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Panning for Gems in Virginia

Amethyst crystals are just one of the many minerals that can be found in Virginia.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

With over 400 minerals within its borders, the state of Virginia is a true playground for the avid rock and gem hunter. These minerals range in difficulty of recovery. Some may seem almost impossible to dig out of hard matrix rock. For those with more interest in finding Virginia's gemstones than power to wield a mallet and chisel, panning for gemstones is often a very welcome alternative method of hunting for many types of specimens.

Panning Gemstones

When people think of panning, they most often think of gold panning. You can do that in Virginia. There is a lot of gold in the tributary streams of the Potomac river. You can also pan many gemstones that can be found in the state as well, though. Some of the state's gemstones, such as halite, a sulfate, will dissolve in water. Those that do not dissolve, such as beryl or quartz, can have the crystal form worn down by the currents and necessitate other means than form to identify. Desirable gemstones such as sapphire and garnet are excellent gemstones to pan.

Panning Equipment

Panning equipment can be bought or easily made. You can buy classifiers that have any size grid you prefer. They can be purchased for around $10. You can build a screen sifter yourself by building a wood frame with a one or two-inch depth around a screen. Cut a thirteen-inch square of screen. Cut eight two by four lengths of screen. Four of the boards should be a foot long and four should be eleven inches. Frame the screen with the boards on all sides and over and under, pressing an inch of screen between them, then nail the top and bottom of the frame together. You will need a shovel to scoop material for panning.

How To Pan Gemstones

In a stream bed, dig material to pan, and put it in your screen or classifier, then submerge the screen and shake the dirt and debris from the pan. Sort through the cleaned material for gemstones. If you are in an area that the gemstones may be weathered from a rock outcrop or cliff, dig at the bas, and put the dirt in a bucket. Take the bucket to a creek, and pan through the material, just as you would if you had dug the material from a creek. If you want instruction on panning gems, you may want to visit a fee dig, such as the Morefield Gem mine in Amelia, Virginia.

Where to Hunt

Minerals can be panned in many areas of Virginia. Amethysts are found in Amherst County South of the town of Amherst. In Amelia County garnets, pyromorphite and topaz can be panned along with moonstone, beryl, tourmaline and quartz. In Sussex County, east of the fall line, petrified wood can be found in the gravel deposits of many of the rivers. Corundum (sapphire) is a favorite of Virginia gemstone panners. It can be found in the streams of Patrick, Henry, Campell and several other counties of the state. Remember to dig a little ways for sapphire, because it is heavy and will sink toward bedrock.

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