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Originally published August 13, 2012 at 9:00 PM | Page modified August 14, 2012 at 10:25 AM

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Rockhounds sniff out treasured Ellensburg agates

There are other blue agates in the world, but only one Ellensburg Blue, a choice find with a virtual cult following.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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This is similar to the Oregon Sunstone....our state rock...they're fun to find, too.... MORE
Are you aware a large part of the area now burning is very popular for searching for... MORE
These people have rocks in their heads. Well, actually it's rocks on their minds. Close... MORE

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ELLENSBURG —

They have an otherworldly glow, often blue as the sky, but sometimes tinted with the lavender of twilight.

And while there are other blue agates in the world, there is only one Ellensburg Blue, as the agates from the Teanaway formation near Ellensburg are called. Unique to this landscape, E Blues, in rockhound patois, are a choice find, with a virtual cult following in Ellensburg. Generations of high-school graduates and marrying couples here have prized the pearly stones for their rings.

"And it's almost a rite of passage that if you're leaving town, you are going with an Ellensburg Blue," said Steven Townsend, who buys and sells blues at his agate and bead shop in Ellensburg.

They are the stone with everything, Townsend can tell you: the beauty coveted by collectors, and the elusive mystique that ignites the thrill of the hunt. For there is no mother lode of Ellensburg Blues; they aren't mined like coal.

Instead, E Blues are a here-and-there find, usually at the surface, turned up by anything from the tread of a cow's hoof to the upheaval of frost and erosion come spring.

"Don't let anyone tell you they are all gone; we have a new crop every year," says Bernice Best, who with her husband, Bob, operates the Rock 'n Tomahawk Ranch outside Ellensburg, where hunters can pay $5 for a day's hunt for Blues.

"I don't look for them myself," Bob said. Instead, over the years, the rocks have found him: while putting in a fence post, or in Bernice's case, even encountering a blue in the roots of a shrub.

The classic find comes in the early spring, when frost heave pulls the agates to the surface. A blustery not-quite-spring day, raw and windy and muddy: that's Ellensburg Blue hunting weather.

Yet people come year round, and from all over the world, drawn by the mystique of the stone that can be found nowhere else. "I make $2,500 a year, $5 at a time," Bernice said.

For first-timers, she spreads out agates found at their place across a sheet of plywood on saw horses, and demonstrates what the stones look like in the raw, as well as choice cut and polished specimens.

In the raw they aren't much — a rust-stained hunk easily overlooked by someone who doesn't know the beauty within. Townsend is sure that all over town there are boxes and buckets of rocks someone's grandfather collected and forgot about — and that no one knows are valuable.

It's easy to spend more than $1,000 on a piece of jewelry in Townsend's store set with a polished Blue, worth anywhere from $10 to $250 per carat, depending on the quality of the stone. Some have a so-called turtleback, a somewhat rumpled surface, while others have an almost lacy swirl of minerals, like marbling in a cake.

For Townsend, the fascination with rocks started with picking up agates on the beach on the Washington coast. "It was pretty, and it just kind of went on from there."

Danielle Cummings can relate. She dropped by the store on a recent afternoon, her hands full of rings set with Ellensburg Blues — including a stone her mother had found. Their family moved to the area when she was just a kid, and the rock hunting started. "That's the thing with Blues," Cummings said. "Each one is different."

There are lots of theories about what gives the agates, with their 43 trace elements, their provocative hues. But at root, it's all about how light reflects off the internal structure of the stone.

Collecting these days is tricky because formations carrying the agates are virtually all on private land, and the locals are past tired of trespassing rockhounds with more zeal than manners or sense.

"It is a passion with some people," Townsend said of rockhounds with a yen for blue. Hang out in his shop any day of the week, and before long, someone comes in with a sack full of rocks, looking for a an appraisal. And while many are hopeful, few have found the real thing.

"My customers are anywhere from meth addicts to doctors and lawyers and they all want the same thing. They want to buy or sell an E Blue," Townsend said. "I have sold Ellensburg Blues all over the world."

Townsend knows the search for Ellensburg Blues — made nationally famous in jewelry designs by Tiffany & Co. — will never stop, and that true rockhounds will never be dissuaded by coming up empty.

"I look at it this way," Townsend said. "You get the fresh air and exercise. And if you get a Blue, that is a bonus."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.

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