for Gregory's group. American Gemological Laboratories in New York submitted a report to Gregory that described the Carolina Queen as the finest North American emerald the lab had ever seen.

Gregory is placing the Carolina Queen in an 18-carat-gold necklace and displaying it for potential buyers in his Statesville store. He also intends to have a New York show.

As for Hill, he expects to resume mining. He says he's ready to get back to work after being sidetracked by a number of interviews and by new permits needed for commercial mines.

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