Charles Vargas is one of the few Apaches born and raised on San Carlos Reservation who left to get a college education and work in the outside world. That experience helped him recognize the treasure he and his tribe had been sitting on for more than a century: peridot.
When I visited the reservation in 1997 with Elana Verbin, then-editor of Colored Stone magazine, Vargas showed us around and told us stories about the peridot he grew up with. His mother remembered playing games as a child with the little green stones scattered around the reservation. No one paid them much attention, although local trading posts would buy them for a few cents on the dollar.
After returning to San Carlos, Vargas began mining peridot and, in 1993, launched Apache Gems. San Carlos has since become one of the world’s primary sources of gem-quality peridot.
When the U.S. government designated a large chunk of central Arizona as an Apache reservation in 1871, they had no idea how mineral-rich it was. Silver and copper were discovered there a few years later and the government began re-appropriating large sections – including the area in nearby Globe where the coveted Sleeping Beauty turquoise is mined.
Some of that land was returned to the reservation in 1972. San Carlos Reservation now covers 1.82 million acres, about half its original size.
Mining on San Carlos is still done primarily by freelancers with pick and hammer. When I took these photos to accompany Elana’s story, the mining operation had just transferred to a new location on Peridot Mesa. A couple local miners were working the side of the canyon with a pick. A few yards away, a mother and her 5-year-old son were picking at the chips with a gardening fork, filling a mason jar and sawed-off Coke can with greenish pebbles that would be tumbled for beads. After a couple hours, she brought the jar to Vargas. He handed her $30 and she left with a smile to buy some groceries.
Vargas told us he encouraged this and tried to get people to come to him directly so outsiders wouldn’t try to scam them, as traders had been doing for generations. Folks on the reservation weren’t looking to get rich, he explained, just to get by. “Gold and gems are not seen as valuable goods but as a loaf of bread or a box of diapers,” he told us.
At the time, tribal elders were worried about losing control of the mine and Vargas was working hard to keep profits on the reservation. A decade ago, when the last census was taken, San Carlos was one of the poorest reservations in the U.S., with almost 59 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. Vargas worried the tribe’s dependence on government subsidies would lead the U.S. to claim some of its mining operation.
Thirteen years later, Vargas is still running Apache Gems and only members of the San Carlos tribe are allowed to mine Peridot Mesa. You can find Apache Gems jewelry at galleries and museums, including the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Autry National Center in Los Angeles, and the reservation’s own cultural center.
Thanks to Vargas, many folks on the San Carlos Reservation are now trained lapidaries with a solid understanding of geology. Yet individual wealth is still not highly valued. “You could tell someone that there’s sapphire over there in that ground and the stones go for $10,000 a carat and they’d say ‘that’s neat,’” he told us.
Sapphire had been found on the property not long before and Vargas was hopeful that more was on the way. But while many other gems have appeared, including opal and, more recently, fire agate, peridot remains the tribe’s bread and butter.
Peridot Mesa produces mainly small stones with good yellow-green color – the kind that sell for about $97 to $175 per carat these days, according to the latest edition of Antoinette Matlins’ Colored Gemstone. Gem-quality peridot weighing five or more carats is rare and can cost $165 to $275 per carat. I also hear the San Carlos mines are more carefully guarded these days.
So far, so good.