Jewels of the desert

2014-01-30T00:00:00Z Jewels of the desertBy Johanna Willett Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The old mines and desert vistas of Arizona launched Gene Schlepp, a kid from the Midwest, into a new frontier.

After his family moved to Arizona from Illinois, he spent his teen years riding bikes into the desert and climbing hundreds of feet down into mine shafts with friends. He became one of the younger members of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society.

“I was like a kid in a new world,” Schlepp said. “From the cornfields of Illinois to the underground mines of Arizona, it was a fun, great time.”

Schlepp won a blue ribbon for best self-collected minerals at the first Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in 1955.

Now 74, the rockhound collects and sells minerals with Western Minerals, the business that he has run with his wife, Jackie, for decades. The couple will sell at several shows, including the venerable Tucson Gem and Mineral Show from Feb. 13 to Feb. 16.

Collecting runs in Schlepp’s blood. His grandmother, who moved to the United States from Germany at the cusp of the 20th century, collected seashells, inspiring Schlepp to collect beauty.

Wulfenite, a mineral most often found as a bright orange-red crystal, captured Schlepp’s imagination and love of the hunt. It’s found around the world, including in the Old Yuma Mine near Tucson, among others in Arizona.

“It was a glorious time,” Schlepp said. “It was a different world then…There was nobody to say, ‘You can’t go here, you can’t go there.’”

When the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society put on its first show, it attracted about 1,500 visitors. Schlepp remembers the “homey-type atmosphere” of the meetings, where he and his buddies would do “show-and-tell” with finds from recent treks.

“These are the kinds of things you never forget,” Schlepp said. “Whenever you’re in a mine anywhere and you’re lucky enough to be drilling and blasting and mucking, and you run across a cavern or pocket of beautiful stuff, why, you can’t believe what you see.”

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