Carolina Gem Hunter Finds Giant Emerald

Jamie Hill's friends thought that he was nuts the first time he went into debt searching for emeralds in North Carolina, but he's proven them wrong — again.

Hill made headlines when he found an 88-carat emerald in a dormant family mine in Hiddenite, N.C. in November 1998, after years of mostly fruitless searching.

In mid-January, just feet from the spot where he found the exquisite gem that brought him fame, Hill discovered two more bright, green emeralds, one weighing more than 100 carats, while the other weighs between 35 and 40 carats. The discovery came about a week into his mining efforts. Hill had taken a two-year hiatus to retrieve commercial mining permits and raise money for mining equipment.

Experts say that Hill's latest finds rank among the finest emeralds in the world because of their brilliant green color, large size and the fact that the emerald has formed independent of crystals rather than imbedded in the rock. It is impossible to put a price tag on the gems until they are cut from the rough and made into polished gems.

Hill, 38, has been searching for treasure since he was a child. After dropping out of college and drifting through a number of jobs, he went back to his first love, looking for gems. But he had blitzed through $200,000, was in debt, and getting ready to take a factory job when he made the 1998 discovery.

Emeralds Back In Carolina?

Experts say that Hill's find will put North America on the map for gemstones. Hiddenite is in the Brushy Mountains, about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte, N.C.

Most emeralds are found in Colombia, Brazil, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Alexander County in North Carolina — an area that includes Hiddenite — was known for its gems after the Civil War, but the supply was believed to be tapped out by World War II.

That's why it was such a surprise when Hill came upon an 88-carat emerald in 1998. The rough gem was cut down into two polished gems of 18.8 carats and 7.8 carats. The smaller one, called "The Carolina Prince" was sold in 1999 to a private investor for $500,000.

Another Hiddenite emerald found in 1970 was sold for $200,000 after it was cut by Tiffany's.

Buying a Colored Gemstone

Buying a colored gemstone is different than buying a diamond, which are subject to a more uniform grading scale. But if you are on the market to buy one, you still should look at the four c's:cut, color, clarity and carat. Experts recommend looking at gemstones using a loupe, which magnifies by 10 times and can be obtained from any optical supply house.

If you see bubbles and swirl lines within the gem, that's a telltale sign that it contains glass. Inside emeralds, you will see internal flaws that are called inclusions, which are normal. But a loupe can show you if these natural cracks are serious, close to the surface, or if they are readily visible.

Here are some tips from gem expert Antoinette Matlins, who wrote Jewelry & Gems, the Buying Guide.

Whenever possible, examine stones unmounted. Looking at the loose gemstone allows you to see the entire stone. Defects cannot be hidden by the mounting or side stones.

Make sure the gem is clean. Ask the retail jeweler to clean it for you, or if that is not possible, breathe on it in a huffing manner, then wipe it with a clean handkerchief to remove at least the superficial film of grease.

Hold the stone so that your fingers touch only the girdle, where the top and bottom meet. If you touch the top (the table), you will leave traces of oil from your skin, affecting the color and brilliance of the gem.

View the gem under proper lighting. Some jewelers use special spotlights that can make any gemstone look fantastic, but you will want to view the stone in incandescent light from above or behind you so that the light traveling through the stone is reflected back up to your eye.

Rotate the stone to view it from different angels.

If you are using a loupe to examine the stone, focus it both on the surface and into the interior.

To learn more about the emerald that Hill is auctioning off for a Sept. 11 charity, contact North American Emerald Mines in Hiddenite, N.C. at 828-635-5718.