« California's First International Jade Carvers Workshop | Main | Deborah Wilson: The Art of Jade »

Blue Gold

By Mike Burkleo

I believe every Jade hunter and most Jade collectors have the blood of the treasure hunter running through their veins. You can often find us sitting around a campfire or kitchen table planning a new adventure or reliving an old one. We marvel at the beauty, size and uniqueness of the treasure we all love, Jade.

Removing the Jade Boulder

It is therefore not unusual to recognize a kindred spirit as we cross each others paths. It happened just this way when I saw an old timer walking up to our tables at a gem show one day. He admired the key pieces of Jade on our table and the way he looked and held the jades told me he too was a treasure hunter and Jade lover. As we talked he shared some of his story and the more I heard the more I liked this big old guy with the friendly face and great stories about Jade. He invited me to visit and since he did not live far it didn't take long before I was knocking on his door and listening as he told me about the numerous Jades we looked over that day.

After a few such visits he told me of a Jade he came across in the Sierra foothills that was a beautiful blue and suggested we visit this place and get some . We would have to pay for each load we took but since he was good friends with the land owner we would get a good deal. Needless to say he didn't have to ask twice. Our first couple of trips didn't yield much because we were picking smaller pieces that were pretty much oxidized. A person who has ever come across a weather-worn oxidized Jade boulder would never believe it was Jade. In fact at times these stones can look like an iron stained piece of granite.

Close-up of Mike Burkleo with one of his blue jade slabs.

For the next trip we would move up to a four or five hundred pound boulder and see if the quality improved with the size. It did! We used hand winches to pull each piece into the trailer. The only problem was we chose a day where the temperature climbed to about ninety and one trip was all it took to realize this was intense labor. We decided to hire Tom's son for help on the next couple of trips. This worked well. However the key word was work, hard work. Because the quality of the last boulders improved, we decided to choose a larger boulder and see what it might produce. This meant modifying my rock trailer with an electric winch to pick up a one-to- two thousand pound stone. We were paying by the pound it also meant paying our host much more each time we collected. I added a three thousand pound electric winch to the trailer and we were in business. The first large rock we cut took our breath away. Not only did we see the beautiful blue cast jade but our eyes caught the flash of metal in the matrix of the Jade. Could it be? No it must be Iron Pyrite. My old partner Tom would get out his loops and microscope and swear he could see stringers of gold. I, afraid to hope for too much, would encourage him with the fact that even the gold color with the blue jade had great artistic and commercial potential.

A thin slab of translucent jade makes a great viewing piece.

Putting the issue of what the metal was aside, we decided to focus on getting as many of the boulders collected and cut as was possible in the next couple of years. If we could sell some specimen pieces in the meantime that would help offset our cost. Well it seemed as soon as we put it on the table at the Gem and Mineral shows people were drawn to it. We knew we had a hit but inevitably those who saw it would ask "where did you find this?" I would answer in vague non-descriptive explanations that would often frustrate the person asking the question. After a few such encounters Tom and I agreed that the exact location of the deposit would not be told to those who ask. Thereafter we would only tell people it was a Sierra Foothills Jade and the exact location could not be disclosed. It was about this time that Tom spoke to the land owner and established an agreement that we had exclusive rights to collect the Jade. This would be our resource until someone else found it on their own and then they would have to figure out how to take it from a land owner who had Smith & Wesson insurance.

One thought kept coming back to me during this time. How could the thousands of treasure hunters who scoured the mighty Sierras during the Gold Rush period have missed one of the great treasures men have cherished throughout history? Or for that matter, how could the geologist who studied the great serpentine deposits and the Tectonic Plates of the earths crust not have known California was rich with Jade? This the stone Chinese Emperors and Mayan Kings valued above all earthly treasure.

And here is the other side of this viewing piece.

I have also pondered this question each time I think of Wyoming, British Columbia, or Siberian areas that had seen much prospecting for hundreds of years and yet only in the last fifty years or so was their treasure discovered. A story I have heard told in California and read in books on Jade explains how the Chinese would provide ballast for the ships leaving San Francisco for China. The Chinese would use laborers from their own communities and the cost would be "most reasonable'. When the ships would arrive in China great care would be taken unloading the ballast . It has been said that much of this ballast came from the Feather River Canyon where Jade and green Idocrase (Californite ) is still found in abundance around the now deserted town of Pulga.

It is also in this area where on old California maps that you can find the city named "Jade" which now is beneath the waters of Oroville Lake. This is the part of the state where Howard Boots, "The Jade Man Of Paradise," collected river boulders up to three tons as well as Jade from in-situ deposits.

J. L. Kraft (of the Kraft Cheese empire) in his book on jade tells of how the Chinese gold miners in California's Gold Rush would not leave a stone unturned and yet years later when those early claim's were reworked by a new generation of miners they would find quite a bit of gold. He also notes that though these areas were strewn with Jade river boulders there were none on the former Chinese claims.

With the exception of the Chinese it seemed the Treasure Hunters of the Gold Rush, like most treasure hunters before and after them, turned the earth upside down to empty her pockets of treasure only to pick up a few pieces of metal, leaving Jade treasure cast upon the surface. This causes me to wonder who will come behind us and treasure what we did not?

It was different now. We were the Treasure Hunters and as we made trip after trip to the Jade deposit we would speculate on the potential of this blue stone and all the "what ifs" related to it. At times I'm sure we sounded like twelve-year-olds speculating on finding the original deposit or finding nuggets of gold in a solid blue Jade. Surely the Sugar Plum Fairy danced through our imaginations on those trips across California's San Joaquin valley and up the ever changing Sierra foothills. In late spring we would enjoy the beautiful Lupine and Indian Paintbrush, as well as California's own Golden Poppy, all painted on a canvas of green grass. As summer wore down, the colors would change to the dull gold of dry grass on the rolling foothills. When this happened the rock formations and the huge valley oaks that grew in the meadows would stand out and accent their form in contrast to the parched grass. In a way this is and I guess always will be part of the treasure that Treasure Hunters find in the hunt. From the time I was a boy I remember those times when I was so surprised by the beauty of creation that I would spontaneously utter the words "Thank You." This beauty in remote places is often the only reward a Jade hunter gets for his efforts. For me it has always been enough.

After two years of collecting we had taken all the pieces up to a thousand pounds and found we needed a larger winch to load the larger pieces. Through experience we learned that a three thousand pound winch could only load an eight hundred pound boulder due to the drag resistance. With many boulders much heavier than this still on the ground my partner Tom bought an eight thousand pound winch and I modified the trailer to give it extra support. The first rock we hooked onto was about twelve hundred pounds and it came out of the ground like a small fish on a big pole. Our only question was why didn't we do this sooner?

Mike Burkleo with some of his California blue jade.

We were now able to load any boulder our bank account could afford and our eyes were usually bigger than our supply of cash. Both Tom and I wanted at least one specimen piece that would remain uncut so we chose and loaded one each to keep as a record of the deposit. For the rest of what we collected we would use my large drop saw to cut each one in half and each of us take a half. We would wait for that first cut with much anticipation, sometimes the saw would finish cutting and the Jade would plop apart like an orange cut with a sharp knife. At other times the stone would be too large and would require us to turn it over so my three foot saw could finish the cut. In every case however the cut surface would reveal the quality of the stone we had chosen. Sometimes they were sensational and at other times they were not. Always though there was the sparkle of metal. When we would ask others what they thought the metal was some would say "Iron Pyrite" and others suggested gold. I would usually try to avoid the question by saying, "It really don't matter, it looks good whatever it is." Tom however was not going to settle for that answer and decided to take a piece to an assay office and have it tested. Ever leery of "Claim Jumpers," Tom took the sample to Reno, Nevada to be tested. When I heard this news I realized that we would never again be able to speculate on what metal was in the "Blue Jade." It would be a matter of fact with documentation. Well, I suppose I could always say, as I always had, "It didn't matter if it were Iron Pyrite it still looked good." No, I was tired of that cop-out and ready to embrace whatever the results were.

About a month after the Jade was submitted to the assay office I received a call one evening from my partner Tom. "I bet you can't guess what's in our blue Jade" he said. I replied "Iron Pyrite," with a tone of inevitable surrender. To this Tom said, "Maybe, but they didn't test for that...It's got gold and silver, platinum and palladium." Needless to say I was shocked and though the levels were not really high in the piece that was tested, in my estimation it was treasure indeed. We have decided to take another piece in to be tested and see if the yield is higher, only this time we will choose a piece that is loaded with metal. At the end of our conversation Tom said "You know I had to give it a name." I quickly responded "Well, which one did you choose?" "Blue Gold" he said, and though this was one of our favorite choices it just sounded so right when Tom said it.

That night I learned something about myself, I realized that for the first time in my life I was a "Jade Hunter" who was afraid to find out if he had really found treasure. From my earliest years of combing Jade Cove with my father I had learned how important it was to know, not only if you had found Jade but also what was the quality of the Jade you had found. If we are going to call our finds "Treasure," then we must be sure of these two things.

After years of collecting and hunting, Tom and I had each found many great pieces of Jade and treasuring every piece we were fortunate enough to find. It is an entirely different experience to go out and decide which of the many boulders before you that you will take home that day. Now we, like so many who have gone before us, could finally cry "Eureka." Although we may never locate the in-situe deposit, our Blue Gold is a Jade we will always remember as the stone earth gave us from her out-turned pockets, overlooked by others, but to us treasured.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.