Mining for California Gemstones & Tourmaline in San Diego


Museum Curators, Gemologists, Jewelers, and Rockhounds from around the world descend on northern San Diego County looking for the perfect specimens to add to their gem collections. California’s gemstones came to notoriety during the latter part of the 19th century when abundant pockets of high quality gemstones were discovered in the Mesa Grande and Pala Districts of San Diego County. A number of famous California gem mines are now open to the public.

Pink Tourmaline Desired by Royalty
tourmaline-gemsThe most sought after California gemstone following the first discovery was pink tourmaline. Empress Dowager of China had a passion for pink and red gems. When high quality pink gems were found in the local California tourmaline mines, she and other prominent Chinese bought nearly all of the 90 tons of pink tourmaline mined in San Diego through the end of China’s royal dynasty. The pink tourmaline collected by the Empress is now on display in museums, including the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Due to the high prices paid by the Chinese for pink tourmaline, very little attention was given at the time to green and watermelon tourmaline dug out from the same pegmatite dikes in the mountains. In subsequent years, they became easy finds for gem prospectors.

Top Gemstone Collections Expanded
Since the time of overwhelming Chinese demand, specimens of tourmaline, beryl, kunzite, topaz, quartz, lepidolite, aquamarine and other gem stones found in the San Diego mountains have been coveted by collectors and museums around the world, including Tiffany & Co., American Museum of Natural History in New York, British Museum in London, and Musee d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.  One of the more magnificent finds named the Candelabra Tourmaline was put on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

california-gemstoneSan Diego is a Haven for Gemologists
With over 100 years of gem mining, San Diego County continues to be both home and destination for the world’s top experts in gemology. San Diego is home to the headquarters of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the leading educator of gemologists and the creater of the 4 C’s of diamonds, and the Accredited Gemologists Association (AGA), the leading international association of independent gemologists.  Locally based gem experts serve as keynote speakers at international gem and mineral conferences and precious stones found in local mines continue to be profiled with cover stories in Rocks & Minerals magazine.

Tourists Given Access to Mines Producing Precious Gems
Since the local mines have been opened to the public, they have been frequently featured on the Travel Channel. However, tourist information on visiting the mines is often hard to find since most travel guides focus on San Diego’s more well known attractions such as SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, LEGOLAND, and 70 miles of beaches.

So, for those looking for a little more sparkle on your vacation, TourGuideTim Reveals San Diego is happy to present the following tourist guide for visiting the California gemstone and tourmaline attractions in San Diego. Select the link for each of the gem attractions noted below for more details.

san-diego-gemsTravel Guide for Gem Mining Attractions

Fallbrook Gem & Mineral Museum – A great place to see a variety of gemstones without getting your hands dirty. Gems come from San Diego and beyond. Be sure to check out the dark room where you will see displays of minerals that sparkle under ultraviolet light. Afterwards, enjoy window shopping and lunch in the quaint village of Fallbrook. Gem Museum Details.

The Collector – Just a three-mile country-road drive past thickets of bougainvillea is one of the top gem shops in the region owned by a former miner who unearthed some of the most magnificient gems ever found in the San Diego mountains. In addition to spectacular jewelry and gem pieces, visitors can take a look in a re-creation of a gem pocket designed in a small room at the shop. The Collector Details.

Oceanview Mine – This is the best place to visit and get your hands dirty mining for your own gems if you don’t mind making advanced reservations. You will get to unearth a variety of California gemstones and take a tour of an active mine. It is just 7 miles east of highway I-15 and you will find the staff goes out of their way to help make sure kids have a great time. Oceanview Mine details.

Himalaya Mine – This is the most famous of the California tourmaline mines because it produced nearly as much tourmaline as all of the other mines combined. Visitors will find a preponderance of tourmaline as you sift through the pilings looking for gems. It is located farther east of I-15 (30 miles) and does not offer a mine tour but no reservations are needed and it is nearby the beautiful Lake Henshaw Overlook. Himalaya Mine details.

Gems of Pala – Located near the Oceanview Mine, the Gems of Pala provides visitors buckets of pilings from the famous Stewart Mine, which was home to the largest local mining operation during the Chinese Dynasty’s period of great interest in pink tourmalines. Gems of Pala provides the cheapest mining option since they charge by the bucket rather than one set fee for a period of time, which is the pricing method used by the other mines. It is an easy and inexpensive way to find gems if you only care to look through a bucket or two of pilings. Reservations are required and they do not offer a mine tour. Gems of Pala details.

Gemology Books
The staff at the gem mines will help you identify the gems you find. You will probably meet some rockhounds, who will usually help you out as well since they love collecting gems and minerals. However, it might behoove you to read a little about gems before visiting the gem attractions or even buy a guide book to help you learn to identify the gems on your own. Two popular books that complement each other well are Gemstones (Smithsonian Handbooks) and A Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals (Peterson Field Guides). For an alternative, buy Guide to Gems (Firefly Pocket series), which has a very nice map of North America showing where you can find different gems, including those found in San Diego, on page 216.

Find More Attractions with Similar Themes or Location: Kids Attractions & Activities, North County Inland, Pan for Gold & Gems |

One Response to “Mining for California Gemstones & Tourmaline in San Diego”

  1. When I was a kid we dug through the tailings at the Stewart Lithia Mine and found a whole bunch of great little watermelon tourmalines. Haven’t been that way in years, but I guess it’s now called “Gems of Pala”.

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