Joe Graves has a secret. Somewhere along peaks and valleys of the Sangre de Christo mountain range, exists the buried trove of a Taos treasure that hardly anyone can find — except Graves.
For nearly 55 years, this man, somewhat of a Southwestern cowboy, has hunted the elusive mineral — staurolite.
Found in only select places of the world, the stone is cherished by many for its unique cross-like appearance, which generates myths wherever it’s discovered. Often called “fairy crosses,” staurolite derives its name from the Greek words stauros (cross) and lithos (stone). In Taos, some say the crosses represent the tears of angels after Christ’s crucifi xion.
Because of this religious symbolism, natives and tourists collect the rocks as good luck charms to keep close to them in their pockets or embedded in jewelry. Graves says the interest surrounding staurolite never ceases, so he keeps collecting, providing samples for local gem stores and various people around the country.
“They’ve been a real blessing for me,” Graves says in his humble, laid-back way. “I’ve sold them for years and years, and the price goes up all the time.”
At one time, Graves sold them each for a quarter. Now, one averages around $25. He makes the trek to his hidden piece of ‘stauroliteland,’ for which he holds a mining claim, about once a week. On a good dig, he likes to come home with between 50 and 100 rocks. It’s gotten harder over the years, though. When his father fi rst found the spot, the little crosses — some adorned with fl ecks of garnet — colored the landscape, practically asking to be discovered with their close surface proximity.
“They use to sit right on top, but now I have to dig down about a foot,” Graves explains.
His father and uncle stumbled upon the land during one of their deer-hunting trips. As Graves tells it, his father told his uncle to stay put while he steered the deer out of hiding and towards his uncle. While waiting, his uncle realized he sat amongst a fi eld of precious fairy crosses. With a slight laugh, Graves recalls this uncle thinking the best remedy for cleaning up the rocks would be soaking them in a bucket of motor oil; it didn’t work.
Motor-oil cleaning aside, Graves began his ongoing love affair with the family’s rare acquisition, claiming to have uncovered thousands upon thousands over the last half-century.
Jewel Howard, manager of Taos Gems & Mineral, says she often sees such affection for and curiosity about staurolite. From their rarity to their shape and associated mythical origins, the minerals mean much more to people than a chip of rock, she says.
When visitors come to Taos, Howard adds, many want to leave with this little mysterious keepsake to always remind them of their stay. Such fascination prompted the construction of the Fairy Stone State Park in southwest Virginia more than 70 years ago. While digging for staurolite is prohibited within park grounds, tourists can hunt for them on a reserved spot of park property behind a service station.
The Fairy Stone Museum, stated by curator Don Hopkins to be the only one of its kind, displays some 72 sizes of staurolite from different states, including Georgia and North Carolina, and countries, such as Russia. From the geological perspective, some experts say the cross shape may result from tectonic plate shifts of the earth.
The general development occurred throughout a long metamorphic period, when mica, a kind of silicate mineral, and forms of crystal conjoined to make the stone found today. As Jayne Aubele, a geologist with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science explains, staurolite slowly evolved through the Earth’s natural forces. “Between Pilar and Taos, much of the rock is an old (over 1 billion years old) metamorphic rock called schist.”
Breaking down to basics, Aubele says that metamorphic rock used to be some other kind of rock; schist probably came from some kind of sedimentary rock, changing through heat, pressure and time.
“Schist is silvery in color and usually has lots of mica in it and it frequently has garnets in it. Garnets are a mineral that is formed under high temperature and pressure,” Aubele says. “The schist near Taos has garnets and big pieces of mica and staurolite crystals. Both the garnets and the staurolite crystals are probably due to the process of metamorphism that formed the rock. They have both ‘grown’ as mineral crystals within the rock as it metamorphosed.”
Looking past their alluring mystique, scientists have studied staurolite to determine their basic components of iron, aluminum, silicon and oxygen. The rocks, such as those Graves fi nds in his expeditions, occur in the 90-degree angle of a crucifi x, but also at 60-degree angles. Graves says those resembling an “X” are called St. Andrew’s crosses. Though geological theories can construct a textbook history of staurolite, Graves doesn’t give much thought to such intricate accounts.
“I just give glory to the good Lord and his creation.”
Look for our next section of Tradiciones — Raíces — in the Oct. 1 edition of The Taos News.
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