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Gem lovers see rocks as a gold mine of fun
BOB ZELLAR/Gazette StaffRick Bouchard and Craig Rang (L-R) discuss a piece of flint Rang is Knapping at the 2003 Gem, Jewelry, Fossil and Mineral Show and Sale Saturday at Billings Hotel & Conventin Center.

Stories By JEREMY RUSSELL Of The Gazette Staff

The Billings Convention Center opened its doors on a glittering wonderland of polished rock for the Gem, Jewelry, Fossil and Mineral Show and Sale Saturday.

More than 30 gem dealers, their mobile homes, campers and vans laden with everything from pearls to fossilized dino poop ($5 a pound), came from as far away as Oregon, Washington, Arizona and California to sell stones from all over the world.

Each dealer was personally invited by the Billings Gem and Mineral Club dealer chairman, Mark Lent.

"The people that I invite are people I know and trust," Lent said. He added that this year's dealer turnout is the biggest yet. The show continues today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

It's ironic that, despite the apparent wealth and abundance, most dealers can't subsist on gemstone sales. Some own shops; others hold day jobs.

"A lot of these people are somewhat on a shoestring," Lent said.

Talking to almost any of the collectors, it becomes clear that gemstones and minerals are a fascination - they come as much to see as to sell.

The cream of the show was the rare and beautiful Bear Canyon black agate. The football-size hunk of black-and-white striped rock came from a specific band of sediment in the Pryor Mountains.

"That's the only place in the world that this is found that we know of," Lent said.

There also were plenty of fossils - Tarbosaurus bataar eggs and the left half of a Tyrannosaurus rex's lower jaw, with kitchen-knife teeth, were among the more impressive displays. Dealers offered fossilized trilobites, fish, leaves and megalodon shark teeth, which are as large as a hatchet head, as well as the aforementioned dung.

The event's main fund-raiser, a silent auction, was ongoing at one end of the convention floor. But the gem show is more than a marketplace. There are plenty of opportunities for education and lots of fun activities for kids, as well.

"Kids love to pick up rocks. That's why we don't charge admission for anyone under 12. We want the kids to learn what they're picking up," said Debbie MacDowell, a Billings Gem and Mineral Club member and Lent's wife.

Projects for kids included soapstone carving and a garnet table, where children could improve their garnet-hunting technique in bowls of moist sand.

Jewelry making was added for the first time this year.

"Necklaces, key chains, pins and earrings, and it's only a buck," MacDowell said.

Also for sale were grab bags and fossil boxes. The latter, hand assembled by club members, included a variety of fossils hidden in dry mud to simulate the experience of paleontologists on a dig.

As well as organizing the gem show, the club organizes field trips, guest speakers and classes in everything from silversmithing to geology.

Annual dues are $10 per person or $15 per family. Meetings are held monthly in the basement of the First Christian Church at 522 North 29th St. on the first Thursday of the month.

The club does not meet in July or August, because "everyone's out hunting rocks," Lent said.

Admission to the gem show is $4, but children under 12 get in free.

Flint knapping demonstrated at gem show Ever wonder how to flint knap raw obsidian?

The answer is "very carefully," or so visitors may have learned Saturday at the Gem, Jewelry, Fossil and Mineral Show and Sale.

"Obsidian is unusual because it's the sharpest known substance; it's sharper than a surgeon's scalpel," said amateur flint knapper Craig Rang, 53. He demonstrated the stone's cutting ability by cleanly severing a thick leather strap with one swipe of a dime-sized obsidian chip.

"The reason is it's glass," he said.

American Indians once mined obsidian from Yellowstone National Park to trade with other tribes, because it's such a useful stone, Rang said. As a child growing up in Circle, he hunted the arrowheads and other remnants of this past trade.

Rang has been flint knapping in earnest since November and already is able to complete an arrowhead in less than two hours with tools no more complicated than a copper billet and a hunk of leather to protect his hands.

American Indians used elk and deer antlers, he said. The obsidian is honed and sharpened through a process called compression flaking, in which tiny chips are picked off one at a time, he said.

Flint knapper LeRoy Pickham, 59, has managed to make all the different implements once made from stone. His personal display includes bone-handled knives, arrows, two hammers, several arrowheads and a hide scraper.

"The hardest thing to make are my hammers," he said. "I'd like to get into making them with antlers and horns, but that's a lot of work."

Although flint knapping can make salable items, the flint knappers all said they do it for pleasure.

"My problem is I give all mine away," Rang said. He said a friends' granddaughters are especially fond of the handmade arrowhead necklaces he has made them.

The Billings Gem and Mineral Club will host a class on flint knapping on Aug. 17. For information, call 896-1192.

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