FOUNTAIN HILLS, AZ - High atop Four Peaks in the Tonto National Forest, and about 100 feet into solid rock, lays the Four Peaks Amethyst Mine.
It's a prominent landmark that harbors deep secrets, and you may be wearing one of them.
It produces some of the highest quality amethyst in the world. In fact, there is only one other mine that produces the purple quartz of similar quality and it's in Russia.
Amethyst is a kind of quartz crystal known for its distinctive purple and red hues and is most often found adorning fine jewelry.
It exists in copious amounts inside the Four Peaks Mine .
HOW IT STARTED
Rumor has it the Spanish found the mine when they surveyed the area that is now northwest of Phoenix. Legend suggests a piece of amethyst from the mountain can be found on the Spanish Crown!
Discovered by a prospector at the turn of the 20th century, hopes were high the quartz deposits surrounding the mountain were foreshadowing a mother lode of gold. Gold never was found, but the striking amethyst was and commercial mining began in the 1940s.
The mine changed hands over the decades and is know owned by New Yorker Kurt Cavano who purchased the mine on a whim in the late 1990s.
HOW IT WORKS
Two miners live on the side of the mountain in a tiny white shack just big enough for two bunks, a table and a rifle (for bear protection.)
For a week at a time, the miners spend their day literally picking away at the walls of the mine. Because the crystals are so fragile and the mine so remote, big equipment can't be used. Instead, workers use chisels and picks to carve away at the muddy rock walls.
When the rock slides away, you can see the glimmers of purple in the gray debris. The big stones are removed, washed and placed in buckets.
Most of it will never make it to the jewelry store, because only a small portion of the thousands of pounds of raw amethyst is of gem quality.
Several times a year, a helicopter picks up the raw material and transports it to the Commercial Mineral Company in Scottsdale where it is sorted and prepped for another trip.
The quality pieces are sent to Asia where they are cut and polished. Then they are sent back to Scottsdale where the polished gems are sold to retailers like Sami Jack.
BUSINESS SPARKED BY THE MINE
Jack, who owns Sami Fine Jewelry in Fountain Hills, has first pick of the stones. She then crafts jewelry around the stones.
Prices range from affordable to astronomical. One piece set at 118 carats costs $30,000!
Business depends on a loyal customer base who can't get enough of the purple stones. As for the mine, it's not particularly profitable but will depend on long term production to stay afloat.
It's believed the mine has decades of amethyst left inside, with miners discovering a new vein this month.
TODAY'S UNIQUE PROCESS
Miners like Mike Blank dig four to five hours each day for a week at a time. Then they spend another four to five hours sorting the pieces for transport off the mountain.
They hike in to camp and hike out, carrying everything they need for a week's stay. They eat canned food and drink filtered rain water collected from the roof of their shelter.
They see black bears, mountain lions and plenty of rattle snakes on a daily basis. The area surrounding Four Peaks is home to the highest concentration of black bears in the state, that's why the men keep a rifle handy.
The amethyst isn't the only gem the mine produces. Mike and his wife who used to mine the mountain together, are now proud parents to little Amethyst Jewel. And like the mountain on which she was conceived, the little girl has only four toes on one of her feet.