The "Bouquet" quartz cluster at Avant Mining in Garland County. Brandon Markin

When I thought of quartz crystal in Arkansas — if I thought of quartz crystal in Arkansas — I thought of the rock shops that used to line the highway into Hot Springs, the ones with the big blue glass chunks. I knew that people liked to dig for crystals and that they headed to the Ouachita Mountains with their kids to muck about in rusty red clay in search of them. 

Since quartz is everywhere, the second most common mineral on the planet (feldspar is the most common), I did not think it so special. Like every schoolchild in Arkansas, I was given a cardboard box of rocks and minerals from the Arkansas Geological Survey that always included, along with boring old shale and nondescript sandstone, a milky bit of quartz. I’ve seen little rock crystals, the kind that are clear and six-sided, on kitchen window ledges, porch rails, lined up with shells and heart-shaped rocks and other gleanings from nature. (Admittedly, just because I was clueless doesn’t mean most folks are.)

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So, I thought it was curious when Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville announced an upcoming exhibition about crystals. I knew Crystal Bridges was named for a nearby spring, not the mineral, so I figured the subject matter was simply a coincidence, that it would be a science exhibition in an art museum.

I also knew that Avant Mining, near Jessieville in Garland County, had contributed specimens to the exhibition and that its owner, James Zigras, was interviewed in the August 2019 issue of the museum’s member magazine. So I wondered: Is Avant Mining a Walton enterprise? And if it were, would “Crystals in Art” be kosher? Is there a conflict of interest here? I had to check it out. I went to Jessieville.

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There, I was relieved to learn that Avant Mining is an operation solely financed by Zigras. And that these six-sided products of nature are special. That they can be enormous, too big for the windowsill or the porch. That some are worth millions of dollars. And that Arkansas seems to be underplaying one of its greatest natural assets. Also, there are still blue glass rocks for sale in Hot Springs.

“Crystals in Art: Ancient to Today” at Crystal Bridges took some out-of-the-box thinking, in that it is a blend of natural history and fine art, co-curator Lauren Haynes told visiting press in October, when the show opened. (It closes Jan. 6.) The works in the show include such astonishing artifacts — from the Metropolitan Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and private collectors — as a 2,400-year-old crystal perfume bottle, a meticulously etched crystal disc from the 16th century, a ruby-encrusted flask from the 17th century. Chinese snuff bottles, Italian candlesticks, Roman beads. These valuables are cozied up to Andy Warhol prints of gems; a Juan Gris cubist oil; a video of performance artist Marina Abramović breathing, her face buried under prisms; a giant chandelier tree by Ai Weiwei. 

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Among the works of art from nature — the show includes several quartz specimens mined in Arkansas — was a spectacular piece: a 5-foot-6-inch cluster of limpid crystals emerging from a quartz-seamed quartzite rock matrix. Haynes told visitors it was a difficult-to-install 1,500 pounds. It was called the “Holy Grail,” and it came from what is now called the Zigras Mine. The scales fell from my eyes.  

These prisms, made of molecules of silica and oxygen and described as “ice” by the ancient Greeks before we gave that name to diamonds, are unique in Arkansas. That’s because, commonplace though quartz may be, the clarity and form of Arkansas rock crystals puts them in a league of their own, unrivaled in the United States and comparable to spectacular finds in Brazil. Though they share a basic crystalline form, no two crystals are alike; expert geologists can tell which Arkansas mines produced which crystals. (The matchstick-like crystals produced at the Jeffrey Quarry in North Little Rock are so unusual that even an untrained eye may be able to identify them. The quarry is now underwater.)

Ignorant though I may have been, thousands of people have been burrowing into the state’s crystal belt, from Little Rock to Broken Bow, Okla., since the 19th century. Five generations of the Coleman family have mined and operated tourist digs outside Hot Springs, and Mount Ida (which calls itself “The Crystal Capital of the World” because of its numerous veins) hosts a championship crystal dig every year. The U.S. government, foiled during World War II from getting ships into Brazilian ports, turned to Arkansas mines for the pure quartz crystal needed for oscillators in radar and other instruments. 

Quartz crystal has certain electrical qualities: It is piezoelectric, meaning it can both conduct electricity and, under pressure, release energy. Squeeze a crystal, you get a tiny electric current. Send electricity through a crystal, it will vibrate at a precise frequency.  

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These good vibrations likely sustain the belief of many in the metaphysical properties of quartz crystals, which some believe to have the power to heal, improve mood, even to cast spells. Crystal Bridges founder Alice Walton, who has her own kind of power, is said to carry a crystal in her purse, and the museum grounds include a fabricated grotto of crystal-studded slabs of stone.

Maybe it was the crystals talking, but in my case, “Crystals in Art” engendered a heretofore-buried lust for these geometric objects of nature. I needed to know more about crystals.

 

James Zigras, with a crystal ball from his collection. He foresees a good market for Arkansas crystals.

I’d heard a rumor that the Walton family was investing in Hot Springs enterprises, so I asked Zigras outright. Is Alice part-owner of Avant Mining? No.

“I wish Alice was my partner,” Zigras told me. “I like the sound of that.”

The New Jersey native is as tall as a skyscraper, charmingly unkempt and smart as a whip. Had he been supported by an investor, he said, he surely would be out of business, owing to the fact that he came up with nothing during his first two years of mining and lost $1 million. 

Zigras, who describes himself as an “amateur expert” in mineralogy and even has a mineral named for him (zigrasite), is both a collector and consultant who travels worldwide. It was his desire for a different mineral, wavellite, that drew him to Arkansas. 

At a mineral and gem show in Tucson, Ariz., some years back, Zigras asked an Arkansas vendor why no one ever brought wavellite, a mineral that grows in green and yellow spheres, to the show. Give me a call if a mine ever comes up for sale, he told the vendor. One did, in Garland County in 2009, and Zigras bought a mining lease there.

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Because quartz is so common, Zigras wasn’t particularly interested in Arkansas’s rock crystal. But he remembered a specimen Jim Coleman dug in 1987 from what is called the McEarl Mine near Jessieville. Zigras, 38, had seen the cluster, which had been acquired by a collector, in the 1990s and was struck by it. “It was flawless and amazing and set a new standard for quartz around the world. It completely changed the game,” Zigras told me. Once in Arkansas, he discovered that Coleman didn’t own the entire McEarl mine; timber company Weyerhaeuser owned part. 

Zigras met with William Willis, then the manager for Weyerhaeuser’s Southern Minerals. 

“We had never done anything with quartz to speak of,” Willis, a member of the state Geological Survey Commission, told me. “It’s a commodity not many folks were interested in, and the ones, like weekend sellers, that were interested didn’t have any assets behind them. “When we sold surface rights in those areas,” he said, “we’d keep the quartz rights.”

“James came in and he just had a spark about him,” Willis said. He said he thought that “maybe this is our guy.”

Zigras had come prepared with maps of crystal mines in Garland County made by the government during WWII. “He’d done his homework,” Willis said. “He had that old government publication, and not 50 folks in the world have it, and 45 don’t know they have it.”

So Zigras was able to obtain leases to mine the crystals in the Weyerhaeuser portion of the McEarl mine, for the agreeable sum of $2,000 an acre. “I bought the best crystal mine in the world for almost no money. Which means I was meant to be here,” Zigras told me.

But, rather than listen to Coleman miners about where to dig, he listened to some “turkeys” he’d hired to mine, and came up empty-handed from the “best crystal mine in the world.”

“So I did the unthinkable,” Zigras said. “I bought more land. … I just started buying and buying and buying and never stopped. Now we have 30 mines on 12,000 acres.”

One of those mines, the Diamond Drill Carbon Co. No. 4, was mined out during the war — or that’s what the government’s report said. “I said there was no way this place is mined out,” Zigras said during our tour of the mine, on a denuded and quartz-studded slope of the Ouachitas. Why? “It’s not like I’m a crystal whisperer. You actually just look down at your feet.”

He was right: Diamond Drill Carbon Co. No. 4 was where he found the wide vein that produced the “Holy Grail.” Houston Museum of Natural Science President Joel Bartsch gave the cluster its name. (He was at the mine when it was unearthed and told Zigras he’d found his holy grail.) The mine, now named the Zigras Mine at the encouragement of Alice Walton and David Yurman, who buys crystals from Zigras for his jewelry, is still producing from the vein, which he calls the “Vortex.”

The Yurman connection is not the only pizzazz Zigras brings to Arkansas rockhounding. Dr. Thomas Paradise, professor of geosciences at the University of Arkansas, described him as a “mineral geek” with a “Hollywood” flair. Zigras’ Instagram account shows him with Paris Hilton at a private Art Basel party last year in Miami, with Dale Chihuly at Chihuly’s boathouse, with James Turrell, the famed artist who created “Skyspace” at Crystal Bridges and who has visited Zigras’ mine. He sold an enormous ruby to Devo musician and artist Mark Mothersbaugh, which Mothersbaugh then had carved into what is politely described as soft-serve ice cream in a bronze cone (“Ruby Kusturd”). When I last interviewed Zigras, he was packing away crystals for his display at the 2019 Art Basel show.

 

Crystals from the Zigras Mine are now in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Harvard University and Caltech.

Among the crystals from the Vortex housed at Avant Mining’s facility is something he calls the “Bouquet”: a cluster of crystals lit from beneath to glow. He said a major museum is interested in it, and that it has been appraised at $5 million.  

Zigras also has a cluster weighing 8,000 pounds, one he says is “truly a million-dollar piece.” What are you going to do with it? I asked. “Oh, I’m going to do something with it,” he said with a shrug.

Asked how much the “Holy Grail” sold for, Zigras declined to say, except that he believes it to be the “most expensive and valuable Arkansas quartz ever sold.” I asked if he sold it to Alice Walton. “The ‘Holy Grail’ was a private transaction,” he said. “I can’t talk about it.” It is on indefinite loan to Crystal Bridges.

Kevin Coleman, the fourth of five generations of Colemans to mine quartz crystal outside Hot Springs, said he, too, has a multimillion-dollar piece that Smithsonian benefactors are interested in. The 9-foot-tall cluster was dug from the Ron Coleman Mine, which is located on a ridge parallel to the Zigras Mine in Garland County, and is at the Coleman showroom in Tucson. “That’s where we sell our high-end pieces,” he said.

The Colemans have been mining since the 1940s, and opened the Ron Coleman Mine to the public nearly 30 years ago. (Ron is Jim Coleman’s brother.) These days, it’s known in Arkansas primarily for its tourist trade; visitors can fly over the mine on a zip line nearly a quarter of a mile long and hold birthday parties there. There’s a gift shop, an RV resort and a digging area ($20 for adults, $15 for ages 55 and over, $5 for ages 7-17). 

Kevin Coleman said the profit is evenly divided between the tourist trade and the sale of big-ticket crystals, which includes a piece worth millions that went to the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2. The family is known by collectors for its more valuable pieces not by marketing, he said, but by word of mouth. “We play things close to the vest.”  

That might change if Netflix decides to go forward with a documentary on the Colemans and crystal mining in Arkansas. Producers have visited. Coleman was reluctant to discuss the details, saying only that discussions were preliminary. Other networks are interested, he said, but Netflix has the first right.

 

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
The “Holy Grail,” at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Although the Coleman family would disagree — their mine has long been considered the best — Zigras believes his particular ridge in the Ouachitas is producing crystals of the greatest aesthetic value. One could expect Zigras to tout his mine, he acknowledged. So he suggested I call Jeffrey Post, the curator-in-charge of gems and minerals at the Smithsonian. Post has been to Avant Mining twice, has even dug a crystal from the Vortex. 

“It is pretty impressive,” Post told me. “They’re finding some really fine clusters of quartz crystals, very clean, very high quality, optically clear. …  Some of the finest quartz I’ve seen in the United States.”

Post said he could understand if Arkansans were a bit jaded when it came to quartz, because there is so much of it. Too, he said, not every crystal cluster that comes out of the ground is “truly spectacular”; many are cloudy from trapped air or have broken points.

And though Arkansas’s quartz is “more than a tourist attraction,” the fact that people can dig into the earth and come up with a glistening, crystallized mineral of any size has its own value, Post said. “Every time I pick one out of the ground, I feel like it’s pretty special,” he said. “Show me anyone who finds and cleans one and isn’t impressed.”

Post was inspired to become a mineralogist because of rock crystal from Arkansas. He was in the fourth grade in Wisconsin when he saw his first. “I’d never seen anything like it before,” he said, and it put him on the path to the Smithsonian.

Arkansas Geology Survey Commissioner Willis called Zigras’ crystals “world-class.”

 

The metaphysical market for rock crystals is strong, having shrugged off the goofball and sometimes offensive carryings-on by Shirley MacLaine in the 1980s. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Katy Perry and Adele, who told a British newspaper that they help her combat stage fright, are believers.  

Then, of course, there is Alice Walton. 

Zigras, who also has a certain affinity for the idea of crystals as creating mystical energy, noted that the year he began mining — 2011 — was also the year Walton opened Crystal Bridges museum. That year, Zigras said, “The energy in the whole state of Arkansas changed.” 

Gary Fleck, who lives outside Hot Springs and has been in the crystal vending business for 47 years, said he found it “challenging” to put the power of crystals into words. “People ask, how do crystals work and how do I use them? I don’t care for the word ‘healing.’ What is healing anyway? To sum up for me, they’re magic.”

He said he first came to realize the power of crystals and other stones in a mine in the Sonoran desert, where an “angel of inner earth” named Sabatini told him that crystals will reveal their teachings just by touch and should be treated with respect. “I encourage people to take their metaphysical books to a recycling center,” Fleck said. 

Fleck said the shop he opened in 1985, The Crystal Fountain, was the first metaphysical store in Hot Springs. He no longer operates it, but said the market is “exploding.” 

What is the best use of crystal? “Just enjoy them, for their clarity and luster and color,” Fleck said. “Every time I look at them it is like looking at them for the first time.”

Starr Fuentes has been teaching metaphysical classes for 60 years, 15 of them in Hot Springs from her geodesic dome on Park Avenue. At age 80, she’s still going strong and eager to talk about the power of crystals.

“What I want to say about crystals is they move, they’re alive. They’re so grounded and so slow that they teach us patience.” She believes certain crystals have healing properties — “general healing would require a green stone or a crystal with chloride in it,” she said — and that because they can send and receive energy, you can ask them for help.

Fuentes has written several books, with titles like “A Sprinkling of Starr,” “Gemstones for Foot Grounding” and “The Divine.” In her 18th book, “Crystal Polyhedrons,” to come out next year, Fuentes focuses on the crystals produced by Avant Mining. “The Avant crystals are some of the strangest, purest crystals I have ever seen,” she said. “The earth is offering up something new right now. The clarity, the power of the Avant crystals are of a new level unexpressed previously.”

Fuentes moved to Hot Springs because of its thermal springs and quartz. “What I don’t understand,” she said, “is that we’re sitting on the biggest crystal deposit in the United States and we don’t monetize it. You know how Sedona (Arizona) has monetized its psychics and crystals — you can’t go 5 feet without seeing them.

“We have water that is purifying. [But] we don’t have crystal conferences, we don’t have sacred water conferences today, we don’t have a Crystal Day.”

Zigras, she said, is “doing something wonderful” by publicizing the state’s “crystal economy.”

Consider that crystals were created 300 million years ago from dissolved silica that poured into fissures created by the folding of crustal plates that created the Ouachita Mountains. That the mineral is limited to the folds that trace a jagged oval surrounding Lake Ouachita and points west. That tens of millions of years had to pass before the mountains were eroded enough to reveal their rock crystal treasure. That the DNA of crystals — the subatomic pattern of silicon dioxide — can be seen in their outward form. That a sliver can generate the manmade silicon of Silicon Valley, the stuff of our phones, computers, our fiber optic cables. That’s amazing enough.

 

Zigras has plans beyond mining. He wants to open a museum featuring his own collection, which includes a giant piece of turquoise produced from the Mona Lisa Mine south of Mena (he has a lease on that mine from the federal Bureau of Land Management), Brazilian quartz streaked with threads of gold titanium oxide, a 9th century Viking talisman, agates that he calls “cookie monsters” because of the mouth the layers create, and another agate whose swirls look like Donald Trump (“I had to buy that,” he said.). He has fossilized shells in which quartz crystals have formed. The shells would find a companion in the “Crystals in Art” show: Daniel Arsham’s “Blue Calcite Column of Footballs,” in which cracks in the Yves-Klein-blue footballs reveal crystallized interiors. Zigras’ shells embody past geological action; Arsham’s what the past could look like in the future.

He sees educational opportunities he could create on his property and says he has partners — anonymous — who are interested in various ventures. He is confounded by what he believes is indifference to the resource on the part of Hot Springs — which he said recently released promotional material that included the big blue glass rocks — and the state. “The state should jump on the bandwagon,” he said.

Rock crystals, Zigras said, “are tired of being a tourist attraction. People need to learn the real value of these things. They’re really important. They power all our technology.

“We don’t have a phone, computer or car, nothing without quartz … . You’re connected to them whether you like it or not. They literally run your life.”