At Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas, visitors can pay a $7 admission fee, grab a shovel and try their hand at diamond prospecting. The rule is "finders keepers." Over the past three years, annual visitation has tripled to 170,000, and in 2007 tourists pulled more than 1,000 precious stones from the ground. Some visitors use a special screen known as a seruca to wash and separate the heavier diamonds from the lighter debris. Others just get down on their hands and knees, squinting for jewels in the furrows. The 800-acre park holds out the hope, however slim, that just about anyone can strike it rich. Unfortunately, the park may also hold out a temptation for mineralogical mischief.
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Eric Blake, a 33-year-old carpenter, has been coming to Crater of Diamonds two or three times a year ever since his grandfather first took him there when he was a teenager. In October 2007, his hard work finally paid off with the discovery of a whopping 3.9-carat stone—nearly the size of the site's Kahn Canary diamond that Hillary Clinton borrowed for her Arkansas-born husband's presidential inaugural galas. It's the kind of rare find that's spectacular enough to attract national attention. Blake reportedly spotted the elongate, white diamond along a trail just as he was plunking down a 70-pound bucket of mud and gravel he planned to sort through.
His lucky stone could be worth as much as $8,000—if he can prove it came from Arkansas soil. In the year since his discovery, fellow collectors, park officials and law enforcement officers have started wondering how Blake and his family uncovered an unprecedented 32 diamonds in less than a week.
"We have a concern of maintaining the integrity of not only the park, but the state of Arkansas," says park superintendent Tom Stolarz, who caught a glimpse of the diamond as Blake was packing to leave the park. Although Stolarz is not a geologist, he has been at the park for 26 years and has handled more than 10,000 diamonds, paying special attention to large stones. Blake's rough-hewn gem was certainly a diamond to Stolarz's eyes, but was it an American diamond?
The answer is more important than one might think. Diamonds are merely crystallized carbon and today they can be created economically in a lab. But the stones fascinate people; the National Museum of Natural History's diamond exhibit, featuring the Hope Diamond, is one of the most popular destinations in the Smithsonian Institution. For many diamond buyers, history buffs and a quirky subculture of dedicated diamond hunters, provenance is everything.
Diamonds were discovered in Arkansas in August 1906, when a farmer named John Wesley Huddleston found a "glittering pebble" on his property. The next year the New York Times described "Diamond John's" treasure in epic terms: "The story of the discovery of diamond fields in one of the poorest counties of the not over-rich State of Arkansas reads like a chapter of Sinbad's adventures."
More than 10,000 dreamers flocked to nearby Murfreesboro, filling up the ramshackle Conway Hotel and striking up a tent city between town and the diamond field. It was not an easy life, says Mike Howard of the Arkansas Geological Survey. "Many people came, few people found," he says. "Most were gone within a couple of years." The majority of Arkansas diamonds, then as now, come in at under ten points, or about 1/10th of a carat. But in 1924, one lucky miner pulled a 40-carat monster out of the ground. Christened Uncle Sam, it remains the largest diamond ever discovered in the United States and a twinkle in every miner's eye.
A lot of funny business has gone on around the diamond field over the past century. After failing to gain full control of the area in 1910, the London-based Diamond Syndicate allegedly set up a sham operation to downplay the mine's potential and sabotage production, according to a Justice Department investigation. In 1919, two rival processing plants burned to the ground on the same January night, fueling rumors that someone was out to destroy the mine's profitability. In the late 1920s, Henry Ford was set to buy Arkansas industrial diamonds for his assembly lines, but the Diamond Syndicate and De Beers bribed the mine's owner to keep it out of commission. Shenanigans continued into the 1950s, when, for instance, an entrepreneur trucked some gravel from the diamond field to his own five acres north of town and plunked down a sign claiming he had a diamond mine. Locals found him beaten up in a ditch the next morning, according to a story one Arkansas geologist has told over the years.
The state of Arkansas purchased Huddleston's former property in 1972 and established Crater of Diamonds State Park, but that wasn't enough to ensure the site's integrity. According to the book Glitter & Greed by Janine Roberts, mining companies tried, and failed, to get legislation passed to open the park up for commercial exploration. By the mid-1980s, several companies were running aerial magnetic surveys to hunt for undiscovered pipes of diamond-rich rock outside the park's boundaries. "It was something else," says Howard, who recalls seeing their helicopters in motel parking lots. They identified one new pipe, but it was far too small to be worth exploiting.
In 1987, then-governor Bill Clinton put together a controversial task force to explore the Crater's commercial mining prospects. One diamond executive estimated it could hold diamonds worth $5 billion. The Sierra Club, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and Friends of Crater of Diamonds State Park fought unsuccessfully in federal court to halt the plans. By 1992, exploratory drilling was approved—with environmental caveats—and geologist Howard was assigned to keep abreast of the work being conducted by four mining companies. If the drilling had been successful, tourists would have been barred from the main pipe itself, although rock and debris would have been set aside for them to root through, and they could have toured the processing plant. Some locals were miffed; others looked forward to the estimated 800 jobs mining could bring to the economically depressed region.