A $10 Rock Turns Out to Be the Gibraltar of Sapphires
Roy Whetstine, a 47-year-old gem broker from Longview, Texas, went to Tucson last February not to wheel or deal but to visit his ailing father. When he dropped in on a gem collectors show there, he was only looking for a few dollars' worth of pretty pebbles for his sons, Stephen, 4, and Jonathan, 11.
He was checking out the wares of one grizzled mountain man when his eye was drawn to a cardboard box on a windowsill. The box, crudely hand-lettered AGATES, YOUR CHOICE $15, was loaded with crusty brown-and-black pitted rocks. As sunlight hit the largest stone, Whetstine, a certified gemologist, was stunned to see its tip glittering. Examining the lumpy, potato-size rock more closely, he could just make out at one edge, where its weathered crust was thinnest, a violet-shaded crystalline interior. "You gotta be kidding," he told the old man. "You want 15 bucks for this?"
"No," the elderly gent shrugged. "That one there ain't as perty as some of them other agates. I'll take $10 for it."
Whetstine whipped out two $5 bills. Struggling to mask his emotions, he took care to get a receipt, then quickly left the show. Halfway across the parking lot he could contain himself no longer. "Yaa-hoo!" he shouted.
He had a pretty good idea what he had just bought. To make sure, he drove to a gem cutter. He watched intently as the cutter's diamond wheel scraped away a half-dollar-size "window" in the rock's outer crust. The cutter peered closely at the one-pound rock. "Oh, my God," the craftsman gasped. He nervously declined to finish the job, and Whetstine himself took over. When he peeked through the window, Whetstine was awestruck by the "starring" inside. "It exhibited a fantastic six-legged star as light caught the crystal," he recalls. "It was unreal, huge, brilliant."
It was, more precisely, the largest pure crystal star sapphire ever found, a 1,905-carat monster that dwarfs both the fabled Star of India and the Black Star of Queensland (Australia). The stone, which Whetstine has named "The Life and Pride of the Americas Star Sapphire," has an appraised value of $2.28 million. It will be worth more if, as seems likely, it is cut and resold as two polished gems, one of about 1,000 carats and one of about 300.
Whetstine plans to sell the rough stone and put the money in trust for his two sons. "It will break my heart to let the sapphire go," he says. "Beauty is what everyone wants, whether it's cars, rocks or women." But Whetstine, who seven years ago survived bypass surgery that wiped him out financially, puts a higher priority on economic security for his family.
He, his wife, Jeanne, 43, and the boys will continue to live the simple life in the rural serenity of their 32-acre spread outside Longview. "I want my boys to look out the window and see deer in the woods," he says, "to go to church, to feel bad if an animal is hurt—to hold these values higher than the things money can buy."
Whetstine is living proof that money can buy a great deal, especially if the buyer knows something the seller doesn't. He won't divulge the name of the man who sold him the giant sapphire, but insists that, far from harboring any hard feelings, the seller has become a family friend. "He was hysterical with joy when I told him about the stone," Whetstine says. That joyous moment came some time after Whetstine hastened back to the man's hotel room to buy 81 smaller sapphires, worth about $1,200 per carat. "He asked me for a dollar each for them, and I paid him."
According to Whetstine, the seller hasn't asked him for any additional money, and Whetstine hasn't offered any. "I told him I would not apologize for making the profit, because that was the way everybody made money. He just laughed and said, 'I hope you get $20 million for it. You're making money for your kids.' " Rumor has it that he and the seller have since become secret partners in a deal to lock up mineral rights in the area—said to be in Idaho—where the sapphire was found.
The Americas Star Sapphire now sits in a bank vault somewhere. Occasionally, Whetstine takes it out and beholds it in all its splendor. "It's been said for centuries that sapphires have mystical powers, to protect kings from harm and envy, medicinal and healing powers for boils and blindness. I don't know about all that," Whetstine says. "But I know I feel better all over when I hold it."
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