Deloris Lindsay, owner of the Lindsay Ranch, in Mason, remembers the days when rock hounds wandered her family’s Hill Country property. They would show up, week after week, hoping to dig up specimens of agate, fluorite, mica, and quartz. But the crown jewel—so to speak—for most of them was Texas blue topaz, the official state gemstone. “God put it here for people to find, and if you find a treasure, you’ll be blessed,” Lindsay says, a ripe note of rapture in her voice. She opened the land to tourists about fifteen years ago, and enjoyed handing out maps and seeing the treasures they’d discover.

Mason County is the only place in the state where Texas blue topaz—or any topaz, for that matter—can be found, and for more than a decade a few of its working cattle ranches charged visitors a small daily fee to explore their land in hopes of unearthing the gem. (Prior to that, topaz hunting was more ad hoc; geologists and scientists would knock on doors and get permission to look around.) Though the money that ranchers received was little more than pocket change, there was a feel-good component to letting the public on their property. It was a way for tourists to get down on their hands and knees and experience land that the ranchers love.

Mark Hahn, owner of Mason’s Bar M Ranch, opened his gates to rock hunters in 2015 and appreciated the passion they had for spending hours crouched in creek beds. “I looked at it as an opportunity to provide an outdoor experience for people,” he says. “It amazed me how fast it grew.”

But there were issues. Hahn says visitors often acted “entitled.” They would litter on his property and drive recklessly. “There were a few instances that made me nervous,” he says. “The biggest problem for me was going out and picking up the trash and water bottles.” So he shut his gates three years ago.

Lindsay had similar problems. She’d instruct visitors to fill in the holes they dug, but not everyone did. “Animals could get hurt,” she says. People could get hurt too; Lindsay’s lawyer made sure she had everyone sign a waiver of liability. Now, at 87, Lindsay feels too old to “worry like a mother hen about people driving off into a creek. I enjoyed meeting people and showing them where to go, but it was a process. My family has other interests now. It was time to make a change.” She closed the property to rock hunters late last year, making her the last of the Mason County ranchers to do so.

It’s never been easy to find facet-grade, gem-quality Texas blue topaz. Now it’s nearly impossible.

“I’ve watched the slow demise of this gem being available to the public,” says Diane Eames, a gemologist and jeweler who owned a store called Gems of the Hill Country, which relocated from Mason to Ingram in 2013 and then closed for good in 2017 when Eames moved to Oregon. Her passion is faceting (cutting, essentially), marketing, and selling Texas blue topaz, which she still does. “To see one of the state symbols fade away into dust is rather sad.”

For a long time, there were only two ways to know you were in possession of Texas blue topaz rather than a stone found in Brazil or Sri Lanka: it came with a certificate of authenticity, or you pulled it out of the ground in Mason County. But last winter Eames and four coauthors published a study in the journal Gems & Gemology that strongly indicated that it should be possible to distinguish Texas topaz from, say, the Brazilian or Colorado varieties, by identifying the proportions of trace elements such as chromium, scandium, and titanium. Her coauthor Kenny Befus, an associate professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, hopes these findings will elevate the status of our state gemstone, giving it as much market value as sapphires or rubies.

A specimen of Texas blue topaz.
A specimen of Texas blue topaz.Photograph by Jordan Vonderhaar

It’s certainly a rare enough stone. There’s a fair amount of yellow, brown, and clear topaz out there, and since the eighties jewelers have been exposing some of it to radiation to create the blue color that’s popular today. Natural blue topaz, by contrast, is irradiated over the course of eons; finding it in the ground is no easy feat. The largest blue topaz crystal in North America was found in Mason County in 1904 by a rancher named Albert McGehee. Legend has it that he used the 6,480-carat beauty as a doorstop before the Smithsonian bought it from him. You can now see the nearly three-pound hunk of topaz at the Mason Square Museum, where it sits on loan from the Smithsonian, back in the county where it likely crystallized more than a billion years ago.

Many topaz legends float around Mason County: Eames told me about a woman who had a copy of one of Elizabeth Taylor’s engagement rings made with Mason County topaz. Eames also recounted the story of a man who came into her shop one day and “paled out” when he saw her topaz rough in the display case. He realized the rocks he’d loved throwing against limestone and trees as a kid so that he could watch them break were the state gemstone. Then there was the guy from South Carolina who towed his bulldozer all the way to Mason, walked into Eames’s store, and bragged that the ranchers would no doubt let him search for topaz on their land.

“I laughed and told him that ain’t gonna happen,” Eames said. “That was the last I ever heard from him.”

But no one will be creating new legends anytime soon, which strikes some as a major loss. “Mason County topaz and their surrounding host rocks preserve an incredible story about the geologic history of Texas and the formation of our planet,” says Befus. “This is our identity and our stone.”

Frank Roberts hunts for blue topaz in Mason County on April 1, 2024.
Roberts hunting for blue topaz in Mason County on April 1, 2024. Photograph by Jordan Vonderhaar
Mason city limits
Mason city limits. Photograph by Jordan Vonderhaar

It is not, technically speaking, completely unfeasible to hunt for topaz in Mason County. Frank Roberts, a recently retired broadcast engineer for Austin PBS, isn’t a professional gemologist or geologist, but he knows Mason County well and has some key contacts.

“I’m a science-y kind of guy,” Roberts tells me over scrambled eggs and coffee at the Willow Creek Cafe & Club on Fort McKavitt Street, right next to the Mason Square Museum. “I’m a rock head; what can I say?” Rock heads don’t have to be formally trained, he says; hunters and collectors come from all walks of life. “About the only things they all have in common are a pulse and a compulsion to play in the dirt in the hope of finding buried treasure that no other human being has laid eyes on.”

Roberts thinks it’s a shame that there’s no place for them to hunt for topaz in Texas anymore, but he understands why landowners became so skittish about lawsuits. “It would take only one trip, fall, or snakebite to wipe out a ranch that has been in the same family for generations,” he says. “Those thousands of personal injury billboards and incessant TV commercials aren’t going to pay for themselves.” 

Still, though no ranches offer access to the public, Roberts has a deal with a local who allows him on a certain property, the identity of which I agreed to keep confidential. Roberts found the spot by searching Google Earth, through which he noticed mine tailings­—the materials left over when valuable minerals and gems have been extracted from ore. He figured he’d discover agate, fluorite, and quartz there. Maybe—maybe—if he got lucky, he’d also find some topaz and add it to his collection.

“It absolutely is the norm to come home from a topaz hunt with everything in your bucket but topaz,” Roberts says. The easy-to-find topaz stones have been “scarfed up” by rock hounds over the decades. Roberts has, though, found about twenty decent-sized specimens and countless tiny ones in sixteen years of prospecting. Still, he says, “a one or two percent chance of finding a keeper in
Mason County beats a zero percent chance anywhere else in the state.”

Before we drive to the spot “where all the goodies are,” Roberts introduces me to Warren Grote, owner of Mason Country Collectibles. Grote is a longtime Mason resident; his dad opened the shop in 1978. While we talk, he leads me over to the “Grand Azure,” a 587.15-carat blue topaz sitting in a display case. A label says it’s the largest faceted Mason County topaz known to exist. It’s gorgeous but not for sale.

“If I sold it, it’d be gone, and that’s that,” says Grote, who, like many locals, takes deep pride in his county’s topaz. He shows the Grand Azure to visitors from all over the world. “When they walk in, we force them to look at it.”

The exterior of Mason Country Collectibles.
The exterior of Mason Country Collectibles. Photograph by Jordan Vonderhaar
The Grand Azure on display at Mason Country Collectibles.
The Grand Azure on display at Mason Country Collectibles. Photograph by Jordan Vonderhaar

While we’re talking, three young men in head-to-toe camouflage walk into the shop. They peer around, looking a little lost. I figure they’re searching for antique bullets, or maybe they’ve been hunting all morning and just need to warm up. To my surprise, they ask Grote where they can hunt for topaz. Grote tells them that all the ranches are closed to the public. Roberts stays mum.

At around 10 a.m., Roberts, my six-year-old son (who loves to find “treasures”), and I drive to a spot dotted with thorny mesquite trees and cacti and not much else. We pull off a dirt road and hop out near a few large holes in the ground. Roberts grabs shovels, chisels, and a big orange bucket, and we start searching. He shows me quartz and fluorite by telling me to look where the shadow of his finger is pointing. Each time my eye follows the shadow, I catch the gleam of a crystal that I never would have spotted on my own.

When we pluck something interesting from the dirt, we place the hunk of quartz or fluorite into a bucket of water to clean it off. My son declares that he’s found a dinosaur bone and a diamond, and Roberts and I don’t dispute his claims. It’s easy to see how people can get hooked on combing through dirt and gravel in search of a shiny prize. Finding myself with a bucket full of diamonds and dinosaur bones, though, I start to worry we won’t find any topaz after all.

After about an hour of searching, Roberts finds a tiny piece of what may or may not be clear Mason County topaz; not the beloved blue variety but not nothing, either. Without a laboratory or a discerning professional eyeballing the thing, it’s hard to tell for sure. I place it in my pocket and take it home. Later I text Eames to find out how I can determine if it’s topaz. She tells me to “hold it in front of and just below an opaque lampshade and take a picture.” I send her the photo.

“Yes ma’am,” she writes back after briefly analyzing the gem’s hue and structure, “you have topaz!”

She may as well have told me that my tiny clear topaz specimen was the Grand Azure. (Actually, she later said she was “pretty sure” I had topaz.) Believing that I possessed even a fragment of this close cousin of our state gem gave me a thrill. But it was a thrill that made me feel a bit sad. The freedom to go digging around looking for Texas blue topaz feels like another one of those Texas traditions that are disappearing, such as riding the mechanical bull at Gilley’s or eating Blue Bell ice cream with one of their trademark wooden spoons.

A collection of Roberts’s rock specimens.
A collection of Roberts’s rock specimens.Photograph by Jordan Vonderhaar

I can’t shake from my mind one story Roberts told me, about a Texas that some days almost feels gone. “I once knew an elderly pair of sisters in Burnet County who grew up on a ranch near Mason,” he said. “They told stories of sneaking out after midnight during full moon nights to look for topaz in a dry creek bed as young girls. Apparently, with a full moon directly overhead, the crystal faces would wink at them.”

Is there any hope for those of us looking to capture just a bit of that magic? Recently the Mason County Chamber of Commerce asked local ranchers if they would be willing to offer access again, but none had plans to do so. Lindsay says she still allows guests who stay in her cabins to go rock hunting, and Hahn says he’s not opposed to opening up again, but “it would have to be under a different set of guidelines.” Befus, Eames, and Roberts say the Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area might also hold the state gem, but the No Trespassing signs make it impossible to find out.

Eventually this topaz drought could create a problem for Eames, who’s been faceting the stash of Mason topaz that she bought over the years. At some point it will likely run out. For now she continues selling topaz jewelry via her website, but it’s not like it used to be, when she was part of a living tradition, a thriving, if modest industry.

“I would hope that at some point, some Texas rancher understands the value of what’s on his land and will find a way to help share it with the rest of us who also appreciate it,” Eames says. “Selling topaz on the internet just isn’t the same as digging it out of the dirt.” 

Sixth-generation Texan and Hutto resident Dina Gachman’s second book, “So Sorry for Your Loss”: How I Learned to Live With Grief, and other Grave Concerns, was published last year.

This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Last Blue Topaz Hunters?” It originally published online on January 30, 2024, and has since been updated. Subscribe today.