Buena Vista Gem Works - Collecting Colorado Mt Antero Aquamarine


Mt. Antero, Colorado

Collecting Mt Antero Aquamarine

I have been intrigued by this mountain since moving to Colorado in 1971. Mt. Antero is the 10th highest peak in the state at 14,269 feet in elevation. It is located between the towns of Buena Vista and Salida and borders the west of the Arkansas River valley in the Collegiate Peaks range (see map). It was first prospected in the late 1800's, as were most of the rest of the mountains in the state. Prospectors were first searching for riches in elusive gold and silver outcrops, but it wasn't gold or silver that was the real treasure here. Rather, it was aquamarine crystals, those beautiful sky blue to sea green colored variety of gem beryl. To make it more intriguing, all known gem deposits here occur above timberline, making it the highest known gem locality in the United States. The aquamarine occurs in pockets or bubbles in the granite rock, mostly in what is known to geologists as miarolitic cavities. It is frequently weathered out into the scree and talus. Associated minerals can include well-crystallized specimens of smoky quartz, colorless quartz, white feldspar (mostly microcline, but also adularia and clevelandite); green, violet, or colorless fluorite (in octahedrons); apatite and fine colorless to sherry phenacites. Less often, one can find colorless to sherry to orange crystals of topaz and the rare beryllium mineral bertrandite, and radioactive brannerite.

mt anteroCollecting in the early years was all by foot, requiring a difficult climb from the base. In the mid 1950's Grady Cardwell from Texas built a road up the west side of the peak to mine beryl, aquamarines, and possibly molybdenite. The venture was short-lived, as it soon became apparent that the beryl was not concentrated enough to make mining economical, especially considering that the mining season at that altitude usually lasts only from June through August and a bit into September. The best thing about it was eventually providing access up the mountain for the more average rockhound and recreationist. One of the problems of high-altitude collecting is the constant threat of storms and lightning most afternoons, definitely a scary thought above timberline. Another is altitude sickness and possible hypothermia for those unprepared for sudden changes in temperature. I must stress that working at high altitudes is definitely not easy. Having a vehicle nearby for quick retreat is definitely comforting, although there are always a number of hikers up there every summer who prefer the challenge of doing it the harder way (or perhaps have no other choice). It is always a challenge and adventure to go up the mountain however, whether by foot or four-wheel drive. The 7 mile "one way" drive is rocky, bumpy, steep, narrow, and above timberline involves some hazards. One miscue on the switchbacks or shelf road could result in a tumble of a thousand feet or more! If you make the trip by vehicle, please stay on the established trails and do not cut across the fragile tundra areas. There are both patented and unpatented mining claims in the area, but most of the land is considered open for hand-digging (edit--this has changed in the last number of years). The only one I know of that is off-limits is the actual tunnel of the California Mine (patented claim). As of a few years ago the access portal has been caved in and covered with slide debris. Things can change, so be aware of any strictly enforced "keep out" areas that may exist.

Aquamarine to the left was collected in 1995 by geologist William Hutchinson.

The road is in some ways a disadvantage to serious collecting as well as a distinct advantage. With more people comes more collecting. With more collecting comes more depletion. The problem is that the "easy stuff" has mostly disappeared now. If you aren't with someone who knows the area, you can easily miss a likely digging area as most of the surface float has been picked up already. Digging has always been hit and miss (mostly miss) and good finds scarce. The collector who finds a large pocket of fine aquamarine is indeed extremely fortunate. If we only had x-ray vision to see under the surface! But there are many good areas where a reasonable amount of scratching and shoveling should result in a few decent small smokies or beryl matrixes, maybe even some fluorite or one of the other desirables or a chip or two of aquamarine. Success often depends on knowing a bit about the geology, as well as experience. Perseverance pays!

The color of the aquamarine here ranges from colorless (called "goshenite") to deep blue, with lighter blues being the average. Green colored stones are rare as are yellows (heliodor) which will always have a green tinge. I was lucky enough to discover and identify the first morganite beryls from here (morganite is peach to pink beryl) in a prospect pit on Carbonate Ridge near the famous California Mine (located a few miles to the southwest of the main peak of Mt. Antero). Clear areas large enough to cut over a couple of carats clean are uncommon. Most crystals have veils or inclusions or etching which prevent maximum yield. The largest stone I have cut from here that was eye-clean is about 9 carats. I have seen several specimens that would yield stones up to 15 or 20 carats or more, some of which are very fine deep blue. If you find a perfect terminated crystal however, it is usually considered a sacrilege to cut it into gemstones. They are beautiful in their own right and much scarcer than broken chunks or pieces or damaged crystals which can be cut. To cut up or disassemble a fine crystal group (crystals of different species attached to matrix or with other crystals implanted thereon) should be made a criminal offense! (And keep in mind this is a cutter talking). I have seen gorgeous specimens from here with phenacites or fluorites implanted on the termination or side faces of the aquamarine crystals.

If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating place, may I suggest the book Antero Aquamarines by geologist Mark Jacobson, and published by L.R. Ream Publishing. It is a limited edition printing, but the soft cover version can be had for around $15-$20. (Note: This book is now out of print, and may be a challenge to find. Pricing now reflects that scarcity.)

Update 2007

Things have definitely changed since writing the above article, and not all for the better. It has become increasingly difficult for outsiders to legally hunt up there due to a recent proliferation of new mining claims. And a number of years ago, no one much cared if you went up there and prospected around, unless you went poaching directly in the active hole they were working in. Perhaps partly because of increased monetary values of gemstones and specimens however, that is no longer the case overall. Claim holders tend to be be much more "in your face" and confrontational. Although we have permission from several of the other claimants to scrounge around, I find myself less eager to put up with the extremes of weather and effects of altitude. My knees have started bothering me and although currently much better than a few years back (due to taking MSM), affect me enough to limit my climbing in stressful and steep areas. So the information to follow is less of a personal nature and more from a reporting standpoint

Roads and trails up there are always an issue. Sometimes they're great (relatively speaking, of course), other times they're poor. It depends upon weather and timing. In mid August (2007) there was actually a time when the main "roads" (this term is loosely used here) up there were shut off to motorized vehicles beyond the first creek crossing, unless you had a valid claim and a BLM permit to mine. This was due to torrential rains at one point which washed out the road and made travel impossible or very dangerous. This has since been repaired and reopened by a track hoe utilized by Bryan Lees' Collector's Edge Minerals group. They have been mining near the south knob, in cooperation with the Cardwells, the long-time owners of a large number of mining claims (17 if I remember correctly) on the main peak and south knob. They were the original claimants and road builders back in the early 1950's. The father/son team of Tommy and Craig Cardwell (who took over from the grandfather) have been actively working their claims here since around the turn of the decade, with more or less fair success. They have traditionally allowed hand-digging here when not working themselves. When actively working, they may restrict collecting access, or they may require a signed agreement and waiver, and permit collecting on a shares basis.

Mt. White has seen an enormous amount of activity and increase in mining claims since the mid 1990's. Frank and Leon Nelson of Salida, Bill Chirnside of Denver, John Melby, and many others whose names I cannot recall are active collectors there. Most of these claims have been productive off and on, although I have heard of no recent major finds.

The best finds lately seem to have been made by Steve Brancato. I first met Steve when I gave him a ride up the mountain in my 4WD. He had been walking up the trail from a friend's house in the village of Alpine in Chalk Creek, near the start of the Antero road/trail. An acquaintance of his named Walt had hit a large pocket of crystals and this piqued Steve's interest enough to decide to try his own luck in the same general area of Antero, on the side facing Mt. White. This is not far from where Ed Over and Art Montgomery and some of the early prospectors found their stashes in the 30's and 40's.

Not long afterward, Steve hit his own pocket of aquamarine crystals, which wound up totaling somewhere around 2,000 of them! Most were long, thin, and lighter in color, but very gem, and many were terminated. Most intriguing were numerous matrix specimens of aquamarine, microcline, smoky quartz, and muscovite. Matrix specimens from Antero have been very rare over the years, as most crystals have been found broken loose from the sidewalls. Some of these looked very much like Pakistani matrix pieces, although on a smaller scale than the ones from Asia. At any rate, they were very impressive to see. Steve invited my wife and I to look at these in their entirety before selling and dispersing them. I wish I had had a better camera at the time.

Steve filed a claim there (the now famous Claire Mary Ellen No. 1) and continued to work over the next few years. One pocket (which I had suspected might be in a rock outcrop above where I had collected some euhedral pieces of smoky quartz) he found turned out to have some of the finest topazes ever collected on Antero. These are sherry to orangish in color. Topaz is fairly rare on the mountain.

aqua broncatoOne of the famous specimens from the Diane's Pocket on the left.

A year or so later he hit his biggest strike so far, a large tubular pocket containing the major matrix pieces of fine terminated aquamarine with smoky quartz and feldspar. This strike he called Diane's Pocket. I will enclose a few pictures of this strike as soon as I get a chance to. By far these are the best matrix aquamarine pieces ever found on Antero, and are some of the finest to ever come from an American locality. The pieces had to be re-assembled, as some crystals were naturally broken in the pocket. This is typical of large matrix pieces of any type of gem material.


New short article by Mark Jacobson appearing in the "Colorado Mineral Society(CMS) bulletin of March, 2014 (used by permission of the author):

"A historical overview of the history of Mt. Antero mining/collecting, including most recent: Mt. Antero, Chaffee Co., Colorado Locality: Minerals, History, & Geology by Mark I. Jacobson (author of Antero Aquamarines [1993])

"The aquamarines from Mt. Antero were first introduced to the mineralogical community by “Nels” Nelson Daniel Wanemaker via a letter from Roselle T. Cross to George F. Kunz in 1885, although J. Alden Smith, Colo. State Geologist had been shown aquamarines from Mt. Antero in 1882. The discovery of aquamarine was soon followed by the recognition of phenakite, bertrandite, fluorite, and topaz from the Mt. Antero and Mt. White areas. During the early years, from 1885 to 1893, Wanemaker sold specimens to all the leading mineralogists and collectors in the USA. These minerals were found in miarolitic pegmatites, hydrothermal veins and greisens associated with the upper portions of the Mt. Antero granite, especially within the leucocratic variant of the Peraluminous Mt. Antero Granite.

After Wanemaker had moved on to other ventures, several other miners tried their hand on Mt. Antero with only James D. Endicott from Canon City documenting his success. Ed Over from 1928 to 1949, especially in association with Arthur Montgomery, contributed numerous specimens to leading museums and private collectors. With the rise in price of beryllium and its subsidy by the U.S. Federal government in 1952, John King of Salida, Colorado and Grady Cardwell of Texas both saw opportunity on Mt. Antero for mining beryl and producing aquamarine gemstones as a by-product. This led to the first dirt road up Mt. Antero and Mt. White in 1956 and the reopening in 1960 of the California molybdenite mine adit.

By 1962, all the business entities on Mt. Antero had gone bankrupt and the claims had lapsed. Mining the Mt. Antero granites for disseminated beryl had been an economic failure. In May 1969, Grady Cardwell formed a new company, North American Beryllium Corp. (NABC), reclaiming the entire south knob of Mt. Antero. NABC focused on trying to mine beryllium ore not gemstones. NABC was not concerned with nor did it seriously interfere with hand digging for mineral specimens by others.

With the road open to collectors, numerous discoveries of gem pockets were made across Mt. Antero and Mt. White by many collectors from 1970 through the 1990’s. Collectors such as Chuck Barnes, Eldon Bright, Bill Chirnside, Bob & Doris Drisgill, Jim Grika, Pet McCrery, John Melby, “Rosy” Horace O’Donnell, Curtis Abbott, Cliff Nicholson, Andrew Taylor, George Fisher, and George Robertson made notable discoveries, only some of them from the south knob.

The situation changed radically in 2001 when the Cardwell family decided to focus on mining aquamarine gemstones. Accordingly, under the active supervision of fourth generation Craig Cardwell, mineral collecting on the south knob of Mt. Antero was restricted. In 2008 these claims were still legally valid. This forced a younger generation of collectors to move their collecting activities to areas that have not been prospected since 1956 when the first road up the mountain was opened. Steve Brancato after 2001 recovered the finest matrix aquamarine specimen ever known, as well as topaz and smoky quartz. Jeff Self and associates recovered large quantities of smoky quartz and associated minerals.  Bryan Lees’ sublease on the Cardwell claims resulted in the 2005 discovery of the finest helvite crystals known from the locality. The 2000-2007 prospecting activity has been more intensive and surprisingly more successful than ever before, proving the locality is far from barren. This activity has not been without cost and strife involving claim holders, casual collectors, environmental activists and US government employees.

The launching of the Weather Channel’s Prospectors show in the first part of 2013, which was filmed during the summer of 2012, was a great success for the media company, “High Noon Entertainment” .The participants for this “let’s pretend reality” show greatly enjoyed the publicity, which during the filming in the summer of 2013 brought them new difficulties from the state and federal environmental regulators. For mineral collectors, the show created un-wanted attention, uncertainty and conflicts with “wannabe” treasure hunters. A mineral claiming frenzy was the result, blanketing the area with claims of unknown, uncertain, and erroneous validity."

Ed. Note: Mark also has a somewhat more technical version available for those interested in the technical aspects of geology.

2020 Update:

The Cardwells have a large current mining operation above the Snowpatch area on their claims, which has produced some incredible pockets of fine crystals and rough in the last few seasons. They have produced some wonderful professional quality videos of their finds on YouTube, so check them out if you want the latest updates and see some of the super crystals and gem pieces.

The Busse family has also been working their "Thank The Lord" Claim on the "near cliffs" area of Carbonate Ridge. All hand-mining and have done better each year as time goes along. The crystals seem to be getting more plentiful and larger with the passage of time. They have also published videos on YouTube and were often featured in the old Prospectors show originally on the Travel Channel. I believe these episodes have all been published to YouTube by now.

Other mining ventures have also been noted from here on YouTube and various publications. I will try to find time to update this blog as I hear more about them and have the time to write and publish them.

I wll try to provide more current updates and pictures of materials as they come to light. And by the way, the Antero book is now out-of-print and if you can find it at all will often command a fairly steep price at this point (I heard of one on eBay advertised for $175!). Mark Jacobson has been approached to do a re-write of it, and he's considering it, so perhaps all is not lost.

***The End of My Blog on Mt Antero. If you have any comments or questions about this article, you are welcome to email me.***

Other webpages you might be interested in exploring:

Map of Mt. Antero area

Mt. Antero Photo Page

Bill Hutchinson's Antero Photos

Colorado Mt. Antero Aquamarine for Sale

Other Blogs to Explore

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Colorado Columbine Blue Agate.

Colorado Amazonite and Crystal Peak Area

Fairburn Agates