AK Miles from Salem spent summers as a little girl traveling the Pacific Northwest with her grandparents, collecting rocks and helping her great-grandfather cut and polish them in his lapidary workshop.
“My dad used to call me ‘the girl with the heaviest pockets’ – always full of rocks,” Miles said.
She saw no one to challenge her father’s claim. Lapidary, the collecting and shaping of stones, was a pastime for the elderly. “I grew up the only kid I knew who collected rocks and read Rock & Gem and Arizona Highway magazines,” Miles said.
Now many people have deep pockets.
Some people constantly carry stones and crystals with them, believing that these little bits of the earth channel energy and promote health and well-being. Others simply enjoy their beauty and the geological science behind it.
Whatever the draw, the growing interest in rocks is fueling small businesses in communities across the state. Even small towns in Oregon often have one or more enthusiast stores.
Hans Neukomm, owner of Neukomm Rock & Gem Gallery in Corvallis, said business was strong even during the pandemic. In fact, the coronavirus-enforced change in habits may even have helped his family business, Neukomm said.
“I saw a slight increase in tumbling, collecting, polishing and all the hobby,” he said. “It was a great, fun and safe thing to do during quarantine.”
Angela Piller of the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals in Hillsboro also sees an upward trend.
“I definitely see more people collecting rocks and being interested in geology in general,” said Piller, the museum’s collections manager.
Many people come to the museum with metaphysical beliefs, she says, but that’s hardly incompatible with the museum’s scientific mission.
“It ties in with our mission to educate and inspire,” she said. “Someone comes for whatever reason, and they come in with a thought in their head, and they leave with more information about the geology. I don’t see a conflict between those things.
Miles cuts and polishes her stones to make jewelry at home in rooms reserved for jewelry and silversmithing. She sells her designs through Etsy and other online sites.
Her interest in rocks and crystals is purely aesthetic and scientific, she said.
“There’s definitely a part of me that’s a born collector,” she added. “I have my fancy stones and stones that look like faces. I also have a very scientific bent. I find the way these stones were formed extremely fascinating.
Miles’ passion for the rocks has barely kept her indoors for the past two years, Miles said.
“It’s a pretty big part of my life,” she said. “Last year, four of my trips with my daughter were rock-based. Our longest trip was to Montana to go to the sapphire mine.
On the other hand, Miles only has to walk through his door in Salem to find carnelian – a brownish-red mineral commonly used as a gemstone.
“It’s all over the Willamette Valley,” she said. “I find it all the time in the gravel beds in this part of Oregon. When you polish it, it becomes like beautiful drops of honey.
Miles attributes the growing number of people sharing his hobby to many factors, especially technology.
“It’s a lot easier to find things,” she says. “People made their own grinders before eBay, Facebook and Craigslist made it easy to find tools and equipment. Again, one of the downsides of the internet is that people with very little research or know-how can figure out where to find something and blast it off the ground.
It’s true, says Piller. There are plenty of unscrupulous rockhounds underfoot who defy the law and common decency. However, she says, there are also many enthusiasts who not only pick up rocks, but go on extra excursions to repair the ground that has been scarred by their indifferent counterparts.
Like Miles, Piller’s love for stones began when she was a child. They didn’t know each other, but Piller was another little girl with deep pockets.
“When I was a kid, I would go to the beach and pick up shiny rocks,” she said. “I had my own little rock garden. Being surrounded by rocks and minerals makes me feel good. I think of the past and how they appeared.
She studied geology in Portland State as well as mineralogy and petrology.
“Geology is very different to me from other sciences,” Piller said. “You have to have an understanding of other sciences to understand geology. Looking at rocks forming a cliff, for example, requires understanding chemistry and physics. You have to be a bit of a detective.
Some rocks contain amino acids, the building blocks of life itself. “It may look like a little rock crumb, but to me it’s very special,” Piller said. “It fills me with admiration.”
Piller turned his fear into a volunteer and later a professional staff member at the Hillsboro Museum.
Chris McGrew transformed his by starting C&H Family Jewels Rock and Lapidary with his wife Hollee seven years ago on Oregon 99W north of Lafayette.
As a child, he hunted rocks and panned for gold with his father in rural Yamhill County. “It’s been in my blood since I was a kid, so it was really easy for me to pick up a store,” McGrew said.
McGrew and Neukomm cut and polish their own stones in stores behind their stores.
Neukomm’s uncle, Kurt Neukomm, was a prominent jeweler in Burgdorf, Switzerland. Neukomm himself fell in love with unique rocks on camping trips in eastern Oregon before collecting them to polish and shape them.
McGrew said people like himself and Neukomm could be among the last of their kind.
“I think it’s becoming a dying profession,” McGrew said. “Not many of us do the lapidary. Few people do cutting and polishing.
The rock business poses enough unique challenges that McGrew considered converting part of his building into a convenience store.
“Upstairs will be a rock store,” he said. “It’s really hard to hire for this business, so we’re trying to find something we can legitimately hire, but we’ll have a rock store forever – even if we sell more food and drink than rocks.”
Yet, he says, he sells a lot of stones.
“When I first opened, I noticed a lot of people wanted pithy material,” McGrew said. “In the last four or five years, it was more about metaphysics and the healing power of crystals. People don’t want to take pills to feel better. I can understand where they come from.
Neukomm said many of his customers are also interested in metaphysics, but being located in Corvallis, he sees people coming to his store for a wide variety of reasons – geology students, metaphysics enthusiasts and others who just think the rocks are neat.
Jewelry and small stones are the biggest sellers, he said. McGrew agreed. “People want smaller stones, pocket stones, something they can take with them,” McGrew said.
As more people become interested in geological formations, Piller said she just wanted little girls with heavy pockets to know what they’re doing.
The Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals was established in 1997 in the former home of Richard and Helen Rice. The couple built the house in 1952, designing the basement specifically to display their personal collection of minerals. An additional museum building was constructed in 2005.
“We want to give people context for what they see around them and why it is,” Piller said. “Each crystal formed is unique. You will never find another like this.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
C&H Family Jewels Rock and Lapidary, 4270 NE Blanchard Lane, Dayton, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The phone number is 503-583-5030.
The Neukomm Rock & Gem Gallery, 2259 NW Ninth St, Corvallis, is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 541-936-1715.
The Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals, 26385 NW Groveland Drive, Hillsboro, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Reservations are encouraged. His phone number is 503-647-2418. Its website is ricenorthwestmuseum.org.
More information about AK Miles can be found at www.instagram.com/gildedtroutcollection.
–Tom Henderson | For the Oregonian/OregonLive