Franklin, North Carolina is nicknamed the “Gem Capital of the World.” The small town hosts gem shows, rock shops and gem mining. How did this small town get such a big reputation?
“It’s just the luck of the shovel,” says Judy Johnson. She’s been working at Mason’s Gem Mine for 11 years. The mine which opened in 1952 is located in Burningtown just outside of Franklin. The mine sits on a natural deposit of gems and is a prime example of how the area got its name. Tourists dig their own dirt from the mountain side and then sift for gems in flumes.
Mica, garnets and many gems are abundant but the most common mineral found in the area is corundum, says Al Kribble, president of the Franklin Gem and Mineral Society.
“The corundum industry was big prior to 1900 because they used corundum for sandpaper and all manner of grinding,” says Kribble.
Corundum is more than just sandpaper - when it is red we call it a ruby and when it is blue we call it sapphire. Rumor has it that jeweler Tiffany’s built a mine in Cowee but they never found a vein of rubies large enough to sustain commercial mining.
The end of the commercial industry in the are resulted in many mines like Mason’s where tourists can come to pan for gems. They also come to visit the Gem and Mineral Museum in downtown Franklin. Kribble estimates that about 15,000 people come through the museum each year and many more go to the three gem shows that they help host. The biggest gem show is on Mother’s Day weekend. The Macon County Gemboree in July is now in it’s 55th year. Kribble says that it was around that time in the 1960s that the tourism gem industry really took off.
That’s around the same time that Ernest Fredrick Klatt opened Ruby City Gems and Minerals. The store opened in 1958 and moved up to town hill in 1963.
BPR spoke to his grandson Kevin Klatt, who now runs the business. The jewelry and gem store is celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer.
“It’s pretty weird watching the signs change and businesses move in and out - but we are still here,” says Klatt.
Klatt says he’s been working at his family’s gem and mineral business since he was about 8 years old and that by 12 yrs old he could identify over 100 stones. The store also boasts a museum with treasure from a black light room of luminescent stones to a shrunken head.
It’s this kind of curiosity for gems and minerals that helps Franklin keep up its nickname.