History of Apache Agate

After being met with some medical problems regarding his eyes, Eugene Mueller made a deal with one Stewart Porteous to sell his jasper claims in the Morrison Ranch area in Oregon. Mueller suspected his 1996 mining operation of Morrisonite would be his last, but his vision was stabilized after so extensive laser surgery on both eyes and a vitrectomy on one eye. Though much of his peripheral vision was lost, he believed that as long as he was careful, mining wasn't such an implausible feat as it had seemed. After all, Mueller had just received an invitation to a rather famous mine from a rather famous Mexican mineral dealer.

In 1957, the Apache deposit was discovered 5 miles northwest of the village of Ejido El Apache on Rancho La Viñata by two individuals from Juárez, Chihuahua: Luis Arzola and Ramon Peña. Arzola staked the claim, naming it "El Apache," after Peña was mining in the soft clay above the andesite bedrock when he discovered a particular agate nodule weighing around 2 pounds, which would soon become known by name around the world. He then brought this nodule along with a few others to attempt to sell the material at Gorin's Gem Arts and Rocks in El Paso, Texas, where Irvin Gorin refused the rock, claiming the asking price was too high. Peña then brought the nodules to Triangle Rock Shop in Lordsburg, New Mexico, proposing a sale to the owner, T.B. Williams. Williams was an avid collector and dealer of Mexican agates, and he agreed to Peña's price. The particular aforementioned nodule had a natural fracture that could be seen from the outside, and Williams made the initial break along this crack. This break revealed enough of the interior to allow Williams to immediately begin grinding and sanding its surface. While doing so, he revealed the spectral image of the Apache Hooded Owl Agate, as it is known today.


Brad Cross, agate collector, hydrogeologist, and current owner of the Hooded Owl, recounts the historical progression of ownership over the world's most famous singular agate in the following excerpt from a draft of his book:

"Williams had a custom fitted leather case made for the agate with 'T.B. Williams, Lordsburg, N.M.' embossed on the lid. The agate became the trademark of his Triangle Rock Shop, a huge draw for rockhounds traveling from coast to coast in the 1960's. They would stop specifically at the 'Home of the Apache Hooded Owl' to view this remarkable specimen. Picture post cards of the agate were distributed to rock collectors everywhere and the "Owl" agate was featured on the front cover of the June 1961 Lapidary Journal. Williams passed away in December of 1967 and, of his extensive collection of Mexican Agates, the Owl was the only specimen retained by his children. Several years passed before Irvin Gorin of El Paso made an offer to buy the agate from the family. He received no response from his bid for nearly a year. In December of 1972, Williams' son appeared at Gorin's shop to ask if the year-old bid was still valid. The deal was immediately closed. Gorin utilized the agate as a "feature attraction" in his shop, where I was to see it for the first time as a young teenager. I was captivated by the Hooded Owl Agate and had dreams of one day owning such a special "rock." It may have been the stone that inspired me to build a fine agate collection of my own.

In 1992, the agate was being sought after by my friend and world-renowned mineral collector, Dave Wilber, who placed one of the highest bids ever made on any agate specimen in his attempt to acquire the owl. Though the offer was extremely generous, Gorin declined, fearing the agate would be resold and disappear from public view. This seemed to be a window of opportunity for me, and after lengthy letter writing, personal visits, and telephone conversations, I was able to secure the wise old owl in 1994. Having sought out and acquired the vast majority of the T.B. Williams agate collection in the years following his death, I was pleased to return the magnificent Apache "Hooded Owl" Agate to the fold. In 2005 the Apache Hooded Owl Agate was featured as the centerpiece of the International Mineral Show held in Munich, Germany where it's likeness was reproduced on posters, billboards, magazines, newspapers, and beer steins. The agate has also been featured in Idar-Oberstein's Deutsches Edelsteinmuseum (German Gemstone Museum in Idar-Oberstein) and the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien (Vienna Museum of Natural History)."

Beginning in 1968, Benny Fenn was the owner of the famed El Apache claim and worked the deposit with his brother-in-law, Harold Jorgenson, in the early 1970's. These operations produced much agate, though less than five percent of the material was considered first quality, and none have yet been found to challenge the magnificence of the Apache Hooded Owl. Fenn had invited Mueller to his house in Nuevo Casas Grandes to view his collection of Apache Agates. Fenn then offered to take Mueller to the El Apache claim, 35 miles southeast of Fenn's home, telling him that if he wanted to try to mine the agate, Fenn would make it possible. When Mueller saw scattered throughout the dirt glittering pieces of bright red-orange agate everywhere, he was amazed, and accepted Fenn's generous offer. This would spark the beginning of The Gem Shop's operations in Mexico, first and foremost the operation of the El Apache claim. Benny Fenn's sister, Verla, still sells some of the material Fenn mined in the 1970's at her store, Border Rock Shop, in Lordsburg, New Mexico.

The area around the claim is flat, and the mining is conducted in a pit dug into hard montmorillonite clay that has been deposited in the area due to weathering of the no-longer-present host rock. Below the surface clay is a layer of sandstone, which would show green streaking patterns that indicated the presence of agate nodules below, where they form in tight clusters or pods. Several small arroyos lead into this pit and cause water flow seasonally or whenever there is heavy rain. Benny Fenn's operations were halted in the past due to the affects of the accumulated water in the pit. Since the area is so flat, there is nowhere for excess water to flow away. Much of the ground is composed of clay, so it is inclined to absorb and hold the water, causing the ground to become soft and water to pool over when the clay becomes fully saturated. When Mueller was mining in [[1995]] with an old HD-9 front end loader he bought in Lordsburg, NM, he encountered the same problem that Fenn did in the 1970's; the dozer, when traversing saturated ground near a flowing arroyo, would begin to sink into the ground. This quickly presented many mining complications, leading Mueller to conduct some experimental digging in different areas that were not known to hold good agate. Mueller did eventually find some quality deposits, however he was only able to produce 500 pounds of agate over 30 days, and none of the material matched the quality of the original dig site.

Nodules found at the El Apache mine have a bumpy, irregular shape, with finely-pocked green exteriors but much of the material extracted is filled with plain calcite. Some plume agate can be found in the area around the claim but none in the main digging area. When quality agate is unearthed, it forms as banded or moss agate, often in vivid reds, oranges, and yellows. Apache Agate is unlike any other Mexican agates in the area, and Brad Cross describes this difference, explaining "unlike the common fortification pattern found in other nodular agates, the colors seem to be suspended in contrasting agate and have draped folds and swirling veils. Few bands are continuous, with bright splashes of red, orange, and yellow intermittently appearing throughout the nodule. More suspended center patterns occur in Apache Agates than in any other Mexican agate." There are instances when color from red bands or stains can float from one clear band to another like ribbons or wind-blown veils, resulting in the distinctive characteristic that sets Apache Agate apart from all others. Apache Agate has also been referred to as Apache Flame Agate, due to the aforementioned ribboning, and is often confused for being a rarer variation of Apache Agate. One true variation of Apache Agate is Fisheye Agate, whose exteriors exhibit spherical inclusions that vary in size but are consistently minute, averaging at about one-sixteenth of an inch in diameter. These "fish-eyes" are white and orange agate underneath a layer of clear agate. These agates have been known to reside in the south end of the El Apache claim.

Unlike most banded agates, it is suggested that Apache Agate is not cut when being treated in a lapidary. In order to achieve a desirable specimen, it is best to grind the nodule so as to be able to watch for any floating color stains that occur as paper-thin suspensions that cannot be predicted from the outside. In addition, much of the color in Apache Agate specimens are obtained through depth and translucency of the agate, so immediately cutting through the agate could quickly make for a less colorful piece if it significantly decreases the depth of both halves. "Cutting or slabbing Apache Agate has many times destroyed museum-quality pieces," says Brad Cross, so take care when finishing a prized piece.

The success of the singular mining operation conducted in 1995 was heavily impacted not only by a lack of presence of high-grade rock, but also difficulties with equipment and new experiences. This was Eugene Mueller's first mining trip in Mexico, and he had very little experience with the culture and language. When first driving to the deposit, Mueller was able to follow a remote dirt road for 30 miles while hauling the front-end loader with his truck. From there, the terrain became harder to navigate and it became necessary to walk the machine through a ravine to the agate site. This trek was 4 miles, and while traversing a sand hill, the loader got stuck and the motor stalled. Mueller, trying to restart the motor with no success, soon realized that he was broken down in a desert ravine, a mile from the nearest road, 30 miles from the nearest paved road, in a foreign country where he only knew a few words of the language. Fortunately, Benny Fenn was able to help and bring a mechanic out to the loader. Finding a mechanic willing to drive 30 miles down a remote dirt road would have been impossible if Mueller was in the United States, but in Mexico, mechanics are notorious for being able to fix anything and soon bolts were flying off of the machine like rain. After some assessment, the young mechanic was unable to determine what was wrong with the machine, so he announced that he would be heading back to town to get his father. The next day the older mechanic got out of his son's truck and sat in the sand while the younger mechanic lay under the machine. The old man asked questions to his son, who his hands up in the guts of the engine, and discerned the problem within 5 minutes without so much as touching a wrench: a sleeve bearing on the side of the crankshaft had slipped and jammed, not allowing the engine to turn. After another day, the machine was fixed and the old man wanted $150 for the whole job. Mueller was flabbergasted by such modesty -- 2 mechanics, 3 days, and driving 40 miles each day was certainly worth much more -- so Mueller gave him $400 and everyone was satisfied.

Even though the expense and effort in 1995 far exceeded the monetary value of the rock produced, the value of the experience was much more valuable than any loss of capital. After mining in Mexico for the first time, The Gem Shop was optimistic about future operations. Rightly so, for this optimism led to the production and distribution of fine agates that The Gem Shop would later become famous for. Mueller's visit to Hacienda Agua Nueva would be next, followed by trips to Ojo Laguna to the south and then Rancho Coyamito Norte immediately to the north.