PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - While copper and gold mines have played key roles in Arizona’s history, a small mine on Four Peaks, east of Phoenix, holds a treasure, truly unique to the state.
A combination of quartzite, iron, silica, water, heat, and pressure formed crystals millions of years ago. The iron in the rock mixed with the crystal to form a purple hued amethyst.
The only other place these gems are found on Earth, is Siberia.
A small mine, called The Four Peaks Mining Company, operates between the third and fourth "peak," and is owned by Kurt Cavano.
The New Jersey-based software developer is an amateur geologist and gem enthusiast by heart.
He bought the mine 20 years ago.
"This whole area of Arizona was covered in quartzite. Techtonic forces squeezed Arizona, and under great pressure, the rock became plastic and bent and snapped," he explained.
When Cavano purchased the mine, it was only big enough to crawl into, single-file.
"It was claustrophobic and frankly, just plain stupid. You'd crawl in, scrape away at the rock, and then crawl back out with a bucket," he said.
It has taken two decades to dig out a cavern, tall enough to walk into for several yards. The ceilings and walls are reinforced now with lumber.
Almost immediately, you can see veins of purple amethyst on the walls. Much of it is covered with dust and other rock, but in several spots the gems stand out and glow under a light.
The mine produces one thousand pounds of amethyst every six months.
"When we get it, we can't tell if it's any good or not," Cavano said.
The gems are cleaned and sorted, and reduced from one thousand pounds to fifty pounds.
The remaining amethyst is sent to cutters in Thailand, and reduced again down to a couple handfuls of "really good amethyst" per year. The gems are turned into jewelry.
The most expensive single stone the mine has ever produced was sold at an auction for $20,000.
Arizona amethyst has its own unique role in history.
Native Americans first used the sharp-as-glass gems as arrowheads.
The Spanish Crown is rumored to have purple Amethyst from Arizona, as well.
"We think of ourselves not as miners, but as stewards of amazing Arizona history," Cavano said.
That mentality explains why some of the most stunning examples of amethyst are untouched in the mine.
"We want to leave that in place, to show people how beautifully it appears naturally in nature. We're not just up here blasting away,” he said.
The mining process involves no blasting at all. Instead, miner Mike Blank, and his wife Tai, scrape away slowly at the rock with screwdrivers, carefully extracting chunks of crystals.
Blank is a third generation miner. His father and grandfather worked in copper mines.
"I don't know anything but mining, and working in gemstones like the holy grail for a miner," he said.
Life above 7,000 feet brings its own unique challenges. Miners have to hike several miles in, and live here for weeks at a time.
A helicopter periodically flies in with food, tools, and other supplies.
Lately, it's been bringing pieces of a new cabin for the miners to live in, to replace an old shed.
They collect the rain in barrels, but showers are still rare.
"We use a gallon or two of water, which is just enough to get the stink away," Blank laughed
Their only "luxury" request is cherry Coke.
"It's tough, but I love the solitude," Blank said.
The solitude is only broken by wildlife, which has included a few bears.
"One time the miners were all stuck in the cave because the bear wouldn't leave," Cavano remembers.
"Another time he came down the mountain trying to scare us, and he did," Blank laughed.
The Blanks rotate with other miners, and someone is stationed at the mine at all times, for security reasons. Several times, people have tried to break in.
When they're not mining, the crew spends time fixing things damaged by mother nature.
Torrential rains in October washed out the trails. In the winter, miners brace for feet of snow on the peaks.
They spend the rest of the time upgrading the mine. They spent an entire year digging an escape tunnel, and installing an exhaust system.
"This is more of a hobby than a profession," Cavano explained, citing the constant need for reinvestment into his mine.
In a good year, the mine will gross gems worth $100,000, which he says is just enough to keep it operating.
"We could follow this vein of amethyst forever, so who knows what we will find in the next 20 years," he said.