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Homegrown Treasures - Hunting For Gems In The UK

| 9 min read

When we think of the provenance of our gemstones, we often think of far-flung locales and hard to reach, desolate mining areas with extreme tropical environments. Whether it’s the snow-capped summits of the Himalayas surrounding deposits of hidden Kyanite, the tall grasses and forests of Sri Lanka keeping Sapphire hidden deep beneath the surface, or the frozen plains of Siberia entombing dazzling Diopside, the art of gemstone sourcing can feel very far from home.

So, we thought we would dig a little deeper (pun intended) into which gemstones can be found within the United Kingdom and where you can find them, and discovered that there are some hidden delights right on our doorsteps. Such is their rarity we haven't yet been able to source any of these treasures, but click the links below each section to see which varieties of each stone we do have in stock from elsewhere on the planet.

BLUE JOHN FLUORITE

Found: Derbyshire, England

Blue John is a remarkably beautiful natural wonder that is only found in a handful of caverns near the village of Castleton in Derbyshire. The unusual name is believed to have derived from the French ‘bleu-jaune’ which means ‘blue-yellow’, which aptly describes the colours of the banding within the gem, although often the full rainbow of colours on display will include blue, yellow, purple and white.

Blue John Fluorite

Its discovery was once attributed to the Romans, though this has since been debunked as the earliest recorded reference to the stone comes from a letter dated 1766. The industrialist Matthew Boulton, who is most famous for his partnership with James Watt and the improvements they made to the steam engine together, attempted to lease the mines in 1768 so he could mine the gem and make decorative ornaments. The available evidence would suggest the gem had been mined for quite some time by this point, possibly even back through medieval times.

At its peak in the late 18th century, it is estimated that up to 20 tonnes of Blue John were mined every year, though this was down to three tonnes by the 1890s. Many ornaments have been expertly crafted and beautifully finished over the years, with anything from ornate candelabras to large goblets and intricately carved bowls being produced, some of which ended up with royalty at Buckingham Palace as well as being exported around the globe. Blue John is still mined but in very small quantities, estimated to be around half a tonne per year. The raw material is kept within Castleton, where it is stabilised, worked and designed into ornaments and beautiful jewellery.

Whilst supply is limited, a ‘lost’ seam was rediscovered in 2013 and two years later the first new vein in a century and a half was discovered, so hopefully supply will increase just slightly over the coming years. But there are only 15 known veins of the gem, and it is unknown just how much remains in the various caverns.

You can visit some of the caverns yourself and take guided tours around the mines that house this extraordinary gem. Your cavern guide may even be one of the small team that painstakingly hand mine the gem during the winter months. There are gift shops alongside some of the caverns and a store in nearby Castleton should you wish to own a piece of this multi-coloured homegrown treat.

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CAIRNGORM QUARTZ

Found: Aberdeenshire, Scotland

The Cairngorms National Park is the largest and also most northerly national park in the UK, but was only designated national park status in 2003. History in this area dates back so much further. The mountains here, also called The Cairngorms, feature not only some of the tallest peaks in Britain but also play host to the Queen and members of the Royal Family when they visit Balmoral Castle. Cairngorm is also the industry recognised name for a type of dark, smoky and even occasionally yellow Quartz that is found exclusively in this area.

CAIRNGORM QUARTZ

Cairngorm Quartz has been found here since at least medieval times and pieces of the stone have been used in Scottish jewellery for many centuries. The gem commonly found its way into brooches, kilt pins and skean dhus, which were small knives that made up part of the traditional Highland dress. In Victorian times it wasn’t unheard of for individuals and even their whole families to scour the area for high quality crystals in a ritual not dissimilar to a gold rush. Occasionally they could even find much rarer Topaz and Beryl stones. Nicknamed ‘the diggers’ and ‘Cairngorm miners’, they would pass the fruits of their labours to various lapidarists, silversmiths and jewellers who were mostly based in Edinburgh, Inverness, Dundee and Aberdeen. Finished pieces were then sold, creating a cottage industry centred around this one stone that prospered for many years.

Historically, much of the Quartz material was too dark for use in jewellery, and so the jewellers of the time experimented with heat treating the gem. Successful attempts turned the rough material a sumptuous honey to amber colour, so were sold as Citrine. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a fascination with the stone, and after Prince Albert acquired Balmoral in 1848 the couple acquired quite a collection of Cairngorm Quartz, much of which still resides at the house.

Cairngorm Quartz has left its mark on the country in which it formed, having been designated the National Gemstone of Scotland. Sadly, the days of any large-scale attempts to mine the area are long over and notable discoveries of gem quality material are seldom made. Should you ever visit, you’ll almost certainly find non-gem grade Milky Quartz scattered about, though. If you’re really fortunate, just maybe you’ll see something much darker and more mysterious twinkling away in the stream beds or rocks nearby.

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WELSH GOLD

Found: Carmarthenshire, Wales

It’s not just precious stones that can be found under your feet in the UK. Over the centuries, there have been a number of gold mines within our shores, and one of the most interesting is the Dolaucothi Gold Mine near Llanwrda, Wales. The Dolaucothi Estate to which the mine belongs is now owned by the National Trust, but historically the area was first mined for gold during the Bronze Age, and is known to have been used by the Romans. In fact, this is the only known Roman gold mine in the UK, although it is believed there are other undiscovered archaeological sites yet to be charted.

Welsh Gold

The early Romans on this site would have used very basic hand tools to mine their tunnels here and work would have been slow and laborious. As well as tunnelling underground, there’s evidence that the Romans used aqueducts to carry water to storage tanks at the mining site. This water would then have been suddenly released to wash dirt, soil and debris away from the bedrock in order to reveal possible veins of gold worthy of further prospecting.

The mine was still in regular use right up until 1938, and the area was left to the National Trust in 1941. The mine has largely been an archaeology site and tourist attraction since then, though if you visit the area you should pay a visit to the nearby River Cothi where if you pan for gold you may just be lucky enough to find something small glimmering among the rocks.

If you visit, you’ll be able to take an underground tour of the mine (between March and November) and see for yourself the tunnels dug by the Romans, and where the Victorians later used explosives to aid their hunt for this precious metal. Whilst gold is no longer mined on this site, visitors will be able to browse a selection of jewellery pieces made from Clogau Gold in the gift shop. Whilst the Clogau gold mine in north-west Wales is more widely known, it is also not currently active and hasn’t been since 1998. These jewellery pieces are made with what little is left of their rapidly diminishing stocks.

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AMBER

Found: Suffolk Coastline, England

Whilst gem hunting is bound to conjure up images of mining, digging, heavy industry and toil, those of us looking for a more casual experience could simply wait for the sea to wash a little piece of treasure onto the shore. Believe it or not, Baltic Amber can actually be found on the shores of the UK, specifically on the aptly named Amber Coast.

Amber from English beaches

The Amber Coast generally refers to the strip of coastline between Felixstowe and Southwold on the south-east coast of England, in Suffolk. However, Amber has also been found a little further north in Great Yarmouth and further still in Cromer, in the neighbouring county of Norfolk. In 2013, a couple hunting for Amber on Cromer beach found a 700g nugget of the gem, which was believed to be worth more than £500 and was one of the largest pieces of Amber ever found in the UK. Understandably, the couple decided to keep the piece.

Baltic Amber washes up on these shores for largely the same reason it does so on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Glaciers during the last ice age would have picked up the fossilised tree sap that became Amber and slowly dragged it over Scandinavia and the North Sea, heading towards the south-east coast of England. These Amber pieces would have been deposited on both the land and out at sea, meaning that some of the Amber found in the UK is actually coming from the erosion of the cliffs along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast. The stones that were deposited at sea may have been submerged for some considerable amount of time, but bad weather will churn up the ocean and occasionally this will loosen pieces and send them beachwards. This is why the best time to hunt for Amber is after a storm.

You’ll have to really keep your eyes peeled though. The classic bright yellow-orange colour that we associate with Amber is generally the result of some serious polishing of the stone. When you’re out and about on the beaches, retrain your eyes to look for dark red and dark brown looking rocks too, as well as more traditional colours. When you pick up your first find, don’t forget to take a moment to enjoy being the first person in human history to touch that piece, which will be between 40 million and 140 million years old.

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To read more fascinating insights into gemstones just click here.