Pulga Jade, a local California gemstone

A story by John Gaumer

In the early 1900s, the Western Pacific Railroad was expanding into the Central Valley of California. As it pushed its rail line through the the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a deposit of beautiful, translucent apple-green gemstone material was unearthed in the Feather River canyon. The new material resembled jade, but confirmation of the new mystery rock was needed. George Frederick Kunz, the Vice President of Tiffany & Co and a leading gemologist of the time, was summoned to the canyon to identify the mineral. Kunz was working nearby in San Diego and decided to make the northerly journey, where he determined that the material was not jade, but rather idocrase (also known as Vesuvianite, named after Mount Vesuvius where another deposit had been found). He wasn’t a fan of either name, so he instead named it Californite, to commemorate where it was discovered. To this day, it is known as either Californite, or Pulga Jade, named after the little town of Pulga, near where it was found, though the mineral is idocrase.

After it was identified, Tiffany & Co. commissioned a group of local gold miners to mine the Californite at the Pulga King Mine. They removed enough material for Tiffany & Co to send the gemstone to China to be cut and carved, and set into jewelry. Once the jewelry was finished, it was sent back to the States where it was sold as “Chinese Jade”, instead of its given name. Our family often wonders how much more prized Pulga Jade would be if Tiffany & Co had used the name “Californite”, or even “Pulga Jade”, for its jewelry line.

Feather River Canyon
John and Jim Gaumer mining for Pulga Jade

Growing up in the central valley, my dad and I used to mine and collect local minerals as often as possible. One day, we drove out highway 70 to the Feather River Canyon to mine Californite at the Pulga King Mine. Since the original miners had removed most of the original material, we only found a little of the gemstone, and decided that we needed help to find a better source of Pulga Jade. My dad knew of an “old timer”, a blue-eyed Native American, who lived in the back country near the mine, and we went to ask for his assistance. He told us that he knew of some better locations to find the gemstone, but at the time he didn’t feel like showing us the way and asked us to come back later. A few weeks later, with a bottle of Jack Daniels in hand, we came back. The gift seemed to give the old timer some incentive to help, and told us to follow him. He shot up the canyon like a billy goat, and we struggled to keep up. Finally, he showed us a serpentine outcropping with a series of Pulga Jade veins peeking through the rock. My dad and I mined out a large portion of the outcropping, which yielded the Pulga Jade we still use today to make hand-made custom pieces in our jewelry store.

Custom Pulga Jade pieces made by John Gaumer at Gaumer’s Jewelry