State’s first raw gem found in Claiborne County

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 13, 2004

James Starnes of the Mississippi Office of Geology sits at his drafting table with two of the polished examples of opal found in Claiborne County. (Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[12/12/04] CLAIBORNE COUNTY Mississippi’s first raw gemstone has been found in north Claiborne County.

Opal was discovered in October by James Starnes, a geologist working for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s geology office, and the Mississippi Gem and Mineral Society confirmed its identity just a few days ago, department spokesman Donna Cromeans said.

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The opal was found on private property while Starnes and his partner, geophysicist Ken Davis, were mapping the area.

Starnes did not disclose the exact location, he said, to keep trespassers off the land.

While the department doesn’t yet know how big the vein is, Michael Bograd, acting director of the geology office, said the find is not likely to have much of an economic impact.

“We don’t know that this is something that would ever be developed,” Bograd said.

That doesn’t mean the geologists aren’t excited.

“It tells us something of the history of the rocks through time. Possibly, when the sandstone was being deposited, there may have been a volcanic eruption where ash was deposited,” Bograd said. The resulting combination could be what led to the formation of the opal, he said.

Starnes ranked the discovery as the second best in his six years with the geology office. The top find, Starnes said, was a basilosaurus, a 100-foot-long whale fossil, now on display at the National Museum of Japan. Starnes was part of a group that spent several months unearthing the fossil in Scott County.

Most opal is found in other parts of the world. Australia is the world’s largest producer of the opal, the October birthstone. In the United States, the nearest deposit is in western Louisiana, Bograd said, and the largest deposits are found in the West, in Nevada, California, Idaho and Oregon.

Opal can be several colors, including black, white, orange, red or purple. It’s best-known characteristic is called play of color, which is where it turns different colors as light refracts through the gemstone.

Opal is usually a mid-priced gemstone, said Danny Scallions of Scallions Jewelry.

“They’re right in the middle. Nothing near emerald or sapphire and, of course, not a diamond,” Scallions said.

Black opal is considered the most valuable, said Jim Higginbotham, a gemologist for McRae’s Department Stores.

Opal is difficult with which to work because it is mostly gas and prone to shattering when a jeweler uses a blow-torch to sculpt it into jewelry, he said.

“It’s a beautiful stone,” Scallions said. “It’s worth the trouble that we go through to mount them.”

Higginbotham said opal, “a little too fragile for men’s ring,” is typically used in rings for women.

The opal from Claiborne County will be displayed at the Mississippi Gem and Mineral Society’s show in Jackson in February.