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What is Benitoite?

Benitoite is a rare blue barium titanium cyclosilicate, found in hydro-thermally altered serpentinite. It forms in low temperature, high pressure environments typical of subduction zones at convergent plate boundaries. Benitoite fluoresces under short wave ultraviolet light, appearing bright blue to bluish white in color. The more rarely seen clear to white benitoite crystals fluoresce red/pink under long-wave UV light.


History of Benitoite

During 1906 James Couch and his family owned a ranch near Coalinga where they grew produce and chickens. In 1907 the economy slowed down much as it is doing now and he decided to prospect some areas south of New Idria Mines that he had heard stories about from some of the locals.

From the information that I received as a kid growing up at New Idria Mines, many of the local families who worked for the mines as wood choppers and later hauling oil from Coalinga to the mines, knew James Couch and considered him a friend. Frank Nunez and Joe Larios, local miners who where born and raised in the New Idria area knew him well and always spoke fondly of Couch to me.

Couch was grubstaked by a Coalinga oil man R.W. Dallas. Couch headed out from Coalinga up Los Gatos Creek canyon road, and about night fall found himself on the head waters of the San Benito River. Seeing that there was abundant grass and water he made camp. Morning light showed him a little rocky exposure on the northern side of the canyon that caught his attention. Closer examination of the outcrop showed an eroded pocket of white rock with bright blue crystals sticking out all over, realizing this could be something important Couch collected a quantity of the material, in his words, "blue crystals were lying all over the ground." He returned immediately to Coalinga to show his find to Dallas. Later that week Couch rode three days, one way, by horseback to Hollister the county seat to file a federal mining claim.

When it was proven the gemstone was a new species, things began to change for Couch as Dallas reigned in more control of the mine. Couch was manipulated out of the mine and became nothing more than a hired hand.

In those days they didn't know anything about etching the Natrolite to uncover the Benitoite and thousands of stone were broken in the recovery process. Dallas worked the mine from 1907 to 1912, digging a tunnel to intersect the outcrop. From 1912 to 1920 all mining ceased at the property.

The old county road goes right by the mine and during this time many a collector would stop and lug away chunks of natrolite boulders studded with broken Benitoite crystals to put in their rock gardens. Frank Nunez's grandmother had such a rock garden in Sawmill Creek, and when a forest fire burned her cabin nobody remembered the Benitoite rock garden till many years later when Benitoite got expensive, by then the site had become lost and over grown. A forest fire also burned down the log cabin and corrals at the Benitoite mine.

After 1920, B. Suit of the San Benito Gem Company leased the location but little work occurred until 1933 when the property was reopened by M. Dunn who removed a lot of material. It seem Dunn also had a Packard touring car that was went off the road one winter when the roads where very bad. My brothers and I recovered its brass radiator one summer in a canyon near San Benito Mountain.

In the early 50's Mr. M.F. Hotchkiss leased the mine and proceeded to bulldoze the old dumps looking for large pieces of veined blue schist to treat with muriatic acid. Meanwhile collectors came and went.

About 1952, Mr. C.L. Cole of Oakland, California acquired the lease and reopened the original pit. Cole had a rock shop in Oakland where you could see big plates of Benitoite crystals displayed in his store front windows. Cole was a friendly gentleman eager to talk "rock" to any who would listen. He sold several nice faceted stones to some of the miners at New Idria Mines, including Mrs. Virginia Shadduck the store manager. That's how my father found out about Benitoite, talking to Mr. Cole at the New Idria store. So one weekend on long change my dad packed us all up and hauled us off to the Benitoite Mine, to visit Mr. Cole. Later our whole school went there on a field trip and one kid found a spectacular specimen in some bushes.

Ms. Josie Scripps even leased the mine for one year and hired local miner Leonard Knipper to do some dozer work for her.

In 1967, Bill Forrest and Buss Gray acquired the lease and about ten years later purchased the property. They removed some really spectacular plates of Neptunite and of course Benitoite. Tom Palmer of El Paso, Texas bought some of the Neptunite. Palmer and I were joint venturing in the late 70's on some of my claims in Clear Creek and was happy to show them to me.

In the mid 1990's Kennecott Corporation was considering entering the gem stone business and took a lease on the mine. They did some core drilling and sampled much of the surrounding countryside. But their board of directors opted for a mica mine in Arizona.

The year of 2000, Brian Lees of Colorado purchased the site from Forrest and Gray. He brought in a real mining crew and worked the mine for five winters. The current owner Dave Schreiner bought the mine from Lees in 2005. Dave's vision was to open the mine to collectors. Since it is probably the most famous gem location in the world, and is on everybody's list of "places to collect."

So now thanks to Dave Schreiner you have that opportunity, please join us while you can.

by Leza Junnila