If I wanted to see the really good stuff, Ralph had told me, I needed to head to the Westward Look, a resort in the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains, where élite dealers met with “the well-heeled collectors who show up to look at the five-figure, six-figure rocks.” The next morning, we drove there together, heading up a winding driveway to a collection of low-slung ochre buildings tucked among tasteful xeriscaping.
Many of the dealers at the Tucson shows work out of hotel rooms, setting up their displays between the bed and the bathroom, which makes for an oddly intimate atmosphere. At one of the lower-rent events, in a motel near the highway, I wandered through fluorescent-lit hallways that smelled of old smoke and peered into rooms where venders had laid out their glittering displays. It felt seedy and secretive, not entirely in a bad way. At the Westward Look, however, the rooms were luxury suites presided over by men in dark suits. Prospective buyers wandered between the displays, not saying much. Ralph hovered close to my shoulder and murmured their backstories into my ear: that’s the man from Sotheby’s; that’s the former curator of London’s Natural History Museum; that’s one of the biggest collectors in China. Ralph was an ideal guide, analytical and efficient, with a good memory for gossip. After we left one dealer’s room, Ralph explained that the man had been engaged in an extended feud with his brother, also a mineral seller; as it happened, the dealer in a nearby room had also been warring with his mineral-dealing brother.
Mineral specimens are prized for things like color (the more vibrant the better), shape, and symmetry; crystals in matrix—one mineral embedded in another—can be particularly valuable. Even to my uneducated eye, the rocks on display at the Westward Look were fantastic, with a kind of charismatic geometry and a color that hinted at some inner depth. Even so, there was apparently a world of even more fantastic crystals held in reserve, too special to be put on display. “We’re not going to see the top, top, top,” Ralph said. “Those are hidden away. You have to be invited to see them.” I’d heard rumors about a dealer who’d bought a mansion in Tucson, which he used only during the month of the gem-and-mineral show; supposedly, if you spent a million dollars on his wares, he would invite you over and open up his safes to show you marvellous, undreamed-of stones.
At the Westward Look, I began to notice evidence of secret dealings. In one room, I heard the rustling of tissue paper and looked over to see two elegantly dressed men bent over something in the bathroom, their faces rapt. “I need something major,” one of them said. The dealer’s assistant saw me watching. “Showing off the good stuff,” he said, chuckling, as he steered me clear.
Wayne A. Thompson is one of the top mineral dealers in America, although he prefers to be known as a collector. He has shoulder-length straw-blond hair and an easy, informal manner. He told me that he didn’t have a computer. “Bah!” he said, shuddering. “Every time I touch them, they mess up my head.” Rocks were a different story. Sometimes he’d wake up in the middle of the night and take one out of its display case just to gaze at it for a little while. “You’ll have a girlfriend and she’s looking at you, but you’re looking at that mineral—‘Look how beautiful that is,’ ” he said, in a lovestruck voice. “The girlfriends get used to it.”
Between customers, he showed me a recent acquisition, a purple cube of Illinois fluorite. “I bought that off Rob Lavinsky. It was one of his first significant rocks—he bought it with his bar-mitzvah money,” Thompson said. “Look at that. That’s the rock that turned into an empire.”
A curly-haired German named Horst Burkard, an old friend of Thompson’s, stopped by, and the two men quickly began reminiscing about the old days. They were both part of a cohort of baby boomers, mostly American and European, who had become legends in the mineral-hunting world not just as dealers but as adventurers. “You’re mining, you find a pocket, there’s one you want and forty others,” Thompson said. “That’s how a collector becomes a dealer.” Their paths followed a roughly similar trajectory: college in the seventies, an itch to travel the world, then a fortuitous discovery—for Thompson, in Mexico; for Burkard, in Morocco; for others, in Brazil or Pakistan. Burkard’s story was a good one, burnished by only a little self-mythologizing nostalgia. Driving his VW bus across North Africa, he came across an intriguing rock. He went from village to village, showing the rock to kids, asking if they knew where he could find more. Finally, someone did, and they visited a local mine under the cover of night. (Mineral specimens are often found in mines dug for other purposes—a miner, looking for copper ore, stumbles on a pocket of azurite.) “The guy pulled out a piece of vanadinite this big”—Burkard said, holding up his pinky—“sitting on top of some snow-white barite.” He began buying minerals in Morocco and bringing them to Tucson.
“In 1970, there were fifteen or twenty people who were really looking hard. By 1983, probably a hundred,” Thompson said. “I sold one mineral in 1972 for three thousand dollars. The same mineral was recently offered for more than a million. In our lifetime, it went insane.”
The influx of money, along with the spread of technology, meant that the old days of dusty, uncertain, exploratory work—scouting villages, crawling into caverns—were largely over. Now, Thompson and Burkard said, as soon as some promising crystals turned up, they were on the Internet. “Before, it was an adventure. Now it’s just about being a businessman,” Thompson said. “It’s ‘Can you get there tomorrow? Do you have a pocketful of money?’ ”
Technology has changed the business in other ways. Mining has always been a particularly asymmetrical industry, with low-paid laborers engaged in dangerous, underground work while the great profits are made far away. (The vibe at the Westward Look, where all the dealers I met were white, was unapologetically colonial at times; one European dealer with a fantastic collection of malachite bragged that his family had been working in the Congo for a long time.) But, thanks to the Internet, miners are increasingly aware of the value of their finds. “We would go to these places that felt like the edge of the world,” Thompson said. “They didn’t know much. Now someone finds something and everyone in the world knows within ten minutes.”
Ralph stayed quiet as Burkard and Thompson complained about miners demanding high prices for the specimens they found. In the car, heading back to Mineral Mile, he told me that, although he hangs out with the big dealers, most of his specimens were in the three-figure range. “That show is called the Westward Look, not the Westward Buy,” he said. Ralph was more equivocal about the democratization of information. “It’s a big, big change,” he said. “Now the guy who mines it has a cell phone. He can contact buyers and sell directly. Every week, I get messages from Pakistani miners on Facebook trying to sell me stuff. And some of it is very good.”
Amid the rarified world of the Westward Look, it was easy to forget that the specimens had ever come out of the dirt. Things were different at the Miner’s Co-op Rock Show, “a show for diggers and doers,” one of its founders told me—people who did their own mining, or made their own jewelry, or both. It was held in the parking lot of a sports complex, where venders parked their R.V.s behind their booths and camped out for the duration of the event. There were piles of raw rocks on tarps, sold by the pound, and men with craggy hands standing behind crates of cheap agate slices.
The populist version of rockhounding, with its promise of a payoff hidden in the dirt, waiting for the right enterprising person to find it, has been central to the mythos of the West since at least the gold-rush days. In the U.S., anyone can file a claim on eligible Bureau of Land Management property and start digging. One miner, who has become successful mining amazonite in Colorado’s Pike national forest, gave me a long speech about how America’s individualist, private-property-oriented approach to mineral rights was the foundation of our national prosperity and self-respect.
Treasures can turn up in unexpected ways. Trinza Sanders, a vender with sunbaked skin, told me that several years ago she’d been driving in the desert outside Palm Springs when she noticed something unusual sticking out of the ground. She pulled over and saw a charred tumbleweed, evidence of a recent lightning strike. The lightning’s electrical discharge had vitrified the nearby sand into a rock called fulgurite, prized by crystal healers as an extremely high-energy stone. She dug out as much as she could and has been selling it at rock shows ever since. “It’s got a perfect amount of silica, mica, and feldspar,” she said. “You can drop it and it wouldn’t break.”
A few tables down, I met Chuck Larson, who introduced himself as “a prospector and a treasure hunter.” He’d found a number of nuggets, he said, but his most consistent source for gold was the Salt River, a popular tubing destination east of Phoenix. “Thousands of hippies and teen-agers go there, they use their hands as paddles, they drink their beer,” he said. When the water level dropped in the winter, he sometimes spotted the jewelry they’d lost. Once, he’d found a big ring that belonged to a state senator. It contained a full ounce of 10k. gold, worth about eight hundred dollars as scrap metal. Larson was clearly still miffed that the senator had offered him only eighty dollars for it. He kept the ring. “They voted him out in 2016,” he said, sounding satisfied. “I wouldn’t vote for him. He’s cheap.”