Dig diamonds? Go south.
Amateur diamond prospecting picks up steam in Arkansas.
Maybe once in a lifetime
You'll hold one in your hand
Once in a lifetime
In this land
– "I Dug Up a Diamond," Mark Knopfler/ Emmylou Harris
MURFREESBORO, ARK. – Maybe more than once, if you spend enough time here in this southern Arkansas town of rusty metal roofs, where the Pike County courthouse dominates the traffic circle and fiddle music pours from a speaker outside Hawkins variety store.
Two miles south of town, on a plowed 37-acre field where a volcano oozed 100 million years ago, David Anderson wipes his muddy hands, digs into his pocket, and produces a small glass vial. Inside, a rough diamond – 1.57 carats – glints.
"They told me it should never be cut," says Mr. Anderson, a roofer from Grand Rapids, Mich. Doing so would reduce the rock's size, of course. Besides, it's a natural beauty, somewhat rounded by a few billion years in the earth but with hints of facets on its face.
Old-timers he has met put its as-is value at about $5,000. Anderson is thinking about extending his stay.
Put off by the "blood diamond" aura that still taints much of the harvest and wholesale of these shimmering stones, even though the UN has lifted some Africa sanctions of late? Then head south for a mud diamond. One of the poorest states in America, Arkansas is also home to the world's eighth-largest diamond repository. It's not guarded by some strong-arm private concern; commercial mining never took hold here. This is Crater of Diamonds State Park: No refunds, no handguns, and no washing your muddy shoes in the restroom sinks.
For $6.50 a day you can keep what you find. And some 600 seekers – including young children and other rank beginners, some armed with kitchen sieves and tweezers – toted off brown, yellow, or white diamond varieties last year alone.
Today, Tim Tucker, a computer programmer from LaPorte, Ind., scratches at the surface with a knife. He's a dry-sifter who has been here 11 times in the past four years, usually after family reunions nearby.
"It's a lot of work, and it's muddy," he says. "I've probably learned 1,000 ways not to find a diamond." Mr. Tucker digs for fun, he says. He would sell anything he found over two carats.
Many diggers find chips best suited for homemade jewelry or souvenirs. But some serious gems have also been unearthed. The biggest of the 25,000 diamonds found in the park since its 1972 opening: the 16.37-carat gem named "Amarillo Starlight" by its Texas finder in 1975. An 8.82-carat stone was found six years later. A 1990 find – the "Strawn-Wagner" – weighed 3.03 carats in the rough before being cut and declared the most perfect diamond ever certified by the American Gem Society.
Interest in Crater of Diamonds began a new surge last year, says Rachel Engebrecht, park interpreter. That's about when the state – 100 years after farmer John Huddleston first realized his land had very special crop potential – decided to do some deep "trenching" near the West drain along the park's boundary to give diggers a hand.
Some quick results: 6.35-carat and 5.47-carat finds. The 4.21-carat Okie Dokie Diamond found by an Oklahoma state trooper made in onto "The Today Show," Ms. Engebrecht says. This year began with the highly publicized 2.67-carat yellow diamond found by Jim Gatliff of Delight, Ark. He named it "Star of Thelma," for his wife.
Instant wealth from the ground might just be the new lottery. Interest in gold panning has also spiked along with gold prices. Membership in one panners' association jumped 25 percent, to 40,000 last year.
But mining isn't all chance.
As the regulars here know – and good listeners like Anderson learn – the sand-and-gravel layers three to five feet down can be the richest spots from which to pull material for wet-sifting – or sluicing. Engebrecht demonstrates the "rock, tap, turn" motion that gathers heavier stones in the center of a wet screen. Then she flips it like a cake and begins probing.
"Skill is a factor," she says. Practice helps. She has seen some "pretty interesting" tactics tried. "People pitching dirt sideways into a big screen," she says, "all kinds of screen contraptions."
Most visitors here on a recent afternoon hunt casually, like beachgoers looking for sea glass. Cars in the lot bear plates from as far away as Colorado and Minnesota. Families roam in foam cowboy hats. Kids carry plastic pails.
Anita Terry, from nearby Heber Springs, is a first-timer here with her husband and their grandson, Caleb. She's not counting on a gem, she says, pulling up her hood against a cold breeze as Caleb flicks shovels of dirt into the air.
Mark Belter tries wet-sifting at one of the sluicing stations after watching Engebrecht's demonstration. He's just taking a break from post-hurricane rebuilding back home in Covington, La., he says. Today he's keeping his windbreaker clean.
Others are clearly more driven. In wading boots and gloves, Travis Christner, from Richmond, Mich., claws at the walls of a four-foot pit he has dug under a red umbrella not far from the marked spot where the 8.82-carat "Star of Shreveport" was found in 1981. He and his wife first came here last spring and found a quarter-carat brown diamond.
Mr. Christner knows another couple from back home who find a dozen chips or more here in a good year; they make small pieces of jewelry with their finds. Christner has dug for garnets, emeralds, and sapphires in North Carolina. But in this corner of Arkansas studded with onxy caves and crystal mines, he has something more precious on his mind.
"Diamonds are special," he says. "And where else can you go and just dig them up?"