A week before Christmas Dean Crane started his Friday teaching kids how to drill holes for stone beads at the Magdalena Kids’ Science Café, then he was on to a small store to consult with the shop owner about fixing a few pieces of old jewelry.
Crane is a miner and lapidary, in business with his wife Conne Gibson, a lapidary and designer. Together they run NM Lapidary & Design. When it comes to precious stones, the pair do a little bit of everything. Both gather stones in locations they can point out from the window above their kitchen sink.
They do a lot of surface collecting and some handwork with chisels and hammers, and there are plenty of locations near Magdalena where they can find rocks
“My buddy had a digging bar and we managed to get into this seam and the whole wall was made of that beautiful blue-green chrysocolla,” said Crane. “And I had him by the belt loop. I was on the ladder. He had one foot on the bar, and literally, two tons of the material came off the side of that. And we were all doing the happy dance.”
Crane’s enthusiasm for stones and minerals is infectious. He’ll stop mid-conversation to grab another stone to show, an example of amethyst or cores from beads—a colorful collection of “rock confetti” kept in a glass jar in the pantry. A small collection of rocks lives in their front yard, which he likes to gift rocks from to visitors.
A more carefully curated collection is set up on a long shelf in the small workshop behind their home. Part of deciding what to add to the shelf is aesthetics.
“One is location, and the other is just if it gets me. If it’s a beautiful piece. This is a zeolite from the Bear Mountains, right out here,” said Crane, pointing out a window.
“Zeolites are a class of minerals that form when old hot springs occur. There’s a lot of hot springs in New Mexico. Lots and lots of hydrothermal waters.”
Every stone is introduced with an explanation of how it was formed and where it came from. One of their biggest sellers right now is smithsonite from the Kelly Mine.
Gibson shares Crane’s enthusiasm. Her eyes light up when she talks about the substantial mineral collection the pair were hired to find a buyer for—another way to generate income with their rock knowledge. But their primary business is making their own beads and jewelry.
In the small workshop behind their home, Gibson does the initial shaping to get the sides of a stone equal before she drills a hole to turn the stone into a bead. Crane is the master polisher.
A rock grinder with three wheels of different grit sits in the corner where he grinds and polishes. The wheels are diamond imprinted because many of the rocks he grinds are 7 in hardness or harder. He also has carbon wheels, which are convex and can be used to carve animals.
The couple started their lapidary business by making beads and selling them at shows around the country. In 2003, when Crane was offered a spot at a big show in Tucson, he convinced Gibson to quit her job and make beads with him to prepare for the show. She made over 600 beads in nine months.
“When we did the bead shows, we had two of those machines,” said Crane. “So, we would each spend sometimes eight hours at the wheel because we would sell everything we made … And when we came back from a show, we had another show in a month.”
Crane is also a silversmith and gets work repairing precious stones and settings for jewelry repair businesses in Albuquerque. Crane can inlay opal in onyx, shape glass into paperweights, and seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of how and where the stones he works with were formed.
Gibson turns the finished beads into jewelry. She starts with a centerpiece on her beadboard, and strands and strands of loose beads. For Gibson, design is all about color. She started out as a painter and studied drawing and painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts.
“Sometimes I’ll put one thing together and take it apart and put it back together maybe five or six times before I decide that it’s right.”
Some of the finished pieces are on display in shops. The business also offers home jewelry parties, private showings and custom jewelry designs.
“We’ve always had so much fun with it that we don’t want to stop,” said Gibson.