March 19, 1998
MASON -- There is a shortage in this scenic Hill Country town. People talk in hushed tones about it; visitors probe the town square, their noses pressed against merchants' windows.
They want topaz, the official gemstone of Texas, and it's found only here among the granite hills and sandy creek beds. But it isn't unearthed easily. The locals who have it won't let it go. They keep it secreted away in shoe boxes. Those who search for it used to find it quickly, but they don't anymore.
"We would never promise anybody they'd find topaz," said Dixie Seaquist, who with her husband, Michael, charges $10 a person to hunt the gemstones on their 1,600- acre ranch. "The truth is, if you do find any, you're just lucky."
At the Hoffmann Ranch, another spot where the public can range the hills in search of the valuable stones, a caretaker concedes that the pursuit is often fruitless."The topaz has pretty well played out," he said.
Topaz was first recognized in Mason County in 1904. Old-timers remember stumbling onto the quartzlike gemstone while searching the creek beds for arrowheads. Sometimes the stones were so big, they could be used as doorstops. But it was the arrowhead that had value in those days. The topaz was just another pretty rock.
Mason County boasts the largest gem-quality topaz crystal ever found in North America. It is a 1,296-gram pale blue crystal that now resides in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Most pieces are considerably smaller, generally less than a couple of inches long with a diameter of less than an inch.
Texas topaz is usually colorless to white, though some of the most beautiful and startling gemstones are in the light-blue to sky-blue range. In color, size and clarity, Texas topaz is considered among the best in the United States. "Mason County is known for the best-quality stones," Seaquist said. "We have a lot of geology classes from the University of Texas come out here to look for it." But they don't find much.
In the late 1960s, the Legislature recognized topaz as the official state gemstone. Then, in 1974, a San Angelo physicist and his brother, a science teacher, came up with a special way to cut the stone.
Called the "Lone Star cut," the intricate, computer-designed cut creates the image of a perfect five- pointed star in the center of the stone. By 1997 it was recognized as the "Official Gem Cut" of the state. The beautiful, geometrical design can be used on any number of stones, but it fits the Mason County topaz perfectly.
"We have three gem cutters here in Mason," said Tommie Campbell, owner of Antique Emporium on the town's square. "They don't have time to do anything but the Lone Star cut. It is extremely popular. Almost all the natives around here have one. The newcomers want them, and we're inundated with tourists wanting them." Prices generally run from $40 to $50 a carat, depending on the size of the stone and its purity, Campbell said.
Wilburn Shearer is one of the Mason cutters. He retired from the highway department in 1990, but because of his skill with the Lone Star cut, he has remained busier than he expected. "I'm just about caught up now," he said from his home on the town's west side. "I'm going to retire again. I never did this as a business anyway. It was always more of a hobby." Shearer was born and raised in Mason. As a boy, he hunted the cedar-studded hills for arrowheads with his father. In the 1950s, he said, he began collecting topaz knowing that someday he would find a use for it.
Now, all that he has left fits comfortably into a small medicine bottle. "I started cutting stones back in 1955," he said. "I bought a used faceting unit and read rock magazines. I taught myself through trial and error. I began cutting the Lone Star cut in 1977, ever since those two boys from San Angelo did it." Now he is nearly out of stones, but he doesn't seem to mind. "I've cut a lot of stones for local people," he said. "I have no idea how many I've cut, but it's been a bunch. "Now I want to play golf."
He and his wife, Faye, are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and he said they plan to spend as much time as possible on the nearby links. And, Dixie Seaquist said, all is not lost if you don't find topaz on her family's ranch. It's only $10 a day to look, and at this time of year, the real gems are the bluebonnets and other wildflowers that bloom among the granite rocks and sandy banks of Honey Creek. "It is very rustic, very rugged," she said. "We have a cinder-block shower and a restroom. It's not elaborate, to say the least. But at this time of year, we'll have a lot of people."
Visitors simply stop by the Nu-Way convenience store in town to pick up a key to the ranch. "You can still find topaz out of those ranches," Tommie Campbell insists. "You just have to dig a little deeper, stay a little longer. "And always after a really good rainstorm or flood, a new vein is found. New stones are cut."