Oregon’s many rock, gem and mineral shops see booming interest – OregonLive

Hans Neukomm, the owner of Neukomm Rock & Gem Gallery in Corvallis, splits his time between serving customers at his store and cutting and polishing stones in his studio at the back of the shop. He said he wishes he had more time to spend in the studio.Tom Henderson | For The Oregonian/OregonLive
A.K. Miles of Salem spent summers as a little girl traveling the Pacific Northwest with her grandparents, collecting rocks and helping her great-grandfather cut and polish them in his lapidary shop.
“My father called me ‘the girl with the heaviest pockets’ — always full of rocks,” Miles said.
She saw no one to dispute her father’s claim. Lapidary, the collecting and shaping of stones, was a hobby for old people. “I grew up the only kid I knew who collected rocks and read Rock & Gem and Arizona Highway magazines,” Miles said.
Now lots of people have heavy pockets.
Some carry stones and crystals with them constantly in the belief that these small chunks from the earth channel energy and promote health and well-being. Others simply appreciate their beauty and the geological science behind it.
Whatever the draw, growing interest in rocks is fueling small businesses in communities across the state. Even small Oregon towns often boast one or more shops catering to enthusiasts.
Hans Neukomm, the owner of Neukomm Rock & Gem Gallery in Corvallis, said business has been rock solid — even during the pandemic. In fact, the change in habits forced by the coronavirus may have even helped his family business, Neukomm said.
Hans Neukomm, the owner of Neukomm Rock & Gem Gallery in Corvallis, maintains what he calls a "rock buffet" of the smaller stones increasingly popular with his customers.Tom Henderson
“I’ve seen an uptick in tumbling, collecting, polishing and the whole hobby,” he said. “It’s been a great, fun and safe thing to be doing during quarantine.”
Angela Piller of the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals in Hillsboro also sees a growing trend.
“I definitely see more people collecting rocks and being interested in geology in general,” said Piller, the museum’s collections manager.
Many people come to the museum with metaphysical beliefs, she said, but that hardly incompatible with the museum’s scientific mission.
“That ties into our mission to educate and inspire,” she said. “Someone comes for whatever reason, and they come in with one thought in their minds, and they come away with more information about geology. I don’t see a conflict between those things.”
Miles cuts and polishes her stones fashions them into jewelry in her home in rooms set aside for rocksmithing and silversmithing. She sells her creations through Etsy and other online venues.
Her interest in rocks and crystals is purely aesthetic and scientific, she said.
“There is definitely a piece of me that is a natural-born collector,” she added. “I have my fancy rocks and rocks that look like faces. I also have a very scientific bent. I find it extremely fascinating how these stones were formed.”
Miles’ passion for rocks has hardly kept her indoors these past two years, Miles said.
“It’s a pretty big piece of my life,” she said. “Last year, four of my trips with my daughter were rock-based. Our longest trip was to Montana to go to the sapphire mine.”
On the other hand, Miles barely has to step outside her door in Salem to find carnelian — a brownish-red mineral commonly used as a gemstone.
“It’s all over the place in the Willamette Valley,” she said. “I find it all the time in gravel beds in this part of Oregon. When you polish it, it becomes like beautiful drops of honey.”
A.K. Miles of Salem shapes a rock using a diamond grinding machine. She uses a dopstick to protect her fingers.Courtesy of A.K. Miles
Miles credits the increasing number of people sharing her hobby to numerous factors, especially technology.
“It’s a lot easier to find things,” she said. “People used to make their own grinders before eBay, Facebook and Craigslist made tools and equipment easier to find. Then again, one of the bad things about the Internet is that people with very little research or know-how can find out where to get something and blast it right out of the ground.”
True, said Piller. There are a lot of unscrupulous rockhounds underfoot who defy the law and common decency. However, she said, there are also many enthusiasts who not only collect rocks but go on additional excursions to repair the land that has been scarred by their uncaring counterparts.
As with Miles, Piller’s love of rocks started when she was a child. They didn’t know each, but Piller was another little girl with heavy pockets.
“When I was kid, I was going to the beach and picking up shiny rocks,” she said. “I had my own little rock garden. Being around rocks and minerals makes me feel good. I think about the past and how they came to be.”
She studied geology in Portland State as well as mineralogy and petrology.
“Geology is very different for me than other sciences,” Piller said. “You have to have an understanding of other sciences to understand geology. Looking at rocks forming a cliff, for example, you have to understand chemistry and physics. You have to be a little bit of a detective.”
Some rocks contain amino acids, the building blocks of life itself. “It may look like a little crumb of a rock, but to me, it’s very special,” Piller said. “It fills me with awe.”
Piller turned her awe into being a volunteer and later a professional staff member at the Hillsboro museum.
Chris McGrew turned his into starting C&H Family Jewels Rock and Lapidary with his wife Hollee seven years ago on Oregon 99W north of Lafayette.
C&H Family Jewels and Lapidary is a rock and gem shop near Dayton.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian
As a boy, he hunted for rocks and panned for gold with his father in rural Yamhill County. “It’s been in my blood since I was a kid, so it was really easy for me to take on a shop,” said McGrew.
Both McGrew and Neukomm cut and polish their own rocks in shops behind their stores.
Neukomm’s uncle, Kurt Neukomm, was a prominent jeweler in Burgdorf, Switzerland. Neukomm himself fell in love with unique rocks during camping trips to Eastern Oregon before collecting them to polish and shape.
McGrew said people like Neukomm and himself may be among the last of their kind.
“I think it’s becoming a dying trade,” McGrew said. “There’s not a lot of us doing the lapidary. Few people do any cutting and polishing.”
The rock business poses enough unique challenges that McGrew plans to convert part of his building into a convenience store.
“Up above, it’s going to be a rock shop,” he said. “It’s really hard to hire for this business, so we’re trying to find something we can legitimately hire for, but we’ll have a rock shop forever — even if we sell more food and beverages than rocks.”
Still, he said, he sells a lot of rocks.
“When I first opened, I noticed a lot of people wanted lapidary equipment,” McGrew said. “In the past four or five years, it’s been more about metaphysics and the healing power of crystals. People don’t want to take a pill to feel better. I can understand where they’re coming from.”
Neukomm said many of his customers are also interested in metaphysics, but being located in Corvallis, he sees people come to his store for a wide variety of reasons — some geology students, some metaphysics enthusiasts, and some who just think rocks are neat.
Jewelry and small stones are the biggest sellers, he said. McGrew agreed. “People want smaller stones, pocket stones, something they can carry around with them,” McGrew said.
Angela Piller describes exhibits in the main gallery of the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals in Hillsboro. The main gallery includes more than 4,000 individual specimens from a working collection of more than 20,000. Photo by Tom HendersonTom Henderson
As more people become interested in geological formations, Piller said she just wants little girls with heavy pockets to know what they’re carrying on.
The Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals was created in 1997 in the former home of Richard and Helen Rice. The couple built the home in 1952, designing the basement specifically to display their personal mineral collection. An additional museum building was constructed in 2005.
“We want to give people context for what they see around them and why it is what it is,” Piller said. “Every crystal that is formed is unique. You’re never going to find another one like it.”
C&H Family Jewels Rock and Lapidary, 4270 N.E. Blanchard Lane, Dayton, is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The telephone number is 503-583-5030.
Neukomm Rock & Gem Gallery, 2259 N.W. Ninth St, Corvallis, is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The telephone number is 541-936-1715.
The Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals, 26385 N.W. Groveland Drive, Hillsboro, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Reservations are encouraged. Its phone number is 503-647-2418. Its website is ricenorthwestmuseum.org.
More information on A.K. Miles is available at www.instagram.com/gildedtroutcollection.
— Tom Henderson | For The Oregonian/OregonLive
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