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  • Seth William Rozendaal

The Geologic History of the Wah-Wah Deposit


Approximately one hundred million years ago, a geologic event occurred where older rocks were forced on top of younger layers, creating a row of mountains which stretches across the states of Utah and Nevada. This tremendous range developed "during the Sevier orogeny in Late Cretaceous time…[and] minor faulting can be documented locally, especially along several east-trending lineaments" (Rowley, et al - 1979).

One these sets of east-trending faults is known as the Blue Ribbon Lineament, which measures over 200 miles long with fractures reaching thousands of feet into the Earth's crust (Rowley, Lipman & Mehnert - 1978). These cracks allowed magmatic flows to occur, exposing the area to ruthless volcanic activity lasting millions of years.

Beginning around thirty million years ago, eruptions and intrusions into these faults allowed the emplacement of volcanic domes, or magma "bubbles". Since the final resting place of each lava "bubble" is different, each magma "river" melts a channel through slightly dissimilar rock compositions, acquiring a unique mix of minerals along the way. "Red beryl occurs in 'topaz-bearing' rhyolites, a class of silica-rich volcanic rocks that are geochemically distinct in terms of the presence of topaz and the high content of fluorine and certain other elements" (Wood & Nassau - 1968).

While multiple topaz-bearing rhyolites have been located, only one deposit in the world possesses the conditions required for gem-quality red beryl crystal formation to occur. "Nearly all topaz rhyolites extruded as small, endogenous lava domes with or without lava flows" (Christiansen, Sheridan & Burt - 1986), and the set of topaz-rhyolite domes known as the Blawn Wash formation was established 17 to 24 million years ago.

This 5.7 carat uncut, beveled Red Emerald crystal is the same weight and quality as the 5.73 carat specimen sacrificed to scientifically examine age.

To verify this age, on October 12, 1994, Geochron Laboratories and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology crushed a 5.73 carat red beryl crystal. Scientists then inspected and removed inclusions from the crushed sample, dissolving the remaining purified red beryl in solution. Levels of strontium and rubidium isotopes were examined to determine a more exact date of formation. Their conclusions support the prevailing geologic dating hypothesis, with an indicated age of 17.3 million years, plus or minus 2 million years (Newton - 1994).

Results of Geochron Laboratories Testing

The lava "bubble" which came to rest in the Wah-Wah Mountains is part of the larger Blawn Wash field, which comprises "a total area of 100-200 square kilometers, devitrified to form vapor-phase minerals…but the occurrence of beryl is exceptionally rare. Even within the rhyolite flow which hosts the red beryl, the productive open pits comprise only 0.02% of the surface area" (Keith, Christiansen & Tingey - 1994).

Although most of the fractures in the area follow the larger trend to the east and northeast, red beryl crystallization occurs at the juncture between the eastern boundary of the Sevier belt and the Blue Ribbon lineament, which created a second set of sheet fractures trending to the northwest. Gem-quality red beryl was deposited at depth along this "extensive set of northwest-trending sheet fractures…within the east-northeast trending shear zone…and both the east-northeast shear zone and the northwest sheet fractures were active at the same time" (Austin - 1998).

A large 87.65 carat cluster specimen illustrates the difference in crystal quality between formation within fissures versus rhyolite displacement.

Beryl formation is similar to how rock candy crystallizes from sugar water, but when this involves magma under pressure, the process is called pneumatolysis. While "prismatic crystals, commonly in clusters, are concentrated along veins that are fracture controlled" (Ream - 1979), non-gem beryl also forms throughout the zone of mineralization by displacement of the host matrix. Pneumatolysis is the alteration of rock or mineral crystallization produced by gaseous emanations from solidifying magma.

Although an extremely rare geological occurrence, pneumatolysis is also present in a green emerald schist (Soliman - 1986), making the red and green beryls the only two varieties which form involving this process. For both, rock alteration and crystallization occurs, indicating beryl formation is preferred over the air in fractures and over the presence of liquid/solid during formation. Similar hardships cause parallel growth disturbances when observing crystal structures of the two (Pink Portfolio), resulting in Emeralds being classified as Type III gemstones with the same prevalence of inclusions, fissures and fractures. This ultimately culminates in red and green gemstones with identical optical features and qualities. To wit: Both Emeralds are the same.

Two paragraphs of an internal Kennecott memo reveals pneumatolytic origin, visual detection of synthetics and diverse coloring agents.

After formation, the rare red beryl crystals and future Red Emeralds were hidden from humanity for millions of years and sat waiting underground until 1958. This period in United States history is marked by a Uranium Boom, and the children of the atom were ravenous in their search for nuclear material. While prospecting for this radioactive boon, Lamar Hodges of Fillmore, Utah stumbled upon a different sort of treasure instead…tiny red hexagonal crystals unlike any other on Earth.

This new color for a precious gem once only green is birthed in a matrix that is literally Snow White...how much more of a fairytale stone could the Red Emerald possibly be?!

Regarding the rare gemstone as a collectible oddity, Lamar staked an area he called the Jet Claims north of Bumblebee Mountain in the Wah-Wah Range of Beaver County, Utah. Only surface mining was conducted for the first 20 years, with the Hodges family scouring the surface of the mountain and digging by hand in a manner similar to what one can still experience in Topaz Valley.

US Geological Survey map illustrating historic and current claim boundaries, as well as the location of Bumblebee Mountain.

After a decade of hobby excavation by the Hodges, the mining rights were sold to Ted (Ed) and Rex Harris for a mere $8,000. The Harris family began to work the claims, which they established as four Ruby claims and eight Violet claims, with each plot consisting of 20 acres. Within this 240 acre block of land are three major drifts of altered topaz-rhyolite where the greatest mineralization occurs.

Excavation of these drifts has occurred in the Lower Pit Mine (Drift 1 - Family Operations), the Middle Pit Mine (Drift 2 - Kennecott Mining Company) and the Upper Pit Mine (Drift 2 - Gemstone Mining, Incorporated). The Harris family excavated the first drift in the lower pit. Kennecott exhausted the surface-bearing material in the middle pit during exploration operations, and this site has been reclaimed. Gemstone Mining worked in the upper pit chasing Drift 2 underground (the Kennecott and Gemstone Mining operations will be closely examined in future blog posts).

The first drift contained a high quantity of gem-quality specimens, while the second turned out larger but more included crystals. The variation in crystals from each drift is significant enough that someday chemical or gemological differentiation between the two may be possible. Each pit produced facet-grade rough: one at a high rate, one at the projected rate, and one at a very low rate. To date, no commercial-scale mining venture has been profitable, because red beryl production is cost-prohibitive.

Mechanized operations began in 1978, and the Harris family kept inventoried receipts for the sale of polished goods and specimens from their first two decades of ownership. The Harrises estimated total production of red beryl from discovery to 1996 as equivalent to 30,000 faceted carats (Rohtert - 1996), although only half that number had actually been sold as faceted products.

Kennecott's activity at the mine began with limited exploration in 1993 and lasted until reclamation by the owners in 2003, but this final decade produced almost as much material as all previous operations combined. Although mechanization produced a sizeable inventory of crystals, complex problems inherent to Emerald cutting resulted in an extremely poor average faceted yield of 12.5%, and the largest faceted Red Emerald still only weighed 4.5 carat (Shigley, Thompson & Keith - 2003). At the typical yield, this largest stone came from a rough crystal with an inferred uncut weigh of 36 carats!

Uncommonly photographed scene FROM the Ruby Violet claims,

looking through the burgundy rainbow of my camera's lens-flare.

Industrial processing involved crushing two thousand pounds of white rock with the hardness of concrete only to yield finished faceted material at a pace between 0.62 carat and 1.53 carat per-ton. These harsh commercial methods for processing also damaged more crystals than traditional hand-mining methods. In either the best-case or worst-case scenario, pulling red beryl from the ground in any form is tedious and costly!

Even if scarcity did not make Red Emeralds available to only a select few, the unsustainable manufacturing overhead has set the price of production for this extraordinarily rare stone at an incredibly high level. Close monitoring of the last four years indicates this price point has been, currently is and continuously will be sustained by consumers of the recurring but diminishing inventories on the secondary market.

Without a primary supplier for the past two decades, the Red Emerald trade has existed as only a secondary collector's market. Processing of old-stock unfaceted material along with the re-sale of formerly-purchased cut stones produces a quantity sufficient to support this secondary market.

Our current holdings equivalent to multiple years of mining production and capable of supporting primary market demand. Our inventory includes some of the very first of the largest and finest stones in the world, a mark of excellence one can purchase in no other gem species.

REFERENCES BY DATE OF INFORMATION

Nassau, K. & Wood, D. L. An Examination of Red Beryl from Utah, The American Mineralogist - 1968

Rowley, Peter, Lipman, Peter & Mehnert, Harald. The Blue Ribbon Lineament, an East-Trending Structural Zone Within the Pioche Mineral Belt of Southwestern Utah and Eastern Nevada, United States Geological Survey - March 1978

Rowley, Peter, Steven, Thomas, Anderson, John & Cunningham, Charles. Cenozoic Stratigraphic and Structural Framework of Southwestern Utah, United States Department of the Interior, Professional Paper 1149 - 1979

Ream, Larry. Famous Mineral Localities: The Thomas Range, Wah Wah Mountains and Vicinity, Western Utah, The Mineralogical Record - October 1979

Christiansen, Eric, Sheridan, Michael and Burt, Donald. The Geology and Geochemistry of Cenozoic Topaz Rhyolites from the Western United States, Geological Society of America, Special Paper 205 - 1986

Soliman, Mohamed M. Ancient Emerald Mines and Beryllium Mineralization Associated with Precambrian Stanniferous Granites in the Nugrus-Zabara Area, Southeastern Desert, Egypt, Arab Gulf Journal of Scientific Research, Volume 4, Number 2, pp. 529-548 - 1986

USGS. 1:24,000 Scale Wah-Wah Map, United States Geological Survey - 1989

Keith, Jeffrey, Christiansen, Eric & Tingey, David. Geological and Chemical Conditions of Formation of Red Beryl, Utah Geological Association, Publication 23, pp. 155-68 - 1994

Newton, Claiborne. Rb, Sr and Sr Isotope Analyses on Red Beryl, Geochron Laboratories, Sample Number: SS01885 - October 12, 1994

Rohtert, William R. Internal Memo: Synthetic Red Beryl from Russia, Kennecott Exploration Company - August 14, 1995

Rohtert, William R. Internal Memo: Historic Production from the Ruby Violet Mine, Kennecott Exploration Company - December 12, 1996

Austin, Gordon T. Red Beryl Resource and Cost Estimates, Gemstone Mining Incorporated - January 8, 1998

Shigley, James, Thompson, Timothy & Keith, Jeffrey. Red Beryl From Utah: A Review and Update, Gems & Gemology - Winter 2003


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