James King Hill knew his neighbors smiled and shook their heads whenever they saw his backhoe creeping through Hiddenite, N.C., off on yet another quest for buried treasure. Says Hill: "I'm sure they thought, There goes Mrs. Sharpe's grandson. He thinks he's going to get rich.'

That was before last Thanksgiving, the day Hill's 30-year obsession paid off. Around 3 p.m., Hill, 35, and his son James, 9, were digging near a dormant emerald mine on family land when they spied a telltale dark green glint. "Daddy, have we found treasure?" the little boy squealed. Indeed they had—three emeralds, totaling about 40 carats and worth up to $20,000. And that was just the beginning. A few days later, Hill found his Aladdin's cave 10 feet underground. "There were crystals and emeralds sticking out of the wall," he says. "I was grabbing the emeralds like teeth and plucking them out."

Hill's discovery, which is producing more—and better—emeralds than any other mine in North America, has gem experts seeing green. "I think the quality is terrific," says Gary Roskin, gemstone editor for the trade publication jewelers Circular Keystone. "They are comparable to some of the finer gems coming out of Colombia." In five months, Hill, who carries a gun to deter thieves and secures the mine—which is about 17 feet deep and twice the size of an Olympic swimming pool—with two huge steel plates, has extracted 3,000 carats. Among them is a gargantuan 1,000-carat stone, worth up to $100,000, that he calls the Jolly Green Giant. "This is the Emerald City," Hill says, laughing. "It's a dream come true."

Make that a dream come true just in time. Hill had run through $200,000 since 1992 and was facing the prospect of getting a factory job last spring when a family friend, mattress company president Howard Wills of Columbia, S.C., invested $200,000 for a track hoe and dump truck. "Jamie is a good positive person," says Wills. "In his own way, he's kind of a genius."

The son of Lynn, 58, and James, a prep school teacher who died 29 years ago, at 34, from multiple sclerosis, Hill started hunting for gems almost as soon as he could walk. Encouraged by his grandparents—R.Y. Sharpe, a trucking-industry entrepreneur, and Eileen Sharpe, a philanthropist who owns the Hidden Crystal Inn in Hiddenite with Hill's mother—he began rooting around their garden. "He worked long and hard to do this," says Lynn. "I sometimes wonder if, since he lost his father so early, he wasn't looking for himself—for his roots."

After dropping out of college and trying a variety of odd jobs, Hill decided to devote himself to his first love. "I knew," he says, "that treasure hunting was in my blood." And Hiddenite, in the Brushy Mountains 50 miles northwest of Charlotte, seemed the perfect place; the area has long been a fertile source of gems and minerals.

Hill's first big find came in 1990—a 298-pound quartz crystal, perhaps the largest ever unearthed in North America. Persuaded by his research that an "emerald highway" cut through the property, he subsequently persuaded his family to buy 100 acres of land around an old mine. By the time of his discovery, he felt he had exhausted their patience. "I thought, 'I'm going to have to do something else,' he says, " 'because I've got kids to support.' (Hill's older children, his son and Crystal, 5, are from a first marriage that ended in divorce; he has a 10-month-old daughter, Destinee, with his second wife, Misti, from whom he is also being divorced.)

Although his Thanksgiving Day windfall will allow Hill to fulfill his responsibilities without joining the workaday world—once he gets the rough stones cut and sold—it has brought other headaches. Like all those calls coming into the Hidden Crystal Inn from women who would like to make his acquaintance. "Some of them will say, 'I'm not a gold digger,' reports Hill's mother, who fields most of the calls. "In fact, they're emerald diggers."

Michael Neill
Amy Laughinghouse in Hiddenite

  • Contributors:
  • Amy Laughinghouse.