I’ve often said that the gemstone trade is not just about the gems themselves, but about the people who mine, treat, facet, set and sell them. I found this particularly striking on my travels through North East and North West America, while researching my book Buying Gemstones and Jewellery in the USA. The community of gemstone, rock and mineral enthusiasts here is a large and friendly one—practically everybody I met was falling over themselves to be helpful and informative!
This blog focuses on Christopher Blackwell and his great friend Robert Paul Colbern (better known as ‘The Geode Kid’) and life at the Basin Range Volcanics Geolapidary Museum and Rockshop in Deming, New Mexico.
Basin Range Volcanics used to be the home of a wonderful collection of thunderegg geodes, now housed in the Deming Luna Membres Museum as The Geode Kid Collection after Paul and Christopher both became ill with serious health conditions.
Paul dug his first thunderegg at age eleven, and by fifteen had left home to become a professional agate miner, mining the north western, western and southwestern deserts. By age thirty he had been given his nickname Geode Kid by older agate collectors.
Paul met Christopher in 1974 and invited him up to mine with him in 1975 while still 29 years old. He was both an idea man and dreamer and one who could design and build anything that he needed as usually he could not afford to buy readymade.
Christopher and Paul opened their first rock shop, The Klandestinny Mining Company, in Madras, Oregon. They opened the shop for five months of the year, closing it to go mining through Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico during the remaining seven months. After the 1979 gas crises made running the shop impossible, they began to run their operation by mining, cutting and polishing and selling from their 1968 VW bus.
Finally in 1984 , they had saved enough money to buy what is now Basin Range Volcanics – three quarters of an acre, the shell of the present building, a well and a septic tank… but no plumbing, and four live plugs on the water pressure tank—eek!
Originally most of the building was a museum for Paul’s collection (which then took up seven eight-foot-long cases) and a small rock shop just in front. After naming it The Basin Range Volcanic Geolapidary Museum, he got to work on the property, designing and building pretty much everything in it and doing all the wiring and plumbing himself, when he could afford to.
Christopher and Paul had the Baker Egg mine from the late 1980s as well. Christopher still owns and mines it today, but with younger people doing the work. One man who learned how to cut and polish the eggs is now a co-owner of the shop, and his son grew up around them all and is now co-owner of the mine. The shop and museum grew, with both Paul and Christopher designing new buildings.
Paul used the last seventeen years of his life writing down all the information that he had learned in over fifty years of mining. He contacted geologists, volcanologists, and mineralogists to bring in the latest science about the Lithophysae.
During the four years of writing his book, ‘The Formation of Thundereggs, (Lithophysae)’ Paul and his scientists became good friends and they visited him after the collection was moved to the museum downtown.
Despite having dyslexia, Paul went on to publish four more books, this time on his mining adventures. During that time, Christopher took care of the shop and helped Paul moved back and forth from his bed to his computer, making sure that the 25 feet of air tubing keeping Paul breathing did not get tangled.
Paul died in 2013, some 17 years after losing most of his lungs to pneumonia. Christopher says of his great friend, ‘The Geode Kid’
“Paul’s story is the important one, I helped and filled in the gaps as needed, but it was his devotion to thundereggs that made it all happen. I doubt that I would be here now, even alive if I had not joined up with him: I’m a Marine Vietnam veteran, being bi-polar and with a number of health issues of my own. Still quite amazed to still be around at 73 years of age.”
These days, Christopher loves to encourage all sorts of wild creatures to him, putting out 18 pounds of bird seed each morning. Sometimes he gets a hundred birds flocking all at once, along with cotton tail rabbits, jack rabbits, kangaroo rats, mice and more. Sometimes the long-horned cattle will wander along to lick up the seed. With the increase in small animals come the predators, and Christopher will sometimes see road runners, snakes, hawks, eagles, coyotes, bob cats and even mountain lions!
He says that he does this for ‘selfish reasons’ – life doesn’t always provide the laughter he needs on a daily basis, but looking out of his windows every day lets him observe the ‘curious and funny things that the small critters do’ and gives him a daily dose of smiles.
Christopher also has a sixteen-pound yellow tabby cat named Dusty who, he says, ‘supervises me and sees to it that I do not get into trouble.’
It was a pleasure and a privilege to talk to Christopher and I would like to thank him for sharing his story with me. All the information in this blog is from Christopher himself. Do drop in to see him and talk about thundereggs next time you’re in Deming – his shop is open 9am-5pm.
Be sure. Be smart. Buy with confidence