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Carroll County Times
Carroll County Lifestyles

An Eye for Art: Couple’s travels bring rock treasures home to Westminster

Ashby’s Agates is a business owned by local craft people Denise Ashby and Brian Ashby of Westminster. They are rockhounds, lapidaries and jewelry designers.

Denise has always been crafty. “I have tried all kinds of craft projects while decorating my home. I have painted furniture, done some stenciling and created wall art from textiles. I’ve done scrapbooking, made greeting cards and even upholstered furniture for our own use,” Denise said. “There’s an incredible sense of satisfaction in creating something.”

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Working with stones was a logical step when they inherited some minerals from Brian’s father. Denise remembers Brian handing her an ad back in 2007 from a local beading shop offering a wire-wrapping class. She took the class and was hooked. They decided to start a business selling the wire wrapped stones that Denise used to create pendants.

Brian’s family has always been involved in rockhounding. His great aunt and uncle had a rock shop in Oregon. “My whole family traveled across the country every year and often spent time at their shop, joining them on rockhounding expeditions. We camped and hunted for rocks including fossils, petrified woods and agates,” he said.

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Brian is a tinkerer. He likes machines and the intricate mechanics of many things. Mastering the rock tumbler was easy because his family always had one running in their garage. It wasn’t until he purchased a second-hand table saw for rocks and refurbished it to do what he wanted it to do, that the relationship with lapidary really started to develop. He does a lot of research, reading and experimenting. He also talks to lapidaries (people would make decorative items out of stones), not only about technique and methods, but also about the successes and failures that one encounters working with stones. A lot of alternative engineering goes into the design and set up of this equipment and this is one of the many pieces of the process that Brian enjoys.

The couple always liked traveling out west so they began to plan their trips around rockhounding in some favorite places like Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. They go west to collect stones because there is a lot of public land there, unlike the east coast. Rockhounds are allowed to collect stones in national forests and land owned by the Bureau of Land Management.

So where do they find stones? “Some stones are on top of the ground and some you have to dig for. There are known locations that rockhounds can visit. Great stones are found where you see a shift in the geology, creek beds or a geological aberration. Where different strata meet is also a sign that there might be some good stones. If you look at a hill where the colors change or there are anomalies in the ground, chances are pretty good there will be some good stones there,” Brian said.

“We were slowly driving down a road in Idaho, just seeing what we could find, and I was looking at the side of the cliff,” Denise said. “A slash of red goes by and I said stop, back up. We found something pretty special there. It was called a Sonora Sunrise that is a combination of green Chrysocolla and red Cuprite, a good combination of copper minerals.”

They ship 100-150 pounds of stones back home from their trips west.

There is a famous place in Oregon called Richardson’s Rock Ranch. “They have a ranch rich in minerals. They dig pits with an excavator and for a fee, rockhounds can search for rocks there. The Richardson’s bought the inventory from Brian’s aunt and uncle’s rock shop when it closed. “The owner sat and talked with us and knew Brian’s family,” Denise said.

There is a rock museum at the Richardson’s that houses much of the Ashby family’s original collection from their shop. “We feel like rock royalty when we visit. Everyone knew the Ashbys,” Denise said.

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The artistry begins when Brian begins working with the stones. First, he cuts them into slices like cutting a loaf of bread. Then, he and his wife use shaped templates and closely examine each slab to decide where to make the best cut. “When we are working with something like picture jaspers from Oregon, it’s important to find just the right place that showcases the picture in the stone. Jaspers and Agates are in the same quartz family; however, Japers are solid in appearance and agates are translucent,” Brian said. There is an intense trimming and polishing process that Brian accomplishes and then Denise wraps sterling silver wire around them to make pendants.

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The Ashby’s have a workshop at their home they open to the public during the Carroll County Artists’ Studio Tour every December and they have an open house at their studio in the summer. They do 12-14 shows each year, participating in many local craft venues, including the Sykesville Fine Art and Wine Festival, and Art in the Park.

“We do not sell online or in stores. We are good story tellers and many of our customers like the story behind the stone. They enjoy the crazy story about where we went to find it and we can often show them a photograph of where we found it. People like the connection,” Denise said.

“The best part of our craft business is traveling out west and running the back roads. We don’t see anyone. We don’t bother with cities and we see so many beautiful parts of our country. We pack our camping gear in one suitcase and fly. We rent a truck and just go,” Denise said.

“Spending time together is the best part for me,” Brian said, “Looking for rocks is the excuse.”

They have a Facebook page titled Ashby’s Agates.

Lyndi McNulty is the owner of Gizmo’s Art in Westminster. Her column, An Eye for Art, appears regularly in Life & Times.


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