The Gem Shop's History of Laguna Agate

Colors clash as purples envelop oranges envelop reds that variegate from cherry to rose petal to pleasing, deep and soft yellows coined "old gold." Bands of glittering quartz flow between fine banding that shifts under the light in parallax's dance. Scattered dots of color bring "apparent color" to a specimen; strawberry dots turn white bands to pink and white turns steel blue to lilac. Enveloped in pitted and pocked skin of forest greens, aureate sagenite plumes grow into a chalcedony nodule from its borders. Long has Laguna Agate been considered one of the finest and most stunning varieties of agate throughout the world. Collectors pine for fine pieces to be added to their displays just as intensely as they abhor the dreaded "black widow" fractures that signify the identification of Laguna Agate as reliably as its other, more sought after, characteristics.

Laguna Agate is named after a town near its known deposits, called Estación Ojo Laguna, not to be confused with Ojo Laguna, which is located on the western shore of Laguna Encinillas, a large playa lake. Estación Ojo Laguna sits along a set of railroad tracks on the opposite shore, serving as a small railroad stop and ranching community. During the rainy season, the lake can overflow, streaming across the road to the south and creating a second, temporary lake. During this time flowers bloom, bushes thrive, and birds from ducks to cranes come to enjoy the natural beauty. East of the railroad tracks is a ridge of mountains, 150 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border and east of Mexican Highway 45 in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, standing around 1,500 feet tall, running from north to south. It is in these mountains where Laguna Agate is found, and in Estación Ojo Laguna live many of those who work the various mines. When Laguna Agate was first discovered, the three individuals who were responsible for mining the agate were Jose Banda, Marcos Tarango, and Fred Moreno, though it is said that Dr. Ralph Mueller is the one who did the discovering. These three miners collaborated with Victor Salgado, who advertised the rock and eventually brought it to the United States market. Brad Cross, author of The Agates of Northern Mexico, explains that were was a second source of the agate from Estación Ojo Laguna:

"Señor Alfonso Bustamonte owned and operated the grocery store at Estación Ojo Laguna. Local residents who had minor amounts of agate they had collected from the surface would take the small parcels to Bustamonte's store to sell or trade the agate for groceries. Bustamonte developed a reputation of having the highest selling price on agate. Only when buyers could not find enough rough agate from Banda, Tarango, and Moreno did they resort to purchases from Bustamonte."

The first claim to be filed in this area was established by Señor Rosario Villalobos, who named it the Mesquite claim, after the abundance of low-growing mesquite trees in its vicinity. As of 1997, there were 13 different claims spanning four miles along the mountains that stand upon Rancho Borunda, originally owned by Enrique Borunda until his son took over after he died in 1995. These claims lie halfway between Sierra Gallego to the north and Sierra El Os to the south. Below is a list of claim names and descriptions if available:

  1. Ojo de San Martin
  2. El Puerto
    • El Puerto, the third highest claim, is often associated with the name El Conejeros, which refers to a particular area on the claim. The term "conejeros" means rabbit holes or hutches, and refers to the many tunnels excavated by hand in this side of the mountain years ago in search of agates. This area has produced some of the finest Laguna Agate ever seen in 1995 and 1996.
  3. Laguna
  4. Santa Monica
    • This is the second highest claim in the Laguna Agate area.
  5. La Alianza, "Cerro Las Hermosas" (Hill of the Beautiful Ones)
    • This area is the second highest topographical Laguna Agate claim and is located in the center of the cluster of Laguna Agate claims. This area produced vivid, multi-colored, finely banded nodules and is also known to produce agate with parallax, also called "shadow agate." This claim is equally owned by Armando Mendoza, who lives in Estación Ojo Laguna, and Fernando Flores, who lives in Chihuahua City, thus it was named Alianza or "alliance." The Gem Shop, Inc. has had a working relationship with the owners of La Alianza for many years.
  6. El Hormiguero
  7. La Morita Abujo Alta
    • This claim is often referred to as the highest elevation dig site and produced mostly red agate.
  8. Buena Fe
  9. Diana
  10. El Mesquite
    • This claim is the first and lowest Laguna Agate claim, sometimes referred to as "the flats." Historically, this area has produced vibrant and contrastingly-colored agate, exhibiting a white-skinned exterior.
  11. El Mesquite 1
  12. La Morita
  13. Ojo Laguna
    • This is the fourth highest claim in the Laguna Agate area.

The land formations in the Laguna Agate area are similar to those of the Agua Nueva deposits in Rancho Los Nogales. However, there are far fewer agate deposits and the host rock is harder than the andesite where Agua Nueva Agate is found. Having had more experience mining at Rancho Los Nogales, Eugene Mueller, The Gem Shop's miner, expected mining Laguna Agate to be much more difficult. Operation on La Alianza was assisted by Pat McMahan and granted by Armando Mendoza and Fernando Flores. During Mueller's first operation mining Laguna Agate in 2002, he rented a small CAT 320 dozer, which was used to repair the road and making cuts into the hillside of La Alianza claim. Underneath the hard andesite the host rock became softer, and mining was not as difficult as Mueller had predicted it to be. Unfortunately, the agate nodules were few and far between, without much of a perceptible pattern. The rock that did contain agates was too tough to be moved by the small dozer, and the only rock removed was overburden that had previously been mined and exhausted of agate by hand.

These complications, including several problems with the equipment function, caused the 2002 mining operation to be less successful than desired, but produced enough rock to cover the mining expenses. A second operation was conducted in 2014, when Mueller was accompanied by Jose Luis Villegas, a business partner to The Gem Shop and fellow vendor at the Tucson Showplace. Mendoza was gracious enough to provide lodging in his residence while the two miners were working that October. Mueller worked on at least five separate areas on the hillside of La Alianza claim, and was able to produce some fine agates, but not enough to satisfy all that were involved.

In the past, mining occurred solely by hand. Surface agate would be collected first, then small holes would be dug. Brad Cross describes the original mining techniques in the following excerpt in his chapter on Laguna Agate:

"Sometimes rather dangerous tunnels following the agate would be dug by hand when the rock permitted and the agates were prolific enough. This method of mining is very slow, inefficient, and results in being "muck bound" very quickly. When this happens the usual procedure is to move to a new place and start over. This has been the mining process for the past 30 years. Agate production remained fairly stagnant from 1978 to 1993. However, in April 1993 approximately 500 pounds of rough Laguna were mined at Ojo Laguna."

During these hand-dug operations, rock was graded simply by size of a nodule. The large, medium, and small nodules were graded as No. 1's, No. 2's, and No. 3's, respectively. Broken pieces of Laguna Agate nodules were called "skins." Today, Laguna Agate is graded based on size, number of colors, amount of fractures, entirety of the nodule, banding, presence of quartz, and presence of inclusions such as moss or sagenite. An exceptional Laguna Agate nodule is large, has more than two colors, has no fractures, is in complete nodule form, has fine banding, and does not have quartz or inclusions.

Access to Laguna Agate has become nearly a monopoly, where the claims that produce the finest agates, such as Ojo Laguna, El Puerto, and La Alianza, have come to be solely mined by Andres Carillo and his family, who also own Rancho Coyamito Norte. The Carillo family were the last known people to mine Laguna Agate, and limited access to fresh material has caused the market to inflate its price to $200 to $300 per pound, whereas #1 Grade Laguna Agate has been sold by The Gem Shop at a $60 per pound price point in the past. The legacy of this beautiful material certainly maintains the demand for fine Laguna Agate specimens, but, as of 2023, the mines have been inactive for some time and the price of such material may leave the agate quite untouchable by many who seek agate from this area.