Options for second careers are few in Globe, Arizona, a desert town 90 miles east of Phoenix. So why not open a takeout place or pizza parlor? Globe has only 5,000 residents, that’s why. How about a tourist shop? Nah, the San Carlos Apache Indian reservation, 20 miles east of Globe, grabs most visitors.
Luckily for Tyree Trobaugh, a miner who retired in 1971 at age 65, the reservation is the site of the world’s largest peridot deposit, producing, says the U.S. Bureau of Mines, at 80 percent of all current supply. What’s more, the Apaches, to whom the U.S. government awarded mineral rights decades ago, prefer to sell the rough that they alone are allowed to dig to a small number of nearby dealers, most based in Globe.
Trobaugh has been one of this handful for the past 20 years. Nevertheless, the decision to become a peridot specialist has seemed a particularly sound one of late now that the gem, the birthstone of August, is now fashionable.
As a result, Trobaugh finds himself buying, on average, hundreds of pounds a week of freshly mined material from about 100 different Native Americans. “They come with anywhere from 1 to 500 pounds of peridot, mostly small in size, and applied in everything from cereal bowls to buckets.” He says.
Peridot doesn’t make millionaires of those who mine it. To the contrary, Trobaugh estimates that total yearly production probably don’t exceed $250,000.
At around $7 to $8 per pound, peridot rough must be found in large lots for mining to pay off. The hundreds of people engaged in digging for the gem, often in family teams, gather as much of it has they can in a short period, then dispose of it.
But at least it’s a job in a region with few employment options. And with peridot gaining swiftly in popularity, demand is likely to make mining it a job for more and more Apaches.
Light and Lively
While not yet a staple like blue topaz or amethyst, peridot has reached the lower rungs of vogue status. This status makes sense at a time when clothing designers are making heavy use of light, vibrant yellow-green.
Ironically, there was a time when the jolly lifesaver-green of Arizona peridot was looked upon with disdain. Proper peridots were supposed to exhibit the graver green of the Burmese and Egyptian varieties. Connoisseurs and purists still consider stones from Burma’s Mogok tract, Egypt’s Zabargad Island, and Pakistan the best of the breed. But a new generation reared on American peridot (supplies from Burma and Egypt are a trickle) has taken to its light and lively color.
What’s more, this taste is more than mere accommodation to the fact that Burma and Egypt are largely has-beens among gem producers. For one thing, most of the new generation of gem dealers, jewelry designers and retailers have little or no familiarity with Burmese peridot. For them, Arizona defines the range of color possibilities for this gem. The choice is between China and Arizona, with Arizona stones generally producing a more attractive green.
Those possibilities are completely different from those for Burmese and Egyptian stones. While Arizona peridot, like all other deposits of this olivine, is found encased in or extruding from volcanic rocks such as basalt, geological circumstances different from those in Mogok and Zagarbad allowed formation of typically smaller crystals.
As a result, the average size for polished Arizona peridot is one carat or less. Stones up to four carats are common, but from there to 12 carats they are rare, 12 to 20 carats very rare and above 20 carats almost impossible to find. On the other hand, you frequently see large Burmese and Pakistan peridots.
Given the preponderance of sub-carat peridots, the gem is most often used as an accent stone or part of a combination of small stones. In sizes below a carat, peridot is certainly one of the most affordable green gems. But because availability drops off sharply above four carats, prices take a jump for fine stones that are larger.
That is, provided they’re clean and crystalline-not included or fuzzy. Peridots from different localities have their own signature inclusions, some fluid, some solid. (Burmese peridot, for instance, is plagued by tiny flakes of biotite which cutters call “rain.”) Arizona crystals are usually so heavily included that even when sizable, large stones are impossible to cut clean.