Talking Rock with The Bozeman Gem and Mineral Club

Angie Ripple

Rockhounds keep their heads down and eyes on the ground most everywhere they go, especially along riverbanks and mining claims. The Bozeman Gem and Mineral Club is home to over 200 local hounds and rock-hunting hobbyists out to find the next gem, agate, crystal or other keepsake for their collection.

The Bozeman Gem and Mineral Club began in 1939, and is the oldest and largest rock club in Montana, hitting over 200 members as of January 2017. Hitting the 200 mark put them in the top 2 clubs in the Northwest Federation of Mineralogical Societies in terms of growth since 2007. BGMC members meet monthly at Willson School in Bozeman to listen to guest speakers and bid on specimens at a silent auction. They also gather on weekends at their clubhouse in Belgrade, cut and polish rocks and minerals and learn lapidary skills. The club sponsors collecting field trips throughout MT, ID, & UT from April - November, and maintain two mining claims in Montana. The mining claims give club members access and opportunity to dig for quartz and semi-precious gemstone crystals.         

One snowy afternoon in April 2017, I met BGMC’s President -- Brad Somers -- and Past President Ken Zahn to talk rock. Both Brad and Ken have been collecting for several decades. Brad specifically recounted his first find, a native-American arrowhead, on the banks of a stream when he was a young man. The arrowhead spurred Brad to keep his head down and continue looking for the next great find. He has since been collecting gems, specifically sapphires, for the past 30 years. His favorite find is a 2 1/2 carat color-change Sapphire found along the Missouri river about 12 years ago. This particular sapphire changes in color from purple to green depending on the angle of the light hitting it. Ken has two favorites, a piece of Williamsite collected in Maryland at a chromium ore mine in the 1980’s, and a Red Beryl from Southern Utah found on a dump at a mine in the 1970’s. Williamsite is a very rare translucent variety of serpentine, valued for its translucence and jade-like color. Ken had his small egg-sized piece of Williamsite carved in Hong Kong into a small tree and bird, and intends to gift it to the Smithsonian in the future. The ten-carat Red Beryl  comes from the same mineral family as green emerald, but Ken’s piece is a beautiful rose color, and is mounted on a small clear pedestal stand.

Rockhounds like Ken and Brad bring many of their favored finds to rock shows, like the May BGMC show in Bozeman, to show them off and spur interest for new hobbyists. Once a year the Bozeman Gem and Mineral Club holds a gem and mineral show, the show’s primary purpose is to acquaint the general public with the hobby of rock collecting and share the beauty of, and fascination with, collections on display. This year the Bozeman show will be held on Mother’s Day weekend at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds, Building #1. This is a great opportunity for Bozemanites to view and/or purchase world-class mineral specimens and also a great chance to learn more about (or join) the club.

The Gem and Mineral Club weekend show will include a raffle featuring a large Brazilian Amethyst plate for which only 100 tickets will be sold, and there is an opportunity to win high-quality donated items from vendors, a silent auction running all weekend and a Garnet sorting table that is fun for all ages. On display will be 22 cases of gems and minerals displayed by club members featuring specimens from all over the world and specimens they have collected themselves. An additional 18 vendors from multiple states and internationally will be selling gems, minerals, fossils, beads, jewelry, home decor and more.

Rockhounding isn’t just for the older crowd, youth as young as six years old have joined the Bozeman club. An achievement-award program sponsored by the Northwest Federation is suitable for kids of different age groups. Kids can earn up to 20 achievement badges as they learn about a wide variety of rockhounding subjects. Two of the most active kids in the club favor geode collecting, general geology and beginning lapidary.

If you are looking to get out on your own and start your gem and mineral collection, there some easy places nearby Bozeman, including any creek or riverbed. Crystal Park is presumably the easiest place to start. This 220-acre site in the Pioneer Mountains near Dillon holds a huge cache of quartz crystals throughout the decomposed granite landscape. Clear quartz, smoky quartz and amethyst are quite easy to find in the park with simple hand tools (no other tools allowed). Portal Creek in the Gallatin Range about 5 miles north of the Big Sky turnoff (then 6 miles east on Portal Creek Road) is known to have a good deposit of agatized petrified wood. Both the Sweetwater Basin and Alder Gulch areas are great for garnet and corundum digging. Hyalite Canyon just south of Bozeman holds galena, barite, jasper/agate, and small fossils. It shouldn’t take you long to begin a collection of your own.

For anyone interested in gems and minerals, or individuals who would like help with mineral identifications, the Bozeman Gem and Mineral Club Show is a great place to bring questions or specimen. Club members will be wearing blue vests at the show; anyone with a blue vest will be happy to talk rock and answer questions. The show starts Saturday May 13 at 10am and goes until 6pm. Sunday hours are 10am-4pm. Admission is $3, good for both days, Mothers are $2 on Sunday, kids 12 and under are free with an adult. Rock on!   

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