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Oregon Sunstone
Home-Grown Labradorite


Why would anyone want to leave a Pacific paradise for the northwest Pacific outback? You won’t believe Karla Proud’s reason. It’s sunstone, a fiery feldspar that occurs with best-of-breed reds, greens, and bi-colors in a handful of deposits in two areas of Oregon roughly 150 miles apart. After running two jewelry stores in Honolulu (plus one in Tokyo) for 25 years, Proud closed her shops and returned to mainland America to devote her time and talents to marketing sunstone from one of the four mines currently producing this labradorite.

Based in Bend, Oregon, Proud’s company, Exotic Gemstones, has what she calls “a joint venture agreement” with Dust Devil Mining, located in the semi-arid sunstone-rich Plush area in the south-central region of the state. “Dust Devil mines the sunstone and I get some of the rough material to work with,” she explains. “I grade the rough and determine how and by whom it will be cut—either by gem artisans here in America or sent overseas for faceting or cabbing. We use every morsel that comes from the mine. With my focus on only one gem, I have learned to be very creative in its use.”

Evelyn Tucker of Rogue Gems in Rogue River, Oregon, also shares a passion for this plagioclase member of the feldspar group. In 2003, she left Anchorage, Alaska, where she had lived for 20 years, to make sunstone as exclusive a cause as it would become for Proud. Unlike Proud, Tucker buys rough from three mines and has most of it cut in Thailand, China, and India, usually into beads and briolettes. The latter are her biggest sellers, especially in 1.5 carat salmon-colored total weight earrings with those shimmering platelets of hematite—a phenomenon known as “schiller”—for which Oregon is famous. “At under $100 a pair, they go like hot cakes,” says Tucker.

Although both women report thriving sales of sunstone, being full-time feldspar specialists takes cunning and determination, especially with look-alike andesine labradorite selling for a fraction of their prices on various shop-at-home TV networks and web sites. There’s only one problem with the cut-rate material: It’s probably treated, using a chemical diffusion process to create hefty rinds of red and green colors. Indeed, a spokesperson for one TV network freely concedes that stones are wrapped in copper and hematite mud packs, then heated and tumbled for weeks, maybe months, to attain maximum color penetration. If this material is proven to owe its color to high-tech dyeing, all-natural Oregon sunstone faces two contradictory fates—either consumers will flock to it as the real thing or spurn it for other gems. We’re betting on the first fate. Here’s why.

A BEAUTY ALL ITS OWN

Transparent sunstone with brick orange and red colors reminiscent of spessartite and spruce-green colors reminiscent of tourmaline is a thoroughly modern gemstone, with its largest deposit, the Ponderosa Mine, discovered less than 30 years ago in the summer of 1980. When Ponderosa’s first operators started showing fireball-orange stones at trade shows, the gem found an immediate following. By 1985, it had become its home state’s gem. Although Tiffany’s had long known of the state’s other deposits and flirted with the idea of a national marketing campaign on behalf of American sunstone, it was Ponderosa’s startup team that secured the gem its first solid market niche in remarkably little time.

Since 2003, the Ponderosa Mine has been run by a three-person team of financiers: John and Talley Woodmark and Bruce Moore. Last year, their company, Desert Sun Mining & Gems, more than doubled Ponderosa’s 1991 prior production peak of 400 kilos by hitting an impressive new high of 860 kilos. What’s more, Desert Sun is concentrating on its most desirable colors, maintaining a 500,000 carat inventory of these orange, red, pink, and green hues (as well as multicolors). In addition, the company keeps a standing stock of 250,000 carats of yellows. “We always have 400 of every calibrated size and shape that we offer,” Woodmark says. “If sunstone is to succeed, we have to be able to anticipate and meet the needs of high-volume sellers.”

While Ponderosa produces roughly three quarters of all the current supply of Oregon sunstone, the Dust Devil, Spectrum, and Outback sunstone mines account for at least another 250,000 kilos of desirable-color stones. So, all in all, Oregon mining companies are at the 1 million kilo mark. That’s ample material for market-making.

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Oregon Sunstone from the Dust Devil Mine
Oregon Sunstone from the Dust Devil Mine and cut by John Dyer