Unearthing the Hidden Gems of New Mexico's Mineral Mines

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Unearthing the Hidden Gems of New Mexico's Mineral Mines

Stay up-to-date with what's happening in New Mexico

 Stay up-to-date with what's happening in New Mexico

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How a community of mineral collectors rallied around a major new find, pulled it out of the earth, and reinvigorated the rockhound game.

Blue-green and purple fluorite dominates the Blanchard Beast.

IT’S AS IF THE EARTH IS CALMLY GIVING BIRTH HERE, high atop a wind-chewed mountain on the eastern edge of the Río Grande geological rift, while mineral field collectors Bradley Culebro and Michael Eggleton are coaxing fluorite crystals from the dust. Detonations from the White Sands Missile Range boom out in the southern distance, amplifying the moment the gems hit the air.

It’s about 45 minutes until sunset. That’s according to my intermittently receptive iPhone, whose case is made with fluorine, an element we’re digging. We are here on the eve of the 43rd annual New Mexico Mineral Symposium. The three-day conference draws rockhounds, geologists, and gem enthusiasts to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, in Socorro, about 40 or so miles east of us. It takes a half hour or more of jaw-rattling, all-wheel-drive negotiations with the rock-studded dirt road to get safely down the mountain from this privately owned mine. No one wants to make that drive in the dark. But despite the waning amber light and raw November gusts that feel like they could sweep a person over the edge and down the nearly 2,000 feet below with one poorly considered move, nobody wants to leave.

Michael Eggleton marvels at a cube.

A couple of hours ago, the 27-year-old digging partners began showing a few symposium field trippers—me, photographer Stefan Wachs, and Mel Huffman and Nancy Parsons, owners of The Crystalary rock shop in Cincinnati—how they collect minerals on the surface of the earth. (Entering any mine adits and going underground requires a more complex set of permissions and liability waivers.) The claim we’re on is owned by Culebro and Eggleton’s friends, who allow the duo to surface-collect mineral specimens there, provided they’re up front about their finds. Having dug the area many times before, Culebro and Eggleton never expected to hit upon that first perfect cube today.

Now they’re all in, bellied down on the ground with fire in their eyes. Culebro deploys a chisel and a rock pick to tease out fluorite and galena as Eggleton uses his bare, callused fingers to probe for distinctive structures. “You feel the geometry,” he says. “You’ll feel really smooth faces and sharp edges, and then you’re like, Oh, that feels like it could be something! It’s always a thrill.”

They’re pulling out the kind of cubic complexity, color, clarity, and luster that sparks a gleam in the eyes of sellers and collectors—that is, once the crystals are extracted intact, transported safely off the mountain, and professionally cleaned. A flat rock behind them holds a growing pile of glinting new treasures. Huffman and Parsons, whose Ohio shop is helping to finance the duo’s latest finds, dig with glee alongside them. The pale dirt has settled over all of us.

from left Michael Eggleton holds a fluorite octahedron; Nancy Parsons uses a smartphone light to see inside a crystal.

The rush that comes from prying rare earth minerals from the grasp of the mountains leads rockhounds to spend weekends, holidays, and sometimes entire lives in pursuit of specimens from geologic events that popped off millions of years ago. But at this year’s symposium, Culebro and Eggleton—with the support of Blanchard Mine claim owners Ray DeMark and Michael Sanders, and a web of passionate field collectors—are about to ascend to a new level of rock stardom.

Less than 48 hours after we get off this mountain, the two skateboarders-turned-prospectors will break the full story of how they discovered a major new fluorite pocket with several extra-large museum-quality specimens—including the one known as the Blanchard Beast, which is estimated to weigh between 1,100 and 1,300 pounds.

In short, these dudes are about to win the science fair.

Bradley Culebro and Michael Eggleton went from skateboarding to crystal mining.

“THOSE GUYS MOVED THAT POCKET from 10 to 12 feet in and extended it another 40 feet,” says John Rakovan, while standing in front of the Blanchard Beast the next morning. The wedge-shaped Beast is awkwardly large enough—around five feet long—to be resting in a temporary place of pride in the hall outside the Mineral Museum.

Rakovan is the state mineralogist and senior museum curator at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. “This was one of the last pieces at the back of the pocket,” he adds. “It was on the ceiling, and they dropped it down. What amazes me is they got this thing up to the front of that pocket, which was a very circuitous route.”

from left Blanchard Mine claim owner Ray DeMark; Owner Allison Cameron at Blanchard Rock Shop, surrounded by historic photos.

Farmington-based professional field collector Erin Delventhal, who presented a history of the Blanchard at the 2019 symposium, remembers visiting the mine in late May during the six weeks Culebro and Eggleton spent living in the pocket, extracting specimen after specimen before they tackled the Beast. “I crawled in the hole and I looked at it,” Delventhal says. “I thought there was no way they were getting that thing out of there.”

The Hansonburg Mining District is one of at least 30 barite-fluorite-galena deposits that run along the Río Grande in southern New Mexico. Rakovan charts their course from the western edge of Kirtland Air Force Base to an area south of Las Cruces. “The Hansonburg is the biggest,” he says. The district’s Blanchard Mine, near Bingham, produces gorgeous fluorite specimens known internationally for their quality, as well as a signature darker hue called the Blanchard Blue. Some of the world’s largest linarite crystals have also been discovered in the northern portion of the Oscura Mountains.

Calcium fluoride is used as a flux in the aluminum industry and is a source of fluorine for hydrofluoric acid production.

A small crowd accumulates, eavesdropping on Rakovan’s speculative but authoritative histories of the specimen’s formation. As he speaks, everyone’s eyes travel admiringly along the contours of the specimen, tracing its blue-green and purple bulbs of fluorite and reliefs of milky quartz and galena.

“Fluorite is one of our mineralogical highlights,” Rakovan says. “For its size and quality, the Beast is one of the best specimens preserved from New Mexico.” Two generations of fluorite decorate it. In terms of layering, green came first. Deep purple followed. “We see a very distinct difference in the chemical patterns of these different generations of fluorite. That tells us that there had to have been a change, probably in the source fluids and their timing,” Rakovan says, describing the geological events that made these contrasts occur. “But how long was the gap—a year? Ten million years? We don’t know.” The deposits have an age range from three million to 12 million years old. All the mysterious timelines therein are written in their geometry, shine, and hue.

Outside the Blanchard Rock Shop.

“IT SOUNDS LIKE THE DEFINITION of insanity to me,” wrote one rockhound on Facebook when the Beast was posted by the Mineral Museum. Rockhounding is an inherently dangerous hobby, especially for newbies, and it’s populated by legends and miscreants alike. Thanks to the General Mining Act of 1872, which allows all United States citizens the right to stake a claim on federally owned lands open to mineral entry, generations of prospectors have preceded Culebro and Eggleton at the Blanchard. The most immediate is the team of DeMark and Sanders, who made several noteworthy finds at the mine beginning in the late 1980s, including a narrow room lined with linarite and a large barite specimen with fluorite crystals that lives at the museum.

DeMark, the primary claim holder since 1987, tells a story about taking a visitor into a gypsum cave south of Bingham some decades ago. “I crawled in there about 20, 30 feet, and this rattlesnake started off next to me,” he says. “I about kicked my visitor’s teeth out trying to back out.” The next day, Sam “Rattlesnake” Jones, who once owned the Blanchard Rock Shop—in addition to two pet bobcats—went to the cave and pulled “about six prairie rattlers out of a snake pit in there.”

Allison Cameron, the current owner of the Blanchard Rock Shop, tells visitors the cautionary tale of a German geology professor. “He had gone underground where he wasn’t supposed to be and was hammering above his head,” she says. “A five-and-a-half-ton slab let loose and squashed him. It liquefied him. They shipped the remains back.”

A group of rockhounds in the Hansonburg Mining District.

An article about the tragedy is posted in the store, where Cameron sells shimmering mineral specimens from all over the world, including local fluorite and Trinitite, the glassy residue left from the Trinity nuclear test site, which is located a little more than 20 miles south of Bingham. Cameron also allows visitors to pay to dig on her own nearby claim, the Desert Rose.

For decades, the Blanchard Mine has been prospected by DeMark, Sanders, and field collectors who are granted special access to do surface collecting at their own risk. That’s how Culebro and Eggleton, who both hail from the East Coast and are just a few years into the prospecting game, first laid eyes on the Blanchard Beast.

The two semiprofessional skateboarders met in 2020 in New York City while filming a skate video. During the pandemic, Culebro traveled the country and lived out of his car, but the two kept in touch, occasionally collaborating on cryptocurrency investments. A year later, they found themselves at another friend’s house in Los Angeles, watching videos about prospecting and talking about wanting to dig for crystals. Over the past decade, semiprecious gems have increased in price by nearly 250 percent, but Culebro and Eggleton seem just as motivated by the geometry and beauty of their finds.

At the symposium, a smithsonite crystal from the Kelly Mine in Magdalena, Enchanted Minerals LLC.

“We were watching this YouTube video of some prospector guy,” Culebro remembers. “He’s holding up crystals and bragging about how much they cost. It was cringey. The video ends, and we look at each other. We both said the same thing: ‘We’re sicker than this dude.’ We were like, Let’s do this.”

With no tools at their disposal, the fledgling rockhounds set off in Eggleton’s baby-blue 1967 Chevy Caprice, intent on digging for tourmaline in San Diego County’s Pala Mining District. “We were driving the Caprice on roads like these,” Culebro remembers in the Hansonburg District, shaking his head. “We almost bottomed out a couple of times.” Over the next year, they traveled to mines and camped out, finding topaz in Utah and smoky quartz in Connecticut. When the Caprice was totaled, they acquired a beat-up Suburban with a pair of custom-built beds in the back.

From left, Don Boushelle and Brian and Cody Schwenk dig at the Desert Rose claim.

Culebro and Eggleton have absorbed much of their mineralogy online, particularly at, the internet’s best repository for information about minerals and their provenance. They met other rockhounds on the road, including Maxwell Novetzke, a 23-year-old fellow skateboarder and collector who was finishing up his bachelor’s degree in neuroscience at Westminster University in Salt Lake City last year. On his 2023 spring break, Novetzke and 26-year-old digging partner Christian Shackelford invited Culebro and Eggleton to the Blanchard Mine for a short surface-collecting trip.

On the last day, Shackelford wandered away from the rest. “I was trying to see if I could get cell service,” he says, “so I went a little higher up the mountain.” He stumbled upon an overhang with a small crack that looked promising, peered inside, and dug for around five minutes. “I started finding really fantastic specimens,” Shackelford says.

He summoned Novetzke. “I reached my arm in, and I started wiggling the rock,” says Novetzke. “I pulled out this perfect basketball-size, 360-degree, undamaged ball of like, 30 to 40 purple and green fluorites. It was like a disco ball.”

Shackelford and Novetzke had to leave, but the finds they pried out convinced Culebro and Eggleton to stay. The duo tunneled in nearly 12 feet before finding a 50-foot cavern room that was riddled with incandescent green bulbs. “It was just like a little igloo,” Culebro remembers, “and they looked like ice cream scoops.” They dubbed it the Ice Cream Igloo and kept going—camped out high on a mountain amid gusty spring winds, early summer monsoons, and the constant detonations of the missile range—until they found the Beast.

Fluorite is one of the Blanchard Rock Shop’s biggest sellers.

AT THE MACEY CENTER, WHERE THE NEW MEXICO MINERAL Symposium presentations take place, the multigenerational team of DeMark, Sanders, Culebro, and Eggleton gets a standing ovation and more than a few cheers at the end of their slideshow. The riveting tale of how they schemed to get the Beast safely down from the mine involved funding from The Crystalary and a track hoe operated by Fred Ortega, a northern New Mexico–based mineral collector and Taos Ski Valley equipment professional.

Swimming in thrift-store suits bought several sizes too big as a joint fashion statement, Culebro and Eggleton seem to have injected the mostly gray-haired symposium crowd with fresh energy. “You could tell how excited the community was about it,” Delventhal reflects later. “It’s been awhile since anything like that happened here. Some of it is gumption. Part of it was the luck of finding it. You go out field collecting, and probably nine times out of 10 you don’t really find anything.”

Collectors at the Comfort Inn, in Socorro, peruse specimens during the symposium.

Some rockhounds, especially in northern New Mexico, ascribe a neutralizing quality to fluorite, which is said to increase powers of concentration, self-confidence, and decision-making. Blanchard Rock Shop owner Cameron’s not so sure. “If crystals were healing, I don’t think there’d be so many things wrong with me. I think God made these for us to see in all their glory,” she says. “Anyway, I think the Blanchard Beast is a world-class museum piece.” (Experts interviewed for this story were reluctant to place a value on the Beast for fear of vandalism.)

Bill Hall, a Ruidoso-based collector we meet on the mountain, says he’s learned from 50-plus years of experience that the thrill of rockhounding often lies in the ways it makes you realize your own humanity. Chatting with Culebro about his adventure, Hall muses, “Anytime in this hobby or profession, or whatever you want to call it, when you’ve extracted it, physically pulled it out of the ground, you realize nobody’s seen that for millions of years. You’re the first human being.”

Read more: What could have been an ordinary classroom at New Mexico Tech University instead holds a fabulous collection of minerals from around the world.

The specimen travels to the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase in late January before returning to Socorro’s New Mexico Bureau of Geology Mineral Museum in February. Senior museum curator John Rakovan says the Blanchard Beast may be purchased by the museum at New Mexico Tech if funding can be raised—otherwise, its destination may be a private collection or another institution. Other specimens from Culebro and Eggleton’s 2023 dig will remain at the museum, which also shows rotating exhibits of approximately 15,000 specimens.

Headen Center at New Mexico Tech University, Bullock Boulevard and Leroy Place, Socorro; 575-835-5490.

Michael Eggleton (left) and Mel Huffman inspect a wall at a friend’s claim.

“It’s like hiking with a purpose,” says Farmington-based field collector Erin Delventhal of hunting for minerals. “It’s a way to be outside and connect with nature. You just go to the middle of nowhere and play with some rocks for a while. I find it really therapeutic.”

For new rockhounds, Delventhal recommends joining local gem and mineral clubs. “Having that community of people that you can ask questions of as you’re learning is a really good idea,” she says. Gem and mineral shows occur year-round in New Mexico. Sellers, collectors, and enthusiasts share knowledge and resources at these weekend events. “The Pecos Valley Diamonds are very easy beginner collecting,” she adds, referring to doubly terminated quartz crystals found in southeastern New Mexico.

Collector Christian Shackelford says he’s pulled great specimens from pay-to-dig mines, including Allison Cameron’s Desert Rose claim near the Blanchard Rock Shop. Cameron recommends a stop at Bill’s Gem and Mineral Shop in Magdalena, where you can pay owner Grace Dobson to dig at the Graphic and Nit mine dumps. Plan to also visit the Rocks Ore Minerals store in Cimarrón and Rockhound State Park, near Deming, but in general, rock shops all over the state offer information on dig sites and other resources. With more than 50,000 members, the New Mexico Rockhounds group on Facebook is the place to share photos and ask questions.

At the New Mexico Bureau of Geology Mineral Museum, in Socorro, see specimens, grab geology guides, and talk to the curators. Download a PDF with collecting rules, rock club info, and more.

The number-one rule cited by any field collector is “Never dig above your head.” Beyond that, says New Mexico field collector Erin Delventhal, “With new finds, people are energized to get out there. But you can get killed if you don’t know what you’re doing. You can get arrested.” Clubs often schedule field trips, which offer a chance to get to know areas where it is safe and legal to collect specimens.

Avoid abandoned or closed mines, and investigate the laws regarding where you’re allowed to collect. “Never go into something you don’t know about,” says collector Christian Shackelford, who entered an unknown adit in Utah for less than three minutes before feeling lightheaded. “I could barely walk, my vision was closing in, and for days afterward, I felt loopy. I’ll never do that again.”

Delventhal, who knows of at least one death from a collapse that occurred during surface collection, recommends bringing water, a helmet, and gloves, along with a screwdriver and Geo Pick. A partner in digging tends to keep matters safer, but a third party should also be informed in advance of anyone’s rockhounding destination, just in case.

The best web resource for mines and mineral collection information is

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Unearthing the Hidden Gems of New Mexico's Mineral Mines

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