Colorado gem hunters are back near Alma mine that was once a mother lode of rhodochrosite, the official state mineral |

Colorado gem hunters are back near Alma mine that was once a mother lode of rhodochrosite, the official state mineral

It's the size of a football, brilliant cherry-red and nearly a perfect square. Gem hunter Bryan Lees pulled it from the Sweet Home Mine near Alma in 1992, but now it sits in a display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. It's the finest specimen of rhodochrosite in the world.

In its time, the Sweet Home was a prolific source of high-quality rhodochrosite and of pride in the tiny town of Alma. It's also the reason why the gem was made Colorado's state mineral in 2002.

Sweet Home was sealed more than a decade ago. But now, the gem hunters are back, chasing a lead on a possible mother lode of rhodochrosite, and maybe, a specimen that could dethrone the Alma King.

"We just have a little bit more tunnel to build and then we'll be back on what we think is a very, very good target," Lees said. "We'll see what happens. It's kind of a 'poke and hope.' It's not like a gold mine where you drill it out and have a million-ounce reserve."

Lees, owner and president of gem company Collector's Edge, has been tunneling since April at a new site, the Detroit City Mine, about 100 feet uphill of where he found the Alma King.

"That was the event of a lifetime," he recalled. "It's not something you expect. We didn't know we were going to find something like that — nobody knew."

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As it happened, a camera crew from the Denver Nature and Science Museum was at the mine that very day to shoot footage of the blasting work. Little did they know they would capture footage of the world's premier rhodochrosite specimen as it saw light for the first time.

"If you go down and see the Alma King at the museum you can watch a little clip of me pulling it out," Lees said. "It's 100 percent real. It's not staged."

The crystal is now a main attraction at the museum's Gems and Minerals Exhibition.

"It's not the best in Colorado, or the best in the U.S. or the best in North America — it's the best in the world," said James Hagadorn, Ph.D, the museum's geology curator. "It's an amazing, unbelievable crystal. People look at it and they always ask, 'Is that real?' Yes, it is, and we have Bryan on film pulling it out of the cavity."

Hagadorn said that while there are larger rhodochrosite specimens in the world, none compare to the Alma King, which is remarkable for its clear, crimson coloring and neat geometry.

The other two that come close, the Alma Queen and the Alma Rose, both came out of Sweet Home, which was opened in the 1800s as a silver mine. Back then, miners found gems all over but simply threw them out — or traded the real "pretties" for drinks at the saloon in Alma.

The mine never did very well until Lees and his wife, Kathryn, leased the property as a specimen mine in 1991.

"I used to tell people, in the old days they mined for silver and threw the rhodo on the dump," he said. "Now we mine for rhodo and throw the silver on the dump."

Lees shudders thinking about the enormous quantities of rhodochrosite that must have been dumped back then. But there was still plenty to go around, at least until the early 2000s, when the Sweet Home dried up for the second time.

After it was sealed, the mine site was completely reclaimed. Lees said that today, you could walk right over it without realizing it used to be a mine. Lees donated the parcel of land there to Alma, mayor Gary Goettelman confirmed.

But geologists continued to study the area for academic research, and a couple of years ago one of Lees' old partners told him he might have found another promising spot just up the hill.

"We did a 3-D model of the vein structures there and it opened up a new target area that we didn't know existed before," Lees said. "It was a brand new idea. If we had known about it back in '04 I may not have closed the mine."

Lees and his small crew started tunneling in April. It's a slow, low-key operation.

"We don't have 500 people up there creating a new hole like Climax (molybdenum mine) — we've got five people up there," Lees said.

Lees and his team hope to reach their target area some time next year. What they'll find is anyone's guess.

"Hopefully we get lucky again," Lees said. "It's like a big treasure hunt. You don't know if you're going to hit anything or not."

If a gem that could dethrone the Alma King really is down there, Hagadorn says he'd happily make a home for it at the museum.

"Who knows what they're going to find, but I'm excited to see it," Hagadorn said. "So I hope they give us a call if they find the new best specimen."

Either way, though, Lees will always have the memories of when Sweet Home churned out some of the highest quality rhodochrosite in the world. It was a great time for the town Alma and the wider gem-collecting world, he said.

"It brought a lot of people together," he said. "Hopefully it continues to do that, and hopefully we get lucky again. The second story of Sweet Home is just starting."