International flavor colors Gem & Mineral Show

With a little help from his grandmother Carol Stiller and the onlooking of 4-year-old brother Ethan, Aidan Stiller, 9, sorts through some change to make a purchase Saturday during the annual Gem and Mineral Show at the Walla Walla Fair Grounds community building.

With a little help from his grandmother Carol Stiller and the onlooking of 4-year-old brother Ethan, Aidan Stiller, 9, sorts through some change to make a purchase Saturday during the annual Gem and Mineral Show at the Walla Walla Fair Grounds community building. Photo by Sean G. Parsons.

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WALLA WALLA — Hundreds of local rock hounds, jewelry collectors and other people took part in a show that over the years has become an international network of dealers, collectors and artisans.

The Marcus Whitman Gem & Mineral Show took place this weekend at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds, and along with it comes a collection rocks from every continent except Antarctica.

A quick survey of the vendors and their wares showed rocks from Brazil, Mexico, China and Australia. Whitman College geology teacher Bob Carson said it is quite a change from the shows he attended in the 1970s.

“Back then there wasn’t this much stuff,” Carson said, adding that if there were international samples, they tended to be from Morocco or Pakistan.

Then the geology professor took a few minutes to discuss one of his favorite rocks of the show with the vendor who was selling the slabs of tiger iron with tiger eye hematite markings from Australia.

It was another example of the international aspect of rock and gem shows. Then the vendor explained how the tiger iron slabs were used as ballast in ships from Australia to avoid export fees. Then wholesale rock dealers bought the tiger iron slabs at docks in San Francisco. Finally, the slabs were sold to collectors, one of whom eventually brought his samples to Walla Walla.

Even the carvings at rock shows are often chipped into form in foreign lands, including the work of one of the most popular vendors of the show.

About 22 years ago Dale Huett of College Place began mining Opal Butte near Heppner, Ore. But back then, rock shows were still made up of mostly local samples, and rock carvings were few.

“When I began 35 years ago, it wasn’t anywhere near what it is now. It used to be when you did a rock show, it was people going out in the desert and finding and mining and cutting slabs,” Huett said.

Then about eight years ago, while attending the Mecca of rock and gem shows — the Tucson Gem Show — Huett was approached by a group representing a master carver in China. The deal was too hard to pass up, especially when he considered that they wanted the rocks Huett was discarding.

“I wish I would have found them from the beginning. When they came, I just mined Opal Butte for the best stuff. And anything mediocre I put back in the ground,” Huett said.

But the mediocre stuff had the varying color patters and density that was exactly what the master carver wanted.

So Huett put together his own international deal, which required him to sell at shipping cost a 20-foot by seven-foot by eight-foot cargo bin that would go to China.

Then two weeks prior to the annual Tucson Gem Show, Huett would get a chance to pick out a portion of the carvings made from his opals. But unlike other international dealers, he is able to provide carvings of rocks that were taken locally from Opal Butte.

“We have become an international world economy. It has some pluses and it does have some draw backs,” Huett said.

There are still plenty of local collectors who sell raw rocks they personally have found. Steve Shoemaker of Burbank only recently started selling off his heap of rocks.

“I collected for 15 years and last year was the first year I sold at shows,” Shoemaker said.

But even Shoemaker has rocks for sale from Mexico, Brazil and Morocco.

“They are from all over the world,” he added.

The last day of the Marcus Whitman Gem & Mineral Show takes place today from 10-5 p.m. Adults are $2. Children are free.

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