Agua Nueva Agate - Gem Shop Mining History
If you catch her on the right day, President of The Gem Shop, Veronica Woods, will be wearing a black hoodie. This particular hoodie has a printed vinyl logo of a cut stone that had been the face of The Gem Shop for many years. The company founder, Eugene Mueller, currently has this polished specimen on a glass shelf in his basement. This iconic nodular agate, with orange, red, pink, yellow, and black banding, originated near Hacienda Agua Nueva, on Rancho Los Nogales in Ciudad Chihuahua, Mexico.
Rancho Los Nogales was owned by Señor Jaime Creel, a distinguished entrepreneur from Chihuahua, until he passed away on February 2nd, 2017. This cattle ranch has one of the earliest established haciendas, dating back to the late 1600's. Don Creel came to own this establishment through inheritance, as the Creel-Terrazas family is a highly influential and powerful family from in the Ciudad Chihuahua area. The hacienda was first owned by Luis Terrazas, who served four terms in office as governor of the state of Chihuahua, and at one point owned a total of seven million acres of ranch land. The hacienda is located in the Sierra del Gallego, 120 kilometers north of Ciudad Chihuahua, and 20 miles north-northeast of Ojo Laguna, bordering the southeast side of Rancho Coyamito Norte. Hacienda Agua Nueva historically served as a settlement, serving as a compound of the owner's house, workers' quarters, workrooms, a chapel, gardens, and fortifications, including a watchtower where guards would be stationed.
Brad Cross, author of the book, The Agates of Northern Mexico, that inspired works like Johann Zenz's Agates photographic trilogy into existence, describes the hacienda through the following excerpt: "Hacienda Agua Nueva conjures up a surreal image of a ruined palace, still possessing its faded grandeur today. Its typical Spanish-style architecture with its hand-carved stone pillars, quarried on-site from the Liebres Tuff, once served as a church, store, school, cemetery, and sage harbor to the residents of the area. A beautiful pecan orchard sits in front of the hacienda, appearing not much different than it looked some 125 years ago. Towering giant cottonwood and willow trees line a nearby spring-fed creek and also fill the hacienda's yard with shade, creating a true desert oasis."
The stream that runs through the ranch is distributed beyond the hacienda through a series of old aqueducts to the life dependent on the ranch. Today, more reliable wells bring water to the cattle, goats, and large pecan orchards instead of the ancient aqueducts, but the name of the hacienda, Agua Nueva, meaning "New Water," still honors its origins as a natural source of abundant water that turned this spot into an oasis in the otherwise arid desert.
The first prospector to mine the agates from Rancho Los Nogales was Jesus Gamón, who mined the area in the 1950's. These were all pick-and-shovel operations done by workers hired by Gamón, tunneling into the andesite that makes up the northern flank of Cerro de la Aguja, a mountain in the Sierra del Gallego area. In the 1970's, mining operations were headed by a Mexican miner and ranch-owner by the name of Rodolfo Quevedo, and the mining itself was credited to Rodolfo Castro, Francisco Olivas, and Rosario Villalobos. When Quevedo was handling the agate produced from the deposit, it was sold under the name "New Laguna Agate," inspired by their similarities and in an attempt to latch onto the preexisting fame attached to Laguna Agate and its reputation to be one of the finest agates on the market (see our Laguna Agate Article). Quevedo was an agate aficionado, and would often travel north to El Paso, New Mexico to interact with the United States agate market, where he became familiar with Richard Vaughn, owner of Vaughn's Lapidary. Vaughn was an acquaintance of The Gem Shop, and promptly called to tell of the many wondrous agates being produced in Mexico. Soon Vaughn brought Quevedo and Eugene Mueller in contact with each other, and a meeting was arranged for the two to meet in El Paso. This was when Mueller had first learned that the agate was coming from Rancho Los Nogales. Mueller made a deal with Quevedo to buy all production of Agua Nueva and arranged with Vaughn to accept the agate from Quevedo across the border in El Paso where Vaughn would then relay it to Wisconsin. Thus, The Gem Shop was the first United States distributor of Agua Nueva Agate.
Quevedo would periodically send mail to Mueller containing a letter asking for payment and an exemplary specimen from that year's operations. Their agreement was running smoothly until one year, when the miners stole a cow from the ranch and thought that they could get away with having fresh meat for supper. As soon as Sr. Jaime Creel discovered this, he closed his ranch to all agate collectors for many years. Mueller however, was determined to resume the production of such a fine agate and began looking into what he would have to do in order to head the mining operations himself. Even if he could convince Sr. Creel to open up his ranch to mining operations once more, there were still legal hurdles to be addressed.
In order to mine in Mexico, one needs a claim, which can only be acquired by a company resident to the country. The Gem Shop's Arizonan company, Tucson Showplace LLC, rented out show space to a particular man, Don Burrows, former owner of Crystal City (now deceased), who also owned a Mexican company called Agata Aldama. Mueller inquired about having Agate Aldama file and Excerpts from Agate Formation in Sierra del Gallego Report If you are interested in a scientific approach towards explaining the agate formation process in the Sierra del Gallego area, then feel free to read these excerpts from a scholarly report. This paper covers topics including Agua Nueva Agate, Apache Agate, Coyamito Agate, Laguna Agate, and others, as well as a general attempt to explain the enigma that is the geological formation of agates and chalcedonies. hold the claim for The Gem Shop if Mueller paid for all the expenses. Burrows agreed, but required Mueller to visit Aldama, Chihuahua and show him where the claim was. With this possibility established, Mueller then traveled to Hacienda Agua Nueva in the early 1990's to try to negotiate with Sr. Jaime Creel. Mueller knows only a little conversational Spanish, so addressing a powerful entrepreneur with a grudge was a bold and perhaps foolish undertaking. "I nearly had to break into Jaime Creel's office to speak to him," Mueller dramatizes: "very important man." When Mueller had arrived at the hacienda with the intent to speak with its owner, he was sat outside to wait for Sr. Creel to arrive from work. Creel did not drive, but was instead driven up to the hacienda in an intimidatingly sleek black car, stepping out in a suit fit for a governor, and followed by an assistant struggling with a stack of papers and documents from the backseat. Mueller took this opportunity to speak with Sr. Creel, joining him on his brisk walk to his office. Creel was upset about the possibility of a massive mining operation spoiling his land, but Mueller was quick to ensure him that agate mining is a small operation that is most efficient when extracted through smaller, more precise operations. Mueller found Creel to be agreeable to this proposal, and he granted Mueller leave to resume mining operations on the Agua Nueva deposit. Agata Aldama helped Mueller strike the claim, which he called "Mi Sueño," or "My Dream" in Spanish. After the first operation, Mueller skillfully cut and polished the largest and finest specimen from the mine, attached a metal plaque that read "Agata Agua Nueva," and sent it to Sr. Creel. He was very pleased with this and took great pride in the art that was made possible by his ranch, displaying the specimen on his desk and treating Mueller like family from then on.
If you enjoyed this story, feel free to check out Gene Mueller's blog! Details about the Agua Nueva area can be found in the Mi Sueño (My Dream) and Finding the Nodular Agua Nueva Agate entries.
Here is an entry from Gene's journal from the 2016 mining operation: Wasps... Why'd It Have To Be Wasps? Thursday, May 12th, 2016 Clean-up day at mine. Decide to start on upper left and work my way around taking pictures as I go. The boys arrive late so I go up to get started. Smooth out the switchback on the road into the upper nodular area and then move the machine facing the corners so I can dig a hole for the muck on the pile, moving the stuff from the hole in the ravine. I had the door open and the window up (open) on the machine for maximum vision and air circulation. About four scoops into the hole suddenly there were bees everywhere. They attack me while I was frantically killing them as they bit me. I had to get the door closed and the window down. Both operations take two hands. I would reach back for the window The large mountain north of Hacienda Agua Nueva, Cerro de la Aguja, has two visibly distinct fault lines through it. This mountain can be seen from Highway 45, 8 miles east of the hacienda. The Mi Sueño claim is on the southwest corner of this mountain. Rodolfo Quevedo had informed Mueller of a second deposit of nodular agate, saying it was "on the other side of release and get bit two to three times. I could not get the door released because I was in a bit of a precarious position with the machine. I was swatting bees and bumping the controllers, moving the machine where I didn't want to be. It takes two hands or two feet to move the trucks. Finally, I decided I had to suffer a few bites to get the door closed and to get the window down so I could concentrate on getting the machine out of here. I jumped down off the machine, got the door release and got back up into the machine, losing my hat and glasses in the process! I got back up into the machine and got the window closed. Now I was in the cab with about 100 bees still attacking. I would swat and try and move the excavator in the right direction. I fought bees all the way down the hill. When I got down the hill near my truck, I was still swatting bees and getting bit a lot in the back of the head. I decided to make a break for the truck and maybe not too many would follow. So, I did and got into the truck with window up and only one bee. I was completely exhausted, breathing hard from the exercise, but not fighting bees. Gustavo and Mario arrived and took one look at me in the truck and said what happened. They saw the stingers sticking out of my skin on my face and arms. We all went back to camp and they helped me pull out the stingers. Surprisingly to me the bites did not hurt that much. I think because of my constant swatting I did not get the full force of their sting. Anyway, I estimated between 50 -75 stings. They suggested we drive to the Pemex station which had a small pharmacy to get something for the stings. I was starting to not feel so good so Mario drove my truck to the Pemex station where there is also call service. We call Andres and he says I have to see a doctor if I have that many bites. It is arranged to drive to Villa Ahumada, about an hour away. I start throwing up all over the Pemex station. We find a sort of clinic with all kinds of people waiting. Gustavo gets me in fairly quickly and they give me an IV with anti-venom medicine. It took about an hour, but it worked all the pain in my stomach most away and the bites and stings just felt irritating. They must have this happen every so often because they had everything they needed right there. When it came time to pay, they would not accept any money. They did not give me a bill even though they wanted to know how they were going to be paid before they would see me! I have never had anything like this happen in Mexico."
Mueller scoured the area under this sparse clue to no avail. In search of this elusive deposit, Mueller got in touch with Ramón Olivas, son of Francisco Olivas, one of the original miners of the deposits. Ramón Olivas was a miner of Mexican Blue Chalcedony and had visited the mining site as a child when his dad was working the deposit, however when he came to visit Mi Sueño at Mueller's request, he did recognize the area but was unable to locate the second deposit. Before leaving, he told Mueller that he would consult his father, Francisco, about the location and get back to him if he learned anything new. When Mueller was contacted by Olivas, it turned out that when Quevedo had said "the other side of the hill," he really meant on the other side of the mountain. The two deposits are less than 2 kilometers apart as the crow flies, but about 12 kilometers apart on the ranch roads. Mueller was exasperated to find out that in his search for the second deposit, he would have found it if he had not given up where he did: "I was one little ridge away, about 100 yards, from finding it myself, but I missed it." This deposit was later reestablished as a mining claim by Olivas; The Gem Shop funded any expenses and the claim was named "Agua Nueva." After Agata Aldama went out of business, Agata Exploraciones Sociedad Anónima de Capital Variable (S.A. de C.V.), a Mexican company owned by The Gem Shop and their business partner, Jose Luis, was formed, and purchased the Mi Sueño and Agua Nueva claims to avoid needing a mediator to conduct mining operations in Mexico. The Gem Shop conducted the first mechanized mining operations on Rancho Los Nogales, but bringing these machines into an area never traversed by heavy equipment, like the Morrison Ranch (see Morrisonite Article), needed to be preceded by the construction of a road. Daniel Rodriguez Moncada, the foreman of the ranch, got along very well with Mueller despite his deficiencies in Spanish, and offered use of the ranch's dozer to dig out the road. Once the road was finished, Mueller could transport equipment rented from the Caterpillar dealer in Chihuahua City, called MAQSA at the time but now called MADISA, easily to the mines, with occasional touchups over the years. A Caterpillar 320 excavator was most commonly used during the operations. In 2018, Mueller rented an additional attachment for the excavator: a hydraulic ram that would increase the mining efficiency beyond the capabilities of blasting with explosives paired with the bucket attachment. When Mueller rented the hydraulic ram attachment, he had expected a quick-change system, but just before he received the machine that trip, he received a call from MADISA informing him that he would not be receiving that part of his order. This hindered the operation marginally, but the efficiency of the ram made up for any extra hours it took to switch the attachments. Mueller addressed this problem by working several areas of the vein simultaneously, letting the manual miners work on agate when it is exposed by the ram and moving the machine to the next area to ensure that maximum efficiency was achieved. Brad Cross, who is a geologist, avid rock collector, and author of The Agates of Northern Mexico, came to visit in 2008 and witnessed some exceptional agates come out of the ground. In his book, he reports that "agate makes a characteristic ringing sound when struck with a steel bucket, so miners used their ears as well as their eyes in this mining venture." A lot of rock must be mined and broken to find the nodules, so being able to hear the agate while much of the material is concealed by host rock is very useful, but it is still possible to miss agate present in the rock. All of the rock mined from the Agua Nueva Agate deposits are checked twice for material present in the andesite, but every day Mueller's close friend, Gary McFarlane, would walk over the dump pile and search for "escapees," as he called them. Several beautiful agates were found in this manner that had somehow slipped under the attention of any of the other miners.
Agua Nueva is famous for its striking nodules of colorful banded agate. Agate found in the Mi Sueño claim is primarily moss agate formed in veins. This golden-brown moss can be found paired with banding, where rose and pink are the most prevalent colors but red, orange, yellow, light blue, lavender, and deep purple colors can also be present. If the pockets of agate are large enough, the agate tubes can form. These tubes form when agate stalactites first fill the pocket, then banded agate fills around the tubes. Agua Nueva tube specimens can be quite spectacular and are considered desirable by collectors. Agate veins in Rancho Los Nogales can form up to a thickness of 30 centimeters. The Agua Nueva claim produces predominantly nodular agate, which can form in similar colors to the moss agate but can also have striking patterns and color combinations when highly unusual dark green or black banding occurs. Color changes in individual bands are also common to this area. It is common for nodules produced from this area to be flat on one side. Agua Nueva nodules form in about 15 centimeters on average but a record piece was weighed to be nearly 40 kilograms. Though the agate is sparse in this area, the mining operations conducted by The Gem Shop between 1997 and 2018 have been quite successful. The 1997 excursion started of the exploitations of the agate deposits strong, producing six tons of mine-run-quality vein agate in 30 days. An employee at Agata Aldama named Javier was in charge of recruiting workers to assist in the operations, however the workers recruited in the following year were not sufficiently qualified and Mueller needed to request help from elsewhere to obtain good help for a portion of the operation. The 1999 operation was unhindered besides the need to repair 5 miles of the road to the mine. 2008 was the first year that Mueller had ordered a hydraulic ram, though he had not known that a quick-change system would be useful at the time. It took some time to become accustomed to swapping the ram and bucket at opportune times. Mueller's operation was still highly successful; 500 pounds of "A Grade" agate nodules, making up about a third of the total amount of agates kept. Almost an equal amount of nodules was discarded with the waste rock, consisting mostly quartz balls with small amounts of agate around the outside of the nodules. After Mueller was able to engineer an efficient routine of work, he handed the operation off to Hector Carrillo Jr., who often heads mining operations for The Gem Shop at the Rancho Los Nogales mines. Carrillo led the mining for another three weeks and produced almost 2,000 pounds of "A Grade" agate nodules. Unfortunately, the cost of this particular operation was quite expensive and did not result in a financially rewarding result. In 2016, Mueller was responsible for introducing a completely vibrant purple variation of Agua Nueva Agate to the market, a color never before found in such abundance, yet found that year in a far corner of the main mining pit. April of 2018 was the last operation conducted by The Gem Shop on Rancho Los Nogales, and "there is no further large-scale mining activity to be expected in the near future," writes Johann Zenz, author of the Agates trilogy, "[thus] agate nodules from [Rancho Los Nogales] are already currently traded as 'classics'!" as much Agua Nueva Agate has become "part of many collections and also found its way to Europe."