At a glance, it’s impossible to distinguish a Texas blue topaz from one found in Brazil or Sri Lanka. Until recently, there were two ways to know for sure: if it came with a certificate of authenticity, or if you pulled it out of the ground yourself in Mason County in the Hill Country. This semiprecious stone is also found in places such as Colorado, Idaho, and Utah, but the Llano Uplift at the edge of Mason is the only geological region in Texas known to bear topaz. You can also find agate, fluorite, mica, and quartz, but topaz, specifically the rare sky-blue topaz, is the crown jewel.
For decades, a few working cattle ranches in the area allowed rock hounds and tourists to explore their land in hopes of finding gems and minerals, for a small daily fee. The findings could be donated to museums, sold to jewelers, or turned into personal rings or necklaces, but most were collected for fun. The money these ranches got from rock hunters was pocket change compared to the income from their cattle businesses, but allowing rock hounds on their land felt like a way to honor nature’s gift of the stones. But some careless tourists left large holes in the ground, which animals could fall into and possibly break a leg. As the next generation of ranchers started to take over, letting strangers roam the land became too much of a burden. It was already difficult to find facet-grade, gem-quality blue topaz in Texas. Then, in late 2023, the last of the rock hound–friendly landowners in Mason, the Lindsay Ranch, closed its doors.
“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. For several years, her passion was faceting, marketing, and selling Texas blue topaz in the heart of Mason, and then, later, in Ingram. “To see one of the state symbols fade away into dust is rather sad.”
As a sixth-generation Texan, I’m ashamed to say that I had no clue that blue topaz was our state gemstone until recently. Montana has sapphire and Oregon has sunstone, and in 1969 Governor Preston Smith signed a bill making Texas blue topaz official. Since we like to take things up a notch, Texas then became the only state to have an official cut. The “Lone Star cut” is a five-pointed star design, adopted in 1977.
Eames is one of the authors (along with Roy Bassoo, Matthew F. Hardman, Kenneth Befus, and Ziyin Sun) of a new peer-reviewed study published in the journal Gems & Gemology. It proves, for the first time, that it is possible to distinguish Texas topaz from, say, the Brazilian variety, through laboratory testing that identifies specific trace elements such as chromium, germanium, scandium, and titanium. Coauthor Kenny Befus, professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, hopes that these new findings help elevate the status of our state gemstone to the national stage, making it as valued as sapphires or rubies.
Befus, like Eames, laments the fact that Mason County ranches have closed to rock hounds. He understands that it’s their land and their call, but it still hurts. “Mason 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.”
Since the 1980s, most yellow, brown, and clear topaz has been irradiated, or exposed to radiation to enhance or change the color of the gem, to create the blue color that’s popular today. Natural blue topaz is irradiated over eons. Finding a naturally occurring blue topaz in the ground is no easy feat, but it is possible. The largest light blue topaz in North America was found in Mason County in 1904 by a rancher named Albert McGehee. Legend has it that McGehee used the 6,480-carat beauty as a doorstop before the Smithsonian bought it from him for $75, in 1913. 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, according to Befus, it likely crystalized over a billion years ago.
In my quest to dig up some Mason topaz, I meet Frank Roberts at the Willow Creek Cafe on Fort McKavitt Street, right next to the Mason Square Museum. At Roberts’ suggestion, I bring along my six-year-old son, who loves to find “treasures.” The plan is to have some breakfast before heading out to hunt for rocks. For more than thirty years, Roberts has worked as a broadcast engineer for PBS Austin. He isn’t a professional gemologist or geologist, but he is someone Eames and Befus tell me I can trust. If I have any questions about the things we find, they assure me that Roberts will have answers.
“I’m a science-y kind of guy,” Roberts tells me over scrambled eggs and coffee. “I’m a rock head; what can I say?” Rock heads don’t have to be trained in gemstones; according to Roberts, hunters and collectors are young and old and 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 before,” he says.
In addition to ranchers passing their land to the next generation or simply growing too old to manage rock hounds, Roberts says personal injury liability may have made many landowners skittish about allowing tourists to root around in their streams. “It would take only one trip, fall, or snakebite to wipe out a ranch that has been in the same family for generations,” Roberts says. “Those thousands of personal injury billboards and incessant TV commercials aren’t going to pay for themselves.”
Even though most ranches have closed access, Roberts does have a deal with a local who allows him on a certain property. He found the spot by searching Google Earth, through which he noticed mine tailings, which are the materials left over when valuable minerals and gems have been extracted from the rock and clay. He figured he’d discover quartz, agate, and fluorite there. Maybe, if he got lucky, he’d also find some topaz and add it to his personal collection. Unless you discover a 6,480-carat blue topaz, most rocks don’t make it to the Smithsonian or the jewelry-store shelf. Eames told me that the only time she bought large quantities of topaz was during the Great Recession, around 2008, when collectors came out of the woodwork to sell their topaz stashes in hopes of paying some bills. “The average weekend rock warrior is going to put what they find into their knickknack shelf to show off when company comes over,” says Roberts.
Before we drive to the spot “where all the goodies are,” Roberts wants me to meet Warren Grote, owner of Mason County Collectibles. Grote is a longtime Mason resident, and his dad opened the shop years ago. While we talk, he leads me over to “the Grand Azure,” a 587-carat blue topaz sitting in a display case. A label claims 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 Mason locals, feel deep pride in the topaz from his county. Instead of making a profit, he shows the Grand Azure to visitors who come from all over the world. “When they walk in, we force them to look at it.”
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 go hunt for topaz. Since he can’t suggest the Lindsay or the Seaquist ranches anymore, Grote tells the guys in camo they’ll have to figure that out for themselves, and he wishes them luck. Roberts, who is about to take me to his own secret spot, stays mum.
We say goodbye to Grote and head out. Roberts drives us 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. As we search, Roberts tells me about a guy in Houston who kept an incredible stash of Texas topaz in an old Folgers coffee can for years before selling it. There are a lot of topaz legends floating around Mason County: Eames told me about a woman who had an exact copy of one of Elizabeth Taylor’s engagement rings made from Mason County topaz. She 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 that as a kid, the rocks he’d loved throwing against limestone and trees so 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’ store, and bragged that the ranchers would no doubt let him come 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. My guess is that he and his dozer went back to the southeast.”
Each time we pluck a treasure from the dirt, we place the small hunk of quartz or fluorite into a bucket full 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 single shiny prize. With a bucket full of quartz and dinosaur bones, though, I start to worry we won’t find any topaz after all. There’s no commercial mining of topaz in Texas, and heavily dynamiting an area or dragging heavy equipment like a bulldozer over private ranchland to find gems isn’t the norm, which probably isn’t a bad thing.
After about an hour of searching, Roberts finds a tiny piece of what may or may not be clear Mason County topaz. Without a laboratory or an extremely discerning professional eyeballing the thing, it’s hard to tell for sure. I decide to believe that it’s topaz. I place it in the pocket of my jeans and take it home.
After our day in Mason, I call Dolores Lindsay, owner of the Lindsay Ranch, the last private property to close its gates to topaz hunters. She’s 87 now, and her husband, whose family settled the land in 1858, passed away three years ago. Lindsay calls topaz “a wonderful gem.” She can rattle off facts and details about its hardness and rarity like a pro. She says she used to enjoy handing out maps to people and seeing the treasures they’d find, but her kids aren’t there to manage the rock hounds, and it’s too much work for her to handle these days.
“I enjoyed meeting people and showing them where to go, but it was a process,” she says. “My family has other interests now. It was time to make a change.”
Like Befus and Roberts, Eames understands that it’s a private landowner’s decision whether to wrangle topaz hunters. Still, the lack of access makes an already rare gem even tougher to find. Eames says there’s state-owned land in Mason County that could be opened up to rock hounds. She still sells topaz rough and faceted jewelry via her website, but it’s not the same.
“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 it on the internet just isn’t the same as digging it out of the dirt.”
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