How Gem Hunting Works

By: Ed Grabianowski
An emerald hunter shows off a small emerald found outside a mine in Muzo, Colombia.
Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images

Gem hunting is like playing the geological lottery. One person may spend hours performing backbreaking work and pay fees for access to mine tailings only to find a few semiprecious stones that aren't worth much. Another person may randomly reach into a pile of dirt and pull out a diamond worth thousands of dollars.

Looking for interesting gems and crystals can be a rewarding hobby, even if you don't hit the jackpot. Many recreational gem hunters enjoy spending time outdoors, learning about geology and hanging out with their gem-hunting friends. Others are more goal-oriented; they look for their own birthstones or for attractive gems that they can make into jewelry. And then there are the collectors, who want to track down as many different types of gems and rocks as possible to catalog and display.


There are many different ways to experience gem hunting, from fee digs to staking your own mining claim (all discussed later). This article will outline the basics, from equipment and preparation to the legal issues amateur gem hunters should know. We'll tell you where to go hunting and what to do with your gems after you've found them.

Before you can attain geologic glory, there are a few details to mention about this hobby. Let's examine the different types of gem hunting and which would be the best option for you.


Hunting Gems for Fun and Profit

A California man filters dirt through a sluice (a tool with barriers along the bottom that trap heavy gold) while panning at Gold Prospecting Adventures in May 2008.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Gem hunting is simply the act of going out and looking for interesting geologic finds. There are a few different types of gem hunting:

Recreational mining

If you dig up your own rocks and dirt to find gems in, then you're a recreational miner. You might be allowed to excavate a disused area of a mine owned by someone else or get permission to quarry part of someone's property -- including, in some cases, government property. Panning or sluicing for gold, known as placer mining, is another form of recreational mining.


Mine tailings

When a large-scale, commercial mining operation extracts minerals from the ground, it ends up with leftover gravel and dirt. It usually isn't worth the time for these groups to sort through leftovers in order to find small gems that they missed, so they just pile it in a place called a mine dump. Sometimes you can comb through mine dumps for free; other mines charge a fee to dig through their remnants. This is one form of a fee dig.

Fee dig

In addition to mine tailings, some mines prepare gravel and dirt deposits specifically so people can come and dig, looking for gems. Fee digs attract both tourists and gem hunters. Some mines even import rock and dirt from other regions so people may search for exotic gems normally not found in that area. Or, mines might provide material from deep underground, where the average gem hunter couldn't go. Fees can range from $50 to $100 or more, depending on the length of time you spend at the site. Essentially, you're leasing the mineral rights to whatever you find. However, some fee digs charge a percentage of the wholesale price of any rough gems you find.

Geology hiking

Hunting for gems can be as simple as heading out into the wild and seeing what you can find on a walk. You won't be heading to a specific mine or looking through pre-dug piles of gravel -- you'll be searching for gems and minerals already at the surface, exposed by rock falls and erosion. You might do a little digging or chiseling, but no serious mining. You'll probably be hiking in a state park or on private land, where someone has given you permission

Now that you know the different types of gem hunting, let's examine the ideal gem-hunting grounds to meet your needs.


Where to Find Gems?

This uncut diamond, embedded in river gravel, went on display at the Kimberley Diamond Museum in South Africa. 
Fred Mayer/Getty Images

You can't just head outside, poke around some rocks and hope to find specific types of gems and crystals. Compare gem hunting to bird watching -- if you want to spot a certain species of bird, you wouldn't aimlessly wander around a forest. You'd learn where that bird lives, what trees it nests in, what it eats, and what its migration patterns are -- leading you to make its eventual discovery.

Let's say you want to find some malachite specimens to add to your gem collection. This mineral is often found near limestone and copper deposits and, within the United States, is most often found in Arizona [source: diamond. Because diamonds are created under extreme pressure, they form deep within the Earth. They're most common in areas where deep mantle rocks have been pushed to the surface by geological processes. They can also be found in the alluvial deposits (rocks and soil deposited by water) along rivers that flow from these areas.


Minerals formed in Earth's mantle can find their way to the surface over the span of millions of years due to huge geologic effects such as tectonic plate upheaval. Earthquakes and volcanoes can bring deep rocks to the surface, while wind or water erosion gradually wears down surface soils to reveal buried bedrock. Humans can reveal bedrock as well, which is why it can be very rewarding to hunt for gems near tunnels, railroads or construction sites (if you're allowed).

There are numerous gem and mineral guidebooks available, many of them designed to fit in a pocket or backpack. These guidebooks can help you distinguish and identify specimens, especially because the rough forms of gems look very different from the gleaming jewels we typically imagine. In rough form, gems are partly or wholly encased in other material, usually rock. They may resemble translucent lumps or have a more defined shape, depending on the crystalline structure of the mineral. If possible, bring experienced gem hunters along on your first trip. They'll know how to spot certain minerals, and their knowledge will go beyond what you can learn from a book. You could also learn more by visiting a local museum that features samples common to the region.

For every gem in the world, there's a different way to find it. Australian sapphires are found in a certain region covered with alluvial deposits. They're strewn throughout a gravel layer beneath the topsoil. Gem hunters dig through the gravel layer and filter the rocks by putting them in a pan and shaking them in water. Because sapphires are heavier than most rocks, they tend to settle to the bottom of the pan. When the pan is flipped over and emptied, any sapphires will be sitting on top.

Panning for gold also relies on the weight of the mineral. Flakes and pellets of gold can be found mixed with gravel and sediments. Gold is heavier than water, so shaking a pan full of dirt, rock and water settles any gold to the bottom. The other material can be washed over the side, leaving the gold behind. Sluices are long channels (like miniature waterslides) with ridges on the bottom. Large volumes of dirt, rock and water course down the sluice, leaving heavy gold caught in the ridges.

There are tens of thousands of types of minerals in existence. And even though the varieties we would call gems are fewer, they're created under combinations of conditions so vast as to be nearly infinite. Pressure, heat, location, the presence of other minerals and impurities, water, and geologic forces exerted later all contribute to the hardness, clarity, crystalline structure and color of gems and minerals. That's what makes them so rare.

You'll need a lot more than a guidebook to discover hidden treasures and buried jewels. Find out what gear you should bring in the next section.


Gem-hunting Equipment

Without the proper gear, gem hunting would be futile and not much fun. For example, using your bare hands to chip out specimens or haul gravel could cause serious physical damage. Fortunately, geologic tools aren't too expensive -- items like gold pans and collection bags are very cheap, and even the most expensive tools can be had for under $50. If you're going to spend most of your time as a gem hound, it's worthwhile to properly outfit yourself (it'll make your gem-hunting expeditions more enjoyable and fruitful). Several geologic and mining suppliers sell their goods via the Internet, and popular mining areas usually have outfitters' shops nearby.

Here's the basic equipment needed for a proper gem-hunting expedition:


  • Rugged clothes: Climbing, digging and hauling rocks require clothes that can get dirty. Sturdy boots and pants are a must. Work gloves will prevent blisters.
  • Rock hammer: A geologist's hammer has a flat head at one end and a chisel at the other, perfect for splitting rocks. Longer hammers provide more leverage, while some gem hunters prefer to bring a selection of small chisels.
  • Shovel: A folding shovel will help you collect the most stubborn of gems.
  • Goggles: Hammering or chiseling rock can cause rock chips to fly up and enter your eyes -- wearing safety goggles can prevent this.
  • Collection bag: You don't want to shove specimens in your pocket next to your car keys -- a sturdy collection bag will keep your findings safe. Don't forget to bring newspaper to wrap each gem so they don't bang together and chip.
  • Labeling system: You can use an indelible marker and adhesive labels to note each find. Once the gem is numbered, you can mark the location and date of where and when it was found. Mark any other information you'd like to later add into your gem-hunting journal.
  • Magnifying lens: A 10x magnification is very useful for examining and identifying specimens, especially once you gain some experience and know what to look for.

More advanced equipment is optional. A GPS device is helpful if you'll be map could suffice. If you're looking for a particular type of gem, you might need specialized equipment, such as a pan for gold. In many cases, fee digs have this type of equipment available.

Once you find some worthwhile specimens, can you walk off the property, gem in hand? Let's explore the legal issues surrounding gem hunting on the next page.


Mineral Rights: Who Owns the Gems?

Some gem hunters show off their prized collections in framed displays.
DEA/A.RIZZI/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

If you find some great specimens, are you allowed to keep them? Probably, but the legal issues surrounding gem hunting can get a little tricky.

You're not allowed to hunt for gems on private property unless you have permission from the property owner. If you don't have permission, you won't be able to keep anything you find and you could potentially be arrested for trespassing.


Here's where things get complicated -- sometimes the mineral rights to a property are separate from the surface rights. A basic deed (known as fee simple) gives someone ownership of the land and everything underneath it. However, the mineral rights can be severed from the surface rights. This usually won't be a factor if you're paying a fee to hunt on private land -- whoever is charging the fee is assumed to be the holder of the mineral rights. Your fee gives you temporary mineral rights, so you own whatever you find (depending on the specific terms of the agreement you have with the property owner).

If you're on state or federal land, ownership of mineral rights becomes a larger issue. The government owns the mineral rights unless those rights were severed at some point in the past, in which case a private person or company might own them. That means that even though you're on public land, you don't necessarily have the right to hunt for gems.

So what's a gem hunter to do? Call the office of the state or federal park where you plan to go hunting. In many cases, you can engage in recreational mining and keep anything you find as long as you get a permit and follow the rules. In the Western U.S., you might be allowed to stake a claim. Sometimes, the mineral rights for public land were left up for grabs, so you can set aside a small area and claim whatever gems and minerals might be found there. You'll probably have to pay an annual fee or taxes to maintain the claim.

If your gem hunting is less systematic, you don't have to worry too much about mineral rights on public land. Technically, you might not be allowed to hunt gems in state or national parks, but as long as your collecting is unobtrusive and on a small scale, chances are no one will bother you about it. Again, it's always a good idea to call the park office and find out the rules regarding gem hunting, as they can vary.

Once you take you legally obtained treasures home, what do you do with them? If you're a collector, you'll probably want to catalog your gems and put them in a display. If you want to increase your gems' value, you'll need some expert help.

Lapidaries analyze, grind, cleave, cut and polish gemstones. These artisans might cut opaque stones into cabochons (smooth, oval shapes that hide flaws). Clear gems can be cut with facets to emphasize their shine and sparkle. If you try to grind and cut a gem yourself, you could destroy it or create a flaw. A professionally cut stone is worth about three times as much as a rough stone. If you've found large specimens, certain minerals can be carved into statues by specialized sculptors.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Cash and Treasures

  • "Aussie Sapphires." "Cash and Treasures." Kirsten Gum. Travel Channel. June 4, 2008.
  • Cook, David and Wendy Kirk. "Kingfisher Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals of the World." Kingfisher Books Ltd. November 1991.
  • Hochleitner, Rupert. "Minerals." Barron's Educational Series First English Language Edition. March 1, 1994.
  • Krause, Barry. "Mineral Collector's Handbook." Sterling Pub Co. Inc., New Edition. August 1998.
  • "Meet Marvin Culver." Cash and Treasures. Travel Channel Web site. ?vgnextfmt=show&idLink=bcb877ea1e647110VgnVCM100000698b3a0a