Found in two places on Earth, Western Utah (the Wah Wah Mountains and the Thomas Range) and the Black Range of New Mexico, bixbite is among the rarest gemstones on Earth.
Born to a store keeper and his wife in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania 1853, Maynard Bixby would go down in geological lore. Maynard graduated from Lafayette College in 1876 where he studied law and later moved to Wilkes Barre with his siblings and worked as a bookkeeper. On a what seems to be a whim, Maynard packed up and started travelling the American Southwest. He mined ore in Colorado and Arizona for a couple years, moved to Chicago, and later New York, while working for Western Electric. In 1884 Maynard hopped on a ship and set sail for London where he went rock hounding in Europe for six months or so. After marrying in 1888 Maynard again set sail to gather minerals in Europe and upon his return to the states found himself in Denver by 1890, and then Salt Lake City a few months later.
Maynard Bixby started prospecting and exploring the Thomas Range of Utah staking the infamous “Maynard Claim” which is still worked to this day for beautiful specimens of topaz. Bixby is credited with two discoveries there: bixbyite and bixbite. Bixbyite is a black, shiny cubic mineral that consists of manganese and iron; it in itself is rare, but the stone we care about is the simarly named bixbite.
In 1904 Bixby discovered tinny little crystals embedded in the matrix of ancient, chalky rhyolite on his topaz claim. He figured it might be a form of beryl (other forms of beryl include: emerald, aquamarine, and morganite), but he wasn’t too sure. Bixby sent some specemins to W.F. Hillebrand, a geochemist at National College in Washington DC, for identification. Hillebrand confirmed Bixby’s suspicions and declared that the mineral was indeed a beryl and was also a new discovery and named it “bixbite”.
Bixbite is a usually very tiny; a red colored beryl that often looks like an itty-bitty stop sign. It only forms in silica-rich rhyolite. The red color comes from manganese substituting for the normal aluminum found in the crystal structure of other beryl varieties. Some believe that the manganese is the result of high concentrations of water in the rhyolite that may have come from the Earth or from the lava erupting under surface water like a lake or inland sea. Water breaks down manganese very easily. You can see the evidence of this if you go through Southern Utah and through Redlands or Bryce Canyon. On the shear red cliffs of the canyon walls you will see black metallic streaks staining the rock. This is manganese leaching from the sand stone via rain water leaking through the fissures of Earth.
When molten Earth is left to ooze and cool at its own pace there is plenty time for like minerals to find each other and crystallize. The size of the crystals will often depend on many conditions ranging from the actual amount of the molecules in the host rock, to the time the magma/lava is allowed to cool, to whether cracks or spaces form allowing for the exchange of gasses and water. Decent-sized gem quality examples of bixbite are really only found in one place at the Ruby Violet Mine that lies in the Wah Wah Mountains to the West of Milford, UT. Bixbite is so rare that it is estimated that for every 150,000 gem-quality diamonds that are discovered only one bixbite is found (and it is not very likely that it is even gem-quality at that!). When it comes to gem-quality stones only one is three million women on Earth will ever be able to own a quality stone larger than 0.8ct. That works out to about 11,000 stones total. Ever.
Hey, ladies, I own two! *wink*
The first question I am asked by someone when I tell them about a mineral is “how much is it worth?” Well, let’s start small and work our way up. A micro-sized specimen, something stop sign shaped and about 1mm across will net you about $50. That same crystal still in the matrix of the host rhyolite and you may find yourself getting a $100 from collectors. IF you are fortunate to find a chunk of rock with several small crystals you may get hundreds of dollars. When it comes to large crystals with good habit (the hexagonal shape for which they are known) thousands of dollars is to be expected. Gem quality stones are another animal entirely. Finding an eye-clean stone is next to impossible so don’t even think about ever seeing a flawless example anywhere, but a stone that is nice and gemmy, kind of Jolly Rancher looking, rough will get about $500-$1000 per carat, that same stone when cut will demand over $6,000 per carat. The largest bixbite ever found is 54cts and butt-ugly, the largest cut stone is from the Ruby Violet claim and is right around 8cts and worth more than your house (a faceted stone’s value often climbs almost logarithmically with the size of the stone; imagine this stone being worth somewhere around $50,000 per carat due to its size and rarity).
In 2010 I traveled through the Thomas Range and the Wah Wahs and found some very small examples of bixbite and a boatload of topaz. I have my suspicions that in a neighboring range in Western Utah lies virgin rock that is ideal for the formation of one of the Earth’s rarest minerals. Maybe sometime next year I’ll be able to detonate some TNT in my chosen mountain and see if all my research pays off!