By Paul T. Choate
Nov. 16, 2012. Three Watauga County locals hit it big during an August trip to Nevada to dig for the rarest type of opal in the world, wood opals called “conk” after the bacteria that help form it.
Lucas and Justin Critcher, with Foggy Mountain Gem Mine, and Buddy Haney, owner of JBH Imports, decided towards the end of the summer that they wanted to take an adventure to dig for opals. They selected the Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine in Denio, Nev., and set off on their trip. What they found while out there was more than they could have dreamed for.
“The whole trip was just kind of crazy — from there being massive wildfires and us getting stranded in them to us hitting it really, really big out there and getting thousands of dollars worth of opal,” Lucas Critcher said.
Upon arriving in Nevada, there was a mistake on the vehicle they intended to rent, so as a result they were forced to get a GMC Yukon. This ended up being a convenient mistake because Critcher noted when telling the story of their adventure that the wildfires caused quite a mix up in regards to their accommodations the first night.
He described the hotel as “literally like five hotel rooms in the middle of nowhere, 80 miles from anywhere,” and when they arrived they discovered firemen who had been fighting the wildfires sleeping in every available room. Forced to sleep in the car, the three were suddenly glad they ended up with a full-sized SUV.
During three days of digging, the trio collectively found around $50,000 to $60,000 worth of conk opals. Haney found one piece that was worth anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 by itself.
Now back in Boone, the Critcher brothers are offering a great deal of what they found for sale at Foggy Mountain. Some of the opals have been cut down as jewelry, some are for sale as is and a few will be kept and put on display. As for the very best of what they found…
“You always keep the best one for yourself,” Lucas Critcher said with a laugh, adding, however, “Anything is for sale though, for the right price.”
For Lucas Critcher, it was the biggest hit ever in the United States, though he noted an even bigger hit once while in Brazil looking for emerald crystals.
Foggy Mountain employees do much of the gem searching themselves for what is located in their mine and in their shop. About 50 percent of their stones are collected locally. As for the others, the staff goes out all over the country collecting gemstones periodically.
“We’re not just a business where we come here from nine to five and we go home and that’s it,” Lucas Critcher said.
Started inside of Tweetsie Railroad in 1998, Foggy Mountain Gem Mine has over the years expanded into their own shop, now located at 4416 N.C. 105 South in Boone. The shop is currently operating on winter hours, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. After Memorial Day the shop will return to summer hours, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.
Lucas Critcher, the shop’s manager, is a graduate gemologist from the Gemological Institute of America and also a member of the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers.
For more information, call 828-963-4367 or visit foggymountaingems.com.