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Emerald miner finds passion for geology

HIDDENITE, N.C. — HIDDENITE, N.C. -- Jamie Hill is talking again about the emeralds he finds in the bedrock of this tiny town. He tells his story the way only he can.

A thin hand drawn quickly through his tousled hair, he begins a long stream of consciousness that is hard to follow. The tangents are many, and Hill salts his monologue with fantastic claims and cliches: Hiddenite is a treasure chest, and he's found Aladdin's cave.

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"I say it's a giant oven in the earth," Hill says, referring to the pocket of crystals he and his assistants discovered beneath Hiddenite's gray gneiss rock. On Dec. 10 Hill pulled out an emerald crystal that could be the largest ever found in North America.

A hyperactive college dropout with a bottomless enthusiasm for rock hunting, Hill has tapped a store of world-class emeralds, playing out the kind of dream that makes men jealous and women interested. He has embarked on a life alien to this rural foothills town, where most people work conventional jobs, don't hurry and try to mind their own business.

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Though he did not realize it growing up, his family and surroundings shaped him into an explorer who has the attention of gemologists and scientists around the world.

"I think a lot of people have intuition and instincts for things," said Hill's mother, Lynn. "I think Jamie has an inbred instinct for finding things."

As a boy growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., Hill loved the outdoors and visited his grandparents, R.Y. and Eileen Sharpe, every chance he had. The Sharpes lived parttime in their native Hiddenite, a sleepy place then, in the 1960s, and now. They were multimillionaires, thanks to R.Y.'s trucking business, Pilot Freight Carriers.

But Hill values another thing they shared with him on his visits -- their love of Hiddenite and its unique geology.

"He always looked for minerals," says Eileen Sharpe. "When he was a little boy, he came up here and dug in my yard."

Hiddenite has been associated with precious gems since the 1870s. It is one of the few spots in North America -- and one of just two in the United States -- where emeralds are found.

New York mineralogist William Hidden hunted platinum here for inventor Thomas Edison's light bulbs. According to local lore, a farmer found a green rock while plowing and showed it to Hidden. Named "Hiddenite" in his honor, the hiddenite mineral is one of the world's rarest gems because it is found only in this area, though it's so rare there is not a commercial market for it.

Hill's father, James Hill Sr., was a science teacher. He would hold young Jamie and his sister, Berry, on his lap and flip through natural history books, Lynn Hill remembers. James Hill died when Jamie was 7, but those books drew her son outdoors, where he fished and hunted arrowheads.

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In 1990, using only a screwdriver, Hill found a 300-pound quartz in the Hiddenite woods. By 1992, he was devoting his energies to exploring the area.

"I bought an old rubber tire backhoe so I could ride around town and knock on doors and ask farmers if I could dig on their land," Hill says. "Needless to say, I had a lot of doors shut in my face."

He studied the prospectors before him and tried to figure out why they failed. "A lot of people found rock and ran," he says.

Methods a secret

He keeps his methods close to the vest, but he says his success is somewhat due to a combination of learned skills about rock and how to dig, and a bit of the divine. In 1995, Hill moved to Hiddenite, borrowing money and pawning belongings to fund his digging. Family and friends told him to forget the rocks and get a job. "I went over $200,000 in debt before I ever saw my first piece of green," he says.

Dale Fox, a construction contractor, and Mike Cookson, a landscaper who worked for Lynn Hill at a Hiddenite inn she owns with Eileen Sharpe, started helping Hill dig. Fox, beefy and laid-back, eventually convinced Hill to use dynamite to chew away the gneiss.

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Cookson, a quiet, cautious man who moved here from Maine, tries to rein in Hill's enthusiasm, advising him not to dash to the nearest acquaintance to show off his finds. "He's sometimes a Don Quixote," Lynn Hill said, referring to her son, "and Michael is sometimes a Sancho Panza."

Shortly after Jamie Hill moved to Hiddenite, Hill's mother and grandmother were looking for more land for their inn. He found a large parcel outside town that was part of an old gem mine. "Something hit me that this property has much more possibility," he says. "I said, 'Can you afford to get another 50 acres over here?' "

They bought the extra land, and Hill soon started digging. He found his first major haul, an 88-carat emerald, in 1998.

The land continues to produce, including this month's emerald, an estimated 1,861.9-carat wonder that Hill plans to sell.

'A big one'

"This is a big one," says Tyler Clark, chief geologist for the North Carolina Geological Survey. "It's our hope that his work will solidify North Carolina's claim of being the emerald capital of North America."

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Hill's mining has changed Hiddenite very little.

More out-of-state tags are seen here in the warm seasons, and the former Hiddenite Cafe is now the Emerald BarBQue. But life here remains simple. People work in furniture factories, tobacco fields and chicken houses during the week and go to church on Sundays. They talk about Hill's emeralds and the prospect of others like them. But most don't get caught up in his fever.

"I live less than a mile from where his mine is," says James Cowan, who raises horses. "But I'd hate to dig up my farm."

Stella Brookshire, 82, grew up here but has never searched for precious stones. A handful of strangers stop in her store, Hiddenite Yard Sale, each week to ask directions to the one public mine that survives in a town where they once dotted the landscape.

"When we're off away from here, people ask you where you're from." she says. "We used to say between Hickory and Statesville, and they'd say, 'Where?' Now we say we're from Hiddenite, and they say, 'Oh, that's where those gems are.'"

In some ways, Hill, 39, has not changed since finding his first big emerald.

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Lots of debts

He does not drive a fancy car. He has a tab at the local Trio Supermarket. "I'm going to pay you," he says to Trio manager David Canter on a stop there recently. Canter smiles. "I guess he's emerald rich and money poor," he says after Hill breezes out, hardly causing a ripple in the unceasing flow of customers.

The money from the emeralds -- the crystal found in 1998 and one earlier this year -- has gone into repaying years of his accumulated debt and then into the mining. Hill says he raises funds from investors besides that.

In other ways, Hill's world has taken on new dimensions. Companies hire him to give motivational speeches. Letters addressed, "The Emerald Man, Hiddenite, N.C.," find their way to his mailbox. Strange women ask him to marry them, sending him pictures of themselves in bikinis and wielding pickaxes.

"Some woman from Arkansas or somewhere will call and say, 'Is he married?' " the twice-divorced bachelor says with a sheepish grin. "That's kind of creepy."

Guards patrol Hill's mine with shotguns. He says people have tried to rob him twice, once when he was in New York for a magazine photo shoot and once when someone trailed him after a show of one of his gems. "I know not to travel with [emeralds] anymore," he says. "I always have security."

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Hill cultivates his celebrity, calling reporters when he unearths something valuable, handing out publicity stills of himself in an Indiana Jones-style hat. But he is private enough that he will not tell where he lives.

"He's a bit of a character," says Michael Wise, a mineralogist at the Smithsonian Institutes in Washington who started studying Hiddenite's geology after Hill approached him. "One of the nice things about Jamie is that he's not only interested in finding emeralds, but he wants to know why they're there. That's a rare thing these days."

Hill says he will keep digging; no matter what his latest find he never got into prospecting for the money: "The world needs a treasure hunter now anyway."


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