Friday, August 5, 2011

Of Interest Only to Rock Collectors and Moonstone Fanatics

Passing through one of our fine Cambria shops recently, I was impressed by the words of the proprietor as he described the virtues of our local moonstones. Though I've been collecting these rocks for years, some parts of his pitch were new to me, and I knew there were  geological "misconceptions". But I kept my mouth shut. Who am I to interfere with a hard earned sale in this economy? Most everything he said fit roughly with my knowledge of the subject, and his now enthusiastic customer was ready to buy. To tell the truth, I felt like buying a few of his moonstones myself--even though I have dozens. Talk about salesmanship!

My interest in moonstones began a few years after my wife and I bought a modest home in San Simeon. Walking the beach one afternoon, I saw a small round object nestled against a cliff. Holding it up against the rising sun revealed a perfectly rounded stone, sea-polished and near gem quality.

I took my find to a rock shop and asked them  to drill a hole and insert an eyelet so I could attach it to a chain and give it to my wife. "No problem," they said. After three weeks, l finally got it back, delayed they said by “technical difficulties,” something to do with a diamond bit of proper size, the correct vise, etc. Though slightly scratched in the process, this stone has since become my wife’s favorite piece of jewelry and she will happily tell you about how I almost found it in time for her birthday.

Visiting that same rock shop recently I heard the owner talking on the phone, telling a potential customer that they could no longer drill rocks or install "screw eyelets" because they didn't have a drill. Having visited the back of the shop, I knew this wasn't exactly true. For some reason, drilling a hole in my little rock had now become too tall of an order.

Why? The “”moonstones” found on our beaches are a subcategory of common quartz known as chalcedony (same chemical composition as quartz, SiO2, but with crystals so small they are invisible to the unaided eye). This broad designation includes almost any rock capable of capturing a rock collector's attention while walking the ocean's edge: agate, chert, flint, and jasper. That's why when anyone asks me to identify a local rock, my rule is to just say "chalcedony". The only exception would be anything rough like sandstone or anything green and therefore probably serpentine, our state rock.

And don’t even get me started on how to tell serpentine from jade or jadeite. More often than not, identifying a rock is contingent on the identifier and the context. Find a green rock in a San Simeon tourist trap and it's jade, find an identical rock on the beach, take it to the proprietor of that same shop, and it's serpentine.

But getting back to moonstones, I’ve learned that “true” moonstones don’t come from around here. The “true” moonstones, the gem quality stones prevalent in the jewelry shops of Cambria, just can't be found on our beaches. Tourists, believing they are buying a a gem unique to our area, instead pay for a variety of feldspar. Though this mineral (much softer and more easily worked than the stone we locally refer to as a moonstone) can be found around the globe, there are only two locations where the real feldspar moonstone can be found in California, Inyo county (specifically, Death Valley) and the Rialto area (east of Los Angeles).

This is not to say that these non-local stones lack beauty or are unworthy of the prices tourists pay for them. Most specimens are superbly mounted, professional cut, and possess a clarity and inner brilliance (chatoiance) that is only occasionally found in our local “moonstones”. Cambria's moonstones are actually agate, a banded variety of the all inclusive chalcedony family.

But the merchant whose sales technique I admired that afternoon was absolutely correct about one aspect of local moonstones: they are unique to our beaches. Certainly, agates can be found on many Pacific beaches. An internet search for "beach agates" will reveal organizations solely devoted to finding them in areas as far north as the Oregon coast. I have studied the pictures of these agates closely. Yes, they usually display the inner banding that is characteristic of agates. None of them, however, shows evidence of the white calciferous swirling that, I believe, is unique to Cambria "moonstones". But these swirlings sadly disappear if the rock is polished for any length of time, resulting in a product about as exciting as an ice cube.

So why I am interested in a rock whose uniqueness is only skin deep? And why work with a stone that is so hard? It's a 7 on the 10 point Mohs hardness scale while feldspar is only a 5. And this explains why I'm always buying saws, grinding wheels, and drill bits—all of which are diamond coated and a tad expensive. At the businesses where I replace these tools at such a frequent and for them, profitable rates, proprietors often ask me what kind of material I'm working with. I smile and say, “beach agates”. Then they shake their heads in amusement--and happily take my money for new equipment.

In fact, some well-meaning members of a local gem club have heard about my plight and handed me free samples of stones like opal, which are so soft that I can hand shape, polish, and drill them to completion in under thirty minutes. One would have to double or triple this time when working with agates (only sapphires and diamonds are harder).

"We choose to go to the moon and other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” said JFK  if I remember correctly.   And, working with moonstones is certainly all that.

But it has been my pleasure (or curse) to work with these remarkable stones and learn how to shape them, slice them, and especially how to polish them until (with my wife's help) they became beautiful necklaces and earrings. Though everything we make and put on consignment at Cambria’s Among Friends involves local treasures, not everything involves one of these local "moonstones". But I would gladly challenge anyone to find something similar to these special pieces of agate/moonstone/chalcedony jewelry that we occasionally display there.

So not only do I persue a difficult and expensive task but I have the nerve to brag about my results. Fair assessment, I suppose.

Racking my brains for an explanation these behaviors, I have but one explanation:

Growing up, I recall many occasions when my father asked me this question, usually with a hefty amount of frustration in his voice:

"Johnny, why do you always have to do things the hard way?"

"No idea, Dad."

Stubborn in San Simeon, 8/5/11