Putting heart and soul into his digging: Derek Lester in search of a sparkling gem for his girlfriend
© Matthew Johnson

When the diamond crater was formed, dinosaurs still walked the earth

  • TEXT JESSICA BRAUN
  • PHOTOS MATTHEW JOHNSON

Digging for diamonds sounds better than choosing them from a jeweler’s display? Then the U.S. state of Arkansas is the place to try your luck – at the world’s only public diamond mine.

Just before eight in the morning, when the Little Missouri River is still shrouded in early-morning mist, a group of odd figures gathers on a parking lot in the woods near the small town of Murfreesboro. They’re wearing painter coveralls, camouflage pants, gumboots and work gloves. Their faces are hidden beneath wide-brimmed hats and some have scarves wound around their mouth and nose. They are unloading coolers and large plastic buckets from their station wagons, heaving handcarts and shovels out of their trucks. Are they extras from a Mad Max remake, or maybe survival experts on a Sunday outing? Neither, nor is the answer. The women and men now quietly lining up outside the closed doors of a gray industrial building are here to hit the jackpot, that is, find a diamond.

Behind the building and framed by sparse deciduous woodlands in the green nowhere of Arkansas lies the Crater of Diamonds State Park, the eighth-largest diamond mine in the world. The crater measures a good 15 hectares and is all that remains of a volcano that erupted here some 100 million years ago. Among the few diamond mines on earth, this one is truly a solitaire thanks to its location. When it comes to diamonds, most people tend to think of Africa, of the Congo, Botswana or South Africa, where some of the largest deposits in the world are found. But this mine is right in the middle of the USA and has been a state park open to the public since 1972. For a day ticket costing ten dollars, anyone can come here and hunt for diamonds and, equally important, keep his or her find. Over 30 000 rare diamonds have already been claimed since the park opened, making it the state’s glittering attraction.

Guesthouses welcome treasure hunters

Guesthouses welcome treasure hunters

© Matthew Johnson
Crater Diamonds State Park

Crater Diamonds State Park

© Matthew Johnson
Josie and David Solak from Florida are here for the eighth time

Josie and David Solak from Florida are here for the eighth time

© Matthew Johnson

  “Welcome to the Crater of Diamonds State Park!” A woman in a tan park uniform opens the door to the waiting group, which includes Josie and David Solark from Florida. Both are tall and have the look of extreme athletes despite their weird get-up in coveralls and sunhats. “This is our eighth year here,” says David, who used be with the military, “we vacation here when Florida gets too hot for us.” Every day for one to two weeks a year, they sift earth by the kilo here. For them, it’s pure relaxation, says Josie. “Finding a diamond is such a thrill that all the hard work is immediately forgotten.” The pair have already found nine diamonds. David takes a plastic box out of his pants pockets. Nearly all of the irregularly shaped stones are the size of a pinhead, yellow and brown and have an oily sheen. Josie points proudly to one particularly round one: “We call it “Little Bastard” because it always rolls away. They bring the stones along on their annual mine vacation “to bring us luck,” says David.

To get to the mine, you have to pass by the souvenir shop and the exhibition on the history of the crater. But who here is interested in T-shirts or photos of famous gems? The treasure hunters pay for their tickets, shoulder their shovels and stomp out onto the winding path that leads to the mine. The 15 hectares of hilly ground look as picturesque as a freshly plowed potato field. When the crater was formed, dinosaurs still walked the earth. Today, 100 million years on, this part of the park with its brown furrows and mud holes looks as though a herd of triceratops just marched through. Heavy rainfall – mostly in April and May – loosens up the ground, regularly uncovering precious stones. To ensure good conditions throughout the year, the park authorities plow the surface once a month, and the treasure hunters also leave their traces. Last year, more than 180 000 people visited the park, most to try their luck with a spade.

Park guide Waymon Cox offers visitors good advice. With the voice and patience of an experienced storyteller, the 35-year-old explains how to raise Arkansas’ treasures every day at ten a.m. On this particular morning, 22 large and seven small listeners are standing around this gentle giant. “The simplest method: take a walk. You wouldn’t believe how many diamonds are found that way because the rain or our plow has brought them to the surface.” One of the best-known examples occurred in March 2017, when 14-year-old Kalel Langford had only been wandering around for 30 minutes before he spotted a glittering stone by a rivulet: it was a brown diamond the size of a bean, roughly 1.5 grams in weight, which is 7.44 metric carats. The teenager names his find “Superman Diamond.” It’s the seventh-largest to have been found in the park since it was set up. What is it worth? “Hard to say,” Cox admits, “but in 2015, we had an 8.52-carat diamond that was valued at half a million dollars after cutting.”

For the Solaks, their collection of trophies is a lucky charm

For the Solaks, their collection of trophies is a lucky charm

© Matthew Johnson
You have to take a really good look to see some stones

You have to take a really good look to see some stones

© Matthew Johnson
..others reveal themselves as you walk by

..others reveal themselves as you walk by

© Matthew Johnson

  Diamond washing is more strenuous, but also more productive than walking around with your eyes glued to the ground. To demonstrate the process, Cox places a coarse screen over a fine screen and fills the top screen with earth from the crater before plunging the screens into a basin filled with water. “Rock. Tap. Turn,” he says, explaining how to swish them, then tap the frame and turn the screens clockwise before repeating the process. The movement in the cold brown water releases the earth, pushes the heavy stones to the middle and down. First, Cox checks the chunks in the upper screen: nothing. Then he tips out the bottom screen with the practised flourish of a conjuror. Lying on the table in front of him now is a square of hundreds of tiny stones, roughly divided by color: outside gray sandstones and lamproites, inside rust-red jasper. In the middle, there are some milky-white crumbs. Diamonds? Cox shakes his head. “No sparkle; they’re quartz.” Diamonds are carbon, the basis of all organic life. In its pure form, compressed into crystals, its surface is so smooth that no mud or dust clings to it, so that it gleams like metal. No other stone caught in the screen has such a distinctive shimmer. Sixty percent of all diamonds come to light in the washing process, most of them quite unexpectedly. “In 2014, I suddenly found one in the screen during a demonstration,” says Cox. “How many have you found up to now?” an elderly lady asks the guide. “Three small ones. But I’m still hoping for a really big one.”

Carrying shovels and screens, the group heads out to the field, which is now bathed in sunlight. Nowhere a gleam to be spotted, just row after row of dusty brown. Derek Lester, a sinewy guy with long fair hair and beard is standing up to his hips in a hole in the ground. Richard, his father, is carrying buckets full of earth from the hole to the nearest washing station. The two geologists are taking a strategic approach and have marked the spots where finds have been made so far and are now digging deep down. “Hundreds of people scour the surface here every day,” says Derek, explaining his plan, “so we are trying our luck further down, where no one normally goes.” He wants a diamond for an engagement ring for his girlfriend, Allison. That’s not just much more romantic than buying one, but also cheaper since the rule of thumb that an engagement ring should cost roughly one to two months’ income has applied in the USA ever since the diamond producer De Beers mounted a clever marketing campaign in the 1930s. “And plus, this way, I know where it came from,” says Derek.

Although many producers are keen to meet ethical standards, you can never be absolutely certain of a diamond’s true provenance. Child labor, smuggling and conflict funding all cast a shadow on the gleam of purchased precious stones. A calculable advantage of the Arkansas diamonds is that with the park’s certification, they sell for around a third more than comparable stones from unknown sources. Derek wipes the sweat from his brown. “I’m hoping to find one the size of a golf ball.” Even after cutting, it would still be gigantic – roughly half of a diamond is lost in the cutting.

Regulars like Jim Gatliff, who has already found more than 3000 little stones, prefer to use the time carrying and digging

Regulars like Jim Gatliff, who has already found more than 3000 little stones, prefer to use the time carrying and digging

© Matthew Johnson
Waymon Cox gives newcomers a guided tour of the park

Waymon Cox gives newcomers a guided tour of the park

© Matthew Johnson
Rock, tap, turn – there’s a meditative rhythm to sifting

Rock, tap, turn – there’s a meditative rhythm to sifting

© Matthew Johnson
Digging continues for as long as there’s light: a fortune hunter in the Crater of Diamonds State Park

Digging continues for as long as there’s light: a fortune hunter in the Crater of Diamonds State Park

© Matthew Johnson

  It is not every diamond’s destiny to become “a girl’s best friend” some day, though. The 4 Cs – cut, color, clarity and carat – all have to be just right. Demand also plays a role: A woman who found an 8.52-carat raw diamond in 2015 had an expert cut it to a 4.64-carat gemstone. The process took ten days, but she could not find a buyer for the diamond, which now resembles an elongated, crystal bullet. So its effective value to the owner is zero. Round, white, roughly 2 carats – those are ideal diamonds for jewelry and they sell well, as Cox explained during the demonstration. Such diamonds are the exception among the several hundred found every year at the park. The average diamond tends to be the size of a pinhead and makes no one rich. That’s why the mine was never a lucrative commercial proposition for diamond producers. Since news of finds like the Superman – and the Michelango diamond in the same year (named for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, not the Renaissance artist) – has spread on social media, far more visitors have been coming to the park, all of them speculating on making a glittering discovery. But Cox urgently warns against taking selfies with stones: “It wouldn’t be the first time a finder had his hotel room or home burgled.”

There’s absolutely no trace of greed or mistrust at the washing stands. At the long metal basin, an engineer is rocking screens elbow to elbow with a retiree and an auto dealer. A regular visitor is showing a mother and her little boy the amethysts he’s found – sadly only worth a few cents, but pretty to behold. The sun blazes down on dusty necks. Arms grow long from hauling buckets, fingers, numb from the icy water. But the mood is light-hearted and focused, maybe because there’s something meditative about the rhythmic sloshing and scraping – or simply that messing about with mud also makes adults happy.

Even Derek, the prospective bridegroom, looks weary but not disheartened as he fills up his almost two-meter-deep hotel at the end of the day – as required by the park authority. “No luck today,” he sighs, “but we’ll have another go tomorrow.” At the counter beside the shovel rental, park employees are now patiently assessing dozens of little bags of the “somehow interesting” finds of hopeful prospectors. “That’s jasper. Calcite. Quartz. Oh, a piece of glass. You can bin that here.” A gray-haired lady whose nose and upper arms are red from the sun, surveys the worthless haul of pebbles in her hand, but still looks quite contented: “When I get home, I’ll just rub you with baby oil,” she tells her finds, “and then you’ll shimmer and be almost as pretty as diamonds.”


Top Spots for Treasure Hunters

Glittering Emeralds in Austria

The most important occurrence of emeralds is in a gallery located 2000 meters above sea level in the high alpine valley of Habachtal. Equipment and courses are available locally.

alpenrose-habachtal.at

Amber hunting on the Baltic Coast

Amber was reputedly used as a means of payment in the Baltic region in the Middle Ages, and it is still valuable to this day ­ and can be found on the beaches of Western Pomerania in northern Germany.

auf-nach-mv.de/bernstein

Gold digging in Lapland

It doesn’t have to be the Klondike! Gold prospectors can also strike it lucky around the village of Tankavaara in northern Finland.

tankavaara.fi


This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click here.

LHE Cover July 2018