It’s a gem! Precious stones and minerals galore at the Science Museum in Asheville

A touch of gold, diamonds, and ruby….

Precious sculpture of Andromeda

Andromeda sculpture of gold, sapphire and diamonds on quartz

Known for the original gold rush, North Carolina also has one of the largest varieties of mineral species in the United States.

Amazing gemstones to admire downtown Asheville

Enter a world of riches...

From clays to gemstones to valuable ores, more than 300 mineral species exist within the state’s boundaries.

The Colburn Earth and Science Museum has an amazing collection of gem stones and minerals for everyone to enjoy: emerald, sapphire, ruby, topaz, hiddenite, kyanite and much more.

Admission is $6 adults, $5 seniors, students, and children over 5 years of age.

The museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10AM – 5PM, and Sunday 1 – 5PM.

Hiddenite discovery and early mining
In 1879 Thomas Edison sends William Hidden, a New York engraver and rockhound enthusiast, to look for potential sources of platinum to be used in his new photograph invention.

Hidden meets businessmen and fellow rockhound John Stephenson from Statesville, NC which shows him some unusual rock specimens found on a farm in present day Alexander county.

Hiddenite specimens at the Colburn Museum

Miners working at the Hidden Mine in early 1900s

Recognizing the potential value of the stones, Hidden quit his job and acquired the mineral rights of the Warren Farm near Stony Point, NC.

Hidden hired a mining crew and soon discovered numerous specimens of emerald and other unidentifiable green stones. It was later determined that the mineral was a new variety of spodumene and was named “Hiddenite” in honor of the discoverer.

George Kuntz, a good friend of Hidden and a jeweler for Tiffany’s recognized the value and beauty of the newly discovered minerals. Kuntz created a domestic market not only for hiddenites but also for the emerald coming from the North Carolina mine.

Second phase of hiddenite mining
“I wanted something to keep me out of mischief and it occurred to me that the collecting of minerals will be just the right hobby to take up.” Burnham Standish Colburn, 1953

The state gemstone on display at the Colburn Museum

The real green beauty and power!


Burnham Colburn retired to Asheville because of its proximity to North Carolina’s mineral fields. One of the first residents of Biltmore Forest and he had a museum in his home to house his minerals collection.

Colburn sought out Col. Joseph Hyde Pratt, the State Geologist for North Carolina, who told him that hiddenite will be the most interesting mineral to collect. Colburn obtained the mining lease to the land and reopened the mine in 1926. He found quite a few good specimens, yet not enough to make a real profit.

After two years, Colburn released the lease and donated his best specimens to the Smithsonian Institution in D.C., the University of South Carolina and the British Museum in London. After his death the family donated the rest of his collection to the Southern Appalachian Mineral Society for public display, thus the precursor to the current museum was started.

Emerald – The State Gemstone
Emerald deposits are rare in the United States, and the best are in North Carolina. The largest single crystal emerald ever found in North America is from the Rist Mine in NC. Named the Stephenson Emerald, this crystal weighs 1,438 carats and is valued at over $50,000. Discovered in 2003 by Jamie Hill it is now displayed at the Natural Science Museum in Houston.

Photo of the 1,861 carats emerald discovered at the Rist Mine in 2003

The real crystal is at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences

The Star of the Carolina
The ultimate value of a natural star sapphire depends on the quality of the cut, color, clarity and definition.

Guiness Book Record holder Star of Carolina sapphire

A star sapphire for the records...


The Star of the Carolina displays a six ray asterism that enhances its value and exclusivity. The uncut stone weighted one and half pounds, or about 2,847 carats.

Discovered in 1987 at the Old Pressley Mine in Canton, NC, The Star of the Carolina achieved the final finish of 1,445 carats in the hands of master gem cutter John Robinson of Dallas, TX.

The star appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest star sapphire, but lost it to another stone from the same location.

Spodumene was first discovered in 1906 in Kings Mountain,NC yet it didn’t gain economic significance until 1942. Spodumene is the main source of lithium ore, a very light metal used in many industries from aeronatutics to cars to electronics. A small area in Cleveland and Gaston counties contain 80% of the known lithium reserves in the United States and is the country’s largest producer.

The countrys largest spodumene deposit is in North Carolina

Most of US lithium extraction comes from North Carolina

Granite – The 1 mile long Mt. Airy Quarry in Surry County is the largest granite quarry in the world. Mining operations began in 1889, and ever since granite from the mine has been shipped all over the world. This high quality granite can be cut in large blocks and used in many construction projects like the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk and the gold depostory at Fort Knox.

North Carolina has the largest granite quarry in the world

A granite world above the rest...

Discover the beautiful gemstones of North Carolina at the Colburn Earth and Science Museum in Asheville!

It’s gold! Western North Carolina gold mining photos, legendary finds and old stories

America’s first gold rush started in Western North Carolina by a lucky accident. Find out at the Colburn Earth Science Museum in downtown Asheville, that features an impressive collection of gems, minerals, precious metals, fossils and photographs documenting the rich mining history of North Carolina.

It’s gold mine for history buffs, hobbyists and tourists. The museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10AM – 5PM, Sunday 1 – 5PM. Admission is $6 adults, $5 seniors, students, and children over 4.

The beginnings… (historical data and photos are from the museum exhibit)

Gold rush starts in Western North Carolina in the late 1700s

The find of the century! A 12 years old boy discovers a huge gold nugget and the rest is history...

John Reed, a Hessian soldier in the British Army, settled in Western North Carolina at the end of the Revolutionary War with other German immigrants.

In 1799, Conrad, his 12 years old son, spotted a shimmering yellow rock while fishing on the family farm and brought it home. His parents, not familiar with gold, used the rock as a doorstop.

In 1802, John Reed sold it to a jeweler in Fayeteville, NC for $3.50. He later found out the rock was a large gold nugget, returned to the jeweler and collected an additional $3,000.

And so the country’ first gold fever began!

The Reed farm quickly became the Reed Gold Mine. The creek where the rock was found was rich in gold for nearly a mile, and the area will later yield over 150 pounds of gold nuggets.

By 1803, there were over 600 mines and prospects in Western North Carolina. Most gold was found by panning in streams and using simple rockers. At this time North Carolina was a slave state; historical records suggest that at the height of the gold rush fever as many as 3,000 slaves could be seen working the gravel deposits along a single stream…

First gold rush in America begins

Thousands of slaves mined for gold in the early 1800s in North Carolina

By 1825, most of the gold nuggets and flakes found in streams had been mined.

Riding the kibble underground gold mining in mid 19th century

Cornish-designed bucket used to hoist miners and gold to the surface


A Stanley County farmer, Mathias Barringer, found an outcrop of quartz with a gold vein while following a trail of nuggets upstream.

He realized the small nuggets found in rivers were eroded from the exposed gold vein.

Baringer decided to extract gold from the rock rather than the stream, and so the first subsurface gold mine in North Carolina was born.

Prospectors began looking for “color”, the whie quartz vein that indicated the loction of gold. Most were not skilled in subsurface mining; serius accidents and deaths were fairly common.

European immigrants bring in mining know-how
Immigrants from Cornwall, England and Germany brought mining expertise and technology.

Old photo of gold miners working under a vein in Gold Hill NC

Subsurface gold mining involved tough working conditions


Examples include stamp mills, blasting and drilling techniques, mine shafts, drifts, beam reinforced ceilings and walls, and the Cornish-designed buckets (kibbles) that hoisted miners and gold to the surface.

Underground work at the Reed Mine began in 1831.

In 1842, miners found a 20 foot wide gold vein at Gold Hill in Rowan county. Mining veterans flocked to the area sensing good fortunes. By 1848, the town boasted 15 active mines, 5 stores, 4 doctors, and 27 saloons.

The majority of gold mining towns in North Carolina (unlike th western mining towns popularized in movies), were fairly peaceful due to the strong religious background of the Cornish miners.

Minting Gold
In the early 1800s, North Carolina was the nation’s sole native source of gold. The only U.S. Mint at the time was in Philadelphia. Because of long distance and poor transportation conditions miners looked for an easier and safe way to convert their raw gold into money.

Gold artifacts on display at the Colburn Museum

Gold nuggets and white quartz sample


In 1831, Christopher Bechtler, a German immigrant entrepreneur, proposed to coin the miners gold for a 2.5% fee. The miners agreed and a min opened near Rutherfordton, NC.

From 1831 to 1840 he minted $2.2 million in gold coins and melted 85,000 ounces into bars ($3 billion in today’s value!)

The Bechtler coins were so well accepted for commerce that during the Civil War the monetary obligations of the Confederacy were specified as payable in “Bechtler gold” rather than Union, Confederate or state currency.

In 1835, the U.S. Congress authorized creation of the Charlotte Mint. Soon, Charlotte became a regional banking center, a position it still holds today.