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New York’s Hidden Treasure – Beautiful, Ethical and Economical Herkimer Diamonds

Ila Bonczek
Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: May 2, 2024
Herkimer diamonds are a rare gem that you can mine for yourself in New York State. (Image: ryan.f.mandelbaum Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Nestled between the Catskill Mountains and the Adirondacks in New York State, the Mohawk Valley area boasts a rare gemstone. Herkimer diamonds can be found within exposed outcrops of dolomite formed some 500 million years ago. They are named after Herkimer County, New York, one of precious few places on Earth where such stones have been discovered.  

While the clarity and brilliance of some specimens can compete with real diamonds, these stones are actually a specific type of quartz crystal. Because they form practically independent of their host rock, Herkimer diamonds are double-terminated — meaning they have a point at both ends. 

Herkimer, NY, in Herkimer County – home of the Herkimer diamond. (Image: Kenneth C. Zirkel via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0) 

Double-terminated quartz crystals can also be found in Afghanistan, China, Norway, and Ukraine; and Pakistan has its own unique version of double-terminated quartz which glows under UV light, due to petroleum inclusions. Technically, only those found in New York are called “Herkimer diamonds.” 

A brief history

First discovered in fields and streambeds by the Mohawk people, Herkimer diamonds have long been considered precious — the hard and beautiful crystal was used for amulets and tools. 

The Mohawk people called their region Kanyenka, which is usually translated as “Place of the Flint (another form of quartz common in the area, which was especially suited for arrowheads).” Some, however, translate the name as meaning “Place of the Crystals.

Later excavation by European settlers revealed the gems embedded in the Mohawk Valley rock. While the indigenous people are said to have lost interest in favor of newly-introduced glass beads, Herkimer diamonds gained favor among jewelry makers, and commercial mining began in the mid 19th century. 

Herkimer diamond jewelry

Herkimer diamonds make an affordable, durable substitute for real diamonds. (Image: pexels)

Herkimer diamonds measure 7.5 on the Mohs hardness scale, which rates real diamonds (the hardest mineral) at 10. They are highly resistant to scratching and hard enough to be cut and shaped; although these crystals can form up to 18 facets naturally, and are often left in their natural state.

Gem-quality crystals are transparent with good clarity; and impurities like air bubbles, rainbow inclusions and carbon deposits are considered flaws. A high quality Herkimer diamond will be colorless, with perfect clarity and brilliance. Depending on the number of carats, these can be quite costly. 

These gems can be seen in earrings, pendants, bracelets, and even engagement rings. All herkimer diamonds are suitable for everyday wear, and can be cleaned simply with water and a mild soap. Avoid exposing your Herkimer diamond to harsh chemicals or abrasive environments, and it should last several lifetimes. 

Two Herkimer diamonds with trapped pockets of mineralized water and inclusions of black bituminous. (Image: Robert M. Lavinsky via QWikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Metaphysical properties of Herkimer diamond

Even the flawed Herkimer diamonds are highly valued among crystal enthusiasts for their cleansing properties. The double-terminated shape, symbolic of balance and harmony, is said to bring in energy from one end and release it, transformed, from the other. 

Herkimer diamonds are thus often used for cleansing negative energy, improving focus, and restoring balance. They are believed to improve our connection with the spiritual realm, and may help reduce stress, enhance meditation and unlock our inner guidance. 

Mining for Herkimer diamonds

Herkimer diamonds in their natural state. (Image: Géry PARENT via Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

While mining for real diamonds is costly, dangerous, destructive, and labor intensive, Herkimer diamonds are mined from above-ground quarries — many of which are open to the public. Mining techniques vary depending on the skill level and expectations of the miner. 

Surface mining

The safest prospecting for Herkimer diamonds is done by rummaging through surface rock rubble and soil for loose crystals. This is an easy way to find a number of smaller crystals, and the most suitable method for children. 

Sluice Mining

A slightly more advanced form of prospecting resembles panning for gold. Soil with small rubble is scooped into pails, and carried to a trough of running water — called a sluice.  The rubble is rinsed over a screen; and with the dirt washed away, it is easy to pick out the sparkling crystals. This method is recommended for finding quantities of jewelry-sized pieces.

Find and Break Prospecting

Larger herkimer diamonds can be found within small cavities called “vugs.” To excavate them, you’ll need a rock hammer, the strength and energy to use it, and plenty of time for finding and breaking lots of vuggy rock. Most of them will yield nothing, but any vug has the potential for one or two good-sized crystals. Protective goggles or a face shield is required. 

Pocket Prospecting

“Pockets” are similar to vugs, but larger. They may contain many Herkimer diamonds of all sizes, including very-large crystals. This method is entering the professional level. It is hard work using heavy tools, and requires dedicating a significant amount of time. 

Some training and knowledge are particularly helpful in weilding a sledgehammer, crow bar and wedges amidst the tough dolomite rock. Protective gear like knee pads, gloves, safety goggles and ear protection are necessary for this work. 

Pocket prospecting can go on for weeks, so heavy duty tarps are used to cover the work area, which is called a “claim.” Miners respect each other’s claims and don’t go snooping under others’ tarps. 

Of course, if you would simply like a crystal without all the work, a limited number of Herkimer diamonds can be found in crystal shops, or they can be purchased online from New York State venders.