Getting the dirt on Colorado’s precious stones

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(Photo: Jeff Scovil, courtesy Collector's Edge Minerals)
<p> Three Topaz crystals from the Tarryall Mountains in Colo. The largest one weighs 8.5 ounces.</p>

For Donna Ware and Jeff Self of Indian Hills, Colo., a good day's work means coming home with gold, silver or gemstones like Topaz and Aquamarine.

But Ware and Self aren't visiting a jewelry store: The couple prospects for gems in the state's mountains and then sells them through an online business, Self A Ware Minerals -- except when they can't stand to part with a certain gem.

"She teases me a lot about some of the specimens I've found," Self tells Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner about his partner, Ware.

Self says he charges extra for the gems he really hates to part with.

"As Donna puts it, [I'll] take the money and cry all the way to the bank," Self says.

And Ware and Self have lent some of their favorites to the Colorado School of Mines geology museum to let visitors -- and themselves -- enjoy the large, precious stones.

Gems and precious metals hidden in Colorado's landscape are getting plenty of attention these days, thanks to a television program called Prospectors on The Weather Channel.

But Self has been doing this since he was a boy -- hunting for gems alongside his grandfather.

Self and other prospectors file claims to various areas within the state where only they can mine for stones.

Each claim is 20.6 acres and can be made by anyone who finds unoccupied land, usually on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service and sometimes the Federal Bureau of Land Management.

Some landowners ask Ware and Self to come on their property and evaluate the potential for precious gems being found there.

One of Ware and Self's favorite spots is Mt. Antero, near Salida.

Self says Mt. Antero is "the highest gem locality in the country," home to Aquamarines, Fluorites, Quartz Crystals and other unusual minerals.

The gems and minerals are found above tree line but prospecting for them can be dangerous.

"We have weather issues -- lightening is horrific up there," Self says. “There have been many times where you drop all your metal tools and run like a coward for the lower elevations.”