By ED MERRIMAN
Baker City Herald
Brian Bolin had been in Baker City just three days, searching for placer gold in Baker County, when he discovered andquot;some pretty little rocksandquot; that turned out to be opal gem stones.
He'd been through a stretch of bad luck before moving to Baker City, but that day Aug. 20, 2007 turned out to be his lucky day.
andquot;I was climbing over a boulder and kicked off a piece of rock. I saw something flash, like gold,andquot; Bolin said.
He showed the rock to his father, Darrell Bolin, and brother, Joseph Bolin.
Then Brian sent the stone to the Diamondex mineral lab in Canada for tests.
When the lab report came back, he learned he'd discovered gem-quality opals, known as the queen of gems.
andquot;At first we were disappointed it wasn't gold, until we found out opal is the second highest selling gem stone in the world,andquot; Bolin said.
His summer of discovery was followed by a winter of research about opals, including identifying all the types of opals they found.
And the work continues.
The Bolins filed a mining claim called the Red Fern Load in the area where Brian discovered the first opal-bearing rock.
While they were putting up posts marking the claim, they found more opals.
Lots and lots of opals.
Despite the risk of starting an opal rush in one of Baker County's most famous gold fields of yesteryear, Bolin said he and his family have decided to go public with their discovery this week leading up to the 2008 Miners Jubilee celebration in Baker City.
Bolin said he was homeless, living in a barn in Arizona, when his father called and invited him to come to Baker City and do some gold prospecting.
He said accepting that offer opened the door to a miraculous turnaround in his life.
andquot;We've got too much. We'll end up with 200 acres. It's all we'll ever need,andquot; Bolin said. andquot;We are forming a company. We do have some local and outside investors looking at our stuff.andquot;
To visitors who come to town this weekend to celebrate Baker City's rich gold rush heritage, Bolin has one message: andquot;If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.andquot;
Bolin said the opal find is near one of the richest gold strikes in Baker County history. He declined to name the specific location.
andquot;Finding gold in Baker County is not anything new, but finding opal veins is new and exciting,andquot; Bolin said.
He said gold miners apparently unearthed the opal-bearing rocks while placer mining for gold, and have been walking past them since the 1860s, unaware of the treasure beneath their feet.
andquot;The former gold miners exposed at least four veins of opals,andquot; Bolin said.
More recently, people have used the opal-bearing rocks for target practice.
andquot;We found a piece of opal the size of a kitchen table that someone had blasted with a shotgun,andquot; Bolin said. andquot;They didn't know what it was. It was a very rare form of opal. It was a form of opal that was thought to be extinct.
andquot;A lot of people have walked past it. They probably thought it was quartz. They didn't realize it was a rare and valuable gem stone,andquot; he said.
Opals are worth anywhere from 50 cents for a common boulder opal to $100 to $500 per carat for some of the more colorful opals, and up to $5,000 per carat for rare opals thick enough to be cut like a diamond, Bolin said.
Don McClure, owner of Don's Jewelry in Baker City, said Bolin brought in several cut opals and had him set them in pendants, earrings, rings and pins.
One of the pendants featured a 10-carat opal Contra luz stone that was about 1 1/2 inch across, McClure said.
andquot;This seems to be a very good quality Contra luz type of opal, which is one of the rarest of all opals in the world,andquot; McClure said.
In the past, McClure said he has used Australian opal in custom-made jewelry, but he said he's looking forward to getting more of the Contra luz opal from Bolin because it is more valuable.
In addition to opals, McClure said Bolin has brought in samples of what appear to be sapphires and diamonds.
andquot;He seems to have many different finds in the mine he's got out there,andquot; McClure said.
andquot;They are finding a number of kimberlyte volcanic pipes. That is the thing that helps opals, gold, sapphires and diamonds travel in magma from deep underground to the surface,andquot; McClure said. andquot;What he is finding has been near the surface. The Kimberlyte is an indicator of what is deeper.andquot;
andquot;I've tested the diamond with my equipment and it shows it is a diamond, and a very large one, that is suspended in Kimberlyte,andquot; McClure said.
Based on what he's seen and information about the Kimberlyte pipes discovered by Bolin, McClure said the potential for mining diamond, opal, sapphire and other precious gems at the Bolin mine could trigger a new mining era in Baker County.
andquot;If he gets the right people behind him with the right marketing plan, this could be a very big thing for Baker County,andquot; McClure said.
With mineral reports returned so far from Diamondex lab confirming the precious types of opals, Bolin said he and his father and brother went looking for more opals and wound up finding more than 20 veins of opal in their original 100-acre claim.
andquot;That is huge,andquot; Bolin said, amazed at his change in circumstances from broke, homeless and unemployed to one of the owners in an opal mine potentially worth millions.
Since the initial discovery, Bolin said his family has filed seven claims and they expect to file three more, for a total of 10 claims.
andquot;We filed pretty much on what we wanted,andquot; Bolin said. andquot;The veins stretch pretty much 6 square miles.andquot;
andquot;In all the veins, nothing is more than 10 feet below the surface,andquot; Bolin said.
Bolin said they decided their 10 claims contained enough opals to make them rich beyond their wildest dreams, not to mention the as yet to be confirmed presence of diamonds, sapphires and other gemstones.
Bolin said he decided to go public with news about their find this week, in part to generate some excitement about mining during the Miners Jubilee celebration coming up this weekend in Baker City.
andquot;We wanted to release this locally before word gets out across the state and nationally,andquot; Bolin said.
andquot;We'd like to let people know we will be at the Miners Jubilee. We will have a booth selling opal samples,andquot; Bolin said.
Bolin said the opal veins they discovered include many other colors and types of opals.
Unlike less valuable common or soft opals that are too brittle to be faceted, Bolin said, andquot;These are hard enough to be faceted. They can cut like diamonds. They are hard enough to cut steel.andquot;
Chad Labonte, a jeweler in training at Don's Jewelry, said he's worked with some of Bolin's opals and found them to be thicker, harder and more heat resistant than opals from other areas.
andquot;I put heat to them and quenched them, and they can take the heat, where common opals can't,andquot; Labonte said.
In addition to manning a booth at the Miners Jubilee, the Bolins are planning to donate some opal samples to the Baker Heritage Museum.
The Bolins' claims are on Bureau of Land Management land. The claims were filed through the county, the state, and the U.S. Department of Interior and BLM.
andquot;When we are done mining, the land reverts to traditional uses primarily for grazing livestock,andquot; Bolin said, adding that mining rights supersede grazing rights until the mine plays out.
Due to the high cost of mining, including obtaining bonding required by BLM to guarantee mined land is returned to its natural state, Bolin said he and his father and brother are looking for investors, and are still debating how much of the mining to do themselves.
Recently some investors from China have expressed interest in helping develop the mine, according to Bolin, Labonte and McClure.
McClure, who has been in the jewelry business for 25 years, said he's talked with Bolin about making some unique pieces of jewelry for mass marketing featuring his designs and Bolin's unique opals and possibly sapphires, diamonds and other gemstones.
andquot;This could create several different paths for this kind of jewelry. It could easily go worldwide,andquot; McClure said.
Bolin said he's hoping news of their opal discovery will spur other people to go out and look. For miners who never quite struck it rich looking for gold, the prospect of finding gem-quality opals, diamonds or sapphires offers a second chance at striking it rich.
Before You Go
WHERE YOU CAN PROSPECT FOR GOLD (or other precious metals)
o On public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management
WHERE YOU CAN'T PROSPECT FOR GOLD
o Wilderness areas
o National Recreation Areas, including Hells Canyon
o Wild river corridors
o Private property
o Active mining claims
BLM Oregon office:
Which agency is which?
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of Interior, oversees mining laws, including the staking of claims.
However, when you're ready to do some real mining on your claim use a backhoe to work your placer claim, for example, or blast a tunnel on your lode claim you will have to get permission from some agency. Which agency depends on where your claim is located.
If your claim is on land managed by BLM, then you'll need to submit your plans to that agency. Relevant phone numbers are 523-1256 in Baker City, 541/473-3144 in Vale.
But in Baker County much of the prospecting occurs on national forest land. If that's where your claim is, you'll work with the Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture, rather than with BLM. Local phone numbers are 523-4476 and 523-6391.