These Calgary hobbyists polish fossils and make jewelry out of rocks — and their numbers are doubling

·3 min read
Polished rocks for sale at a northeast Calgary rock and lapidary store. The store has seen a jump in interest in rock cutting and polishing during the pandemic. (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)
Polished rocks for sale at a northeast Calgary rock and lapidary store. The store has seen a jump in interest in rock cutting and polishing during the pandemic. (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)

The Calgary Rock and Lapidary Club started way back in 1959 as people took advantage of Alberta's proximity to the Rocky Mountains and some of the world's richest fossil-hunting grounds.

It was still the Wild West when it came to treasure hunting for rocks and fossils, before laws to protect and preserve fossils came into effect in the 1970s.

Not long after the club formed, a young David Gill was introduced to the world of lapidary by an older boy at school.

Lapidary involves finding, cutting and polishing rocks and fossils. It's something Gill has been doing for the last 60 years.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"In the mountains, I would pick up rocks and I was interested. Then in Grade 7, an older student took me under his wing and showed me his rock saw and sanders in his basement," said Gill. "That would have been in 1960."

Gill soon got some of his own equipment and never looked back. Now 60 years later, he's still picking up rocks and putting them in his pocket.

"It can be a lifelong hobby," he said.

Gill makes bowls out of ultra-smooth, polished beach rocks and other pieces of jewelry for family members, including his wife and daughter. Some projects involve rocks he started polishing decades ago.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"It's fascinating what's inside these rocks when you cut them and polish them," said Gill. "But you've got to pick and choose if you want it to be interesting, like a fossilized piece of wood or a mineral."

The hobby has seen a boom of sorts during the pandemic with wannabe rock hounds lining up to buy some entry level equipment and give it a try.

"With COVID, people have found an opportunity to stay at home more and turn to hobbies more," said Erik Gregson, who owns Green's Rock & Lapidary store.

"What we've seen at our shop is a real resurgence and an interest in rocks," said Gregson.

He says the biggest jump in sales has been rock tumbling equipment, where a small machine tumbles a load of small rocks producing shiny and colourful stones.

"At the store, we saw a doubling last year and a doubling again this year on top of last year. The interest is unbelievable. If we can find some positives out of COVID, this would be one," said Gregson.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

Gregson says he gets a lot grandparents through the doors buying equipment for grandkids, giving them a screen-free activity that they can do together.

The rock tumbling world is also alive and well on social media, with video channels, tutorials and Facebook groups to help with the learning curve and make it easier than ever to get into the hobby.

As well as cutting and polishing rocks, more people are trying their hand at making their own jewelry out of rocks.

It costs $5 to drop by the club and use their machines and jewelry workshop.

"People turn those stones into little pieces of jewelry. They'll add little metal pieces on to make a pendant," said Gregson. "It's a lifetime of opportunity and learning."

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

The rock club's studio space and club activities are mainly funded through running its annual Gem, Mineral & Fossil Show, which usually attracts thousands of attendees and hundreds of vendors.

The non-profit organization was also boosted financially by a former senior member who died and donated some money to the club, allowing the group to rent a long-term space in the city's northeast.

The rock show hasn't been held the past couple of years but the club is hoping it will be able to go ahead again in 2022, with many newer hobbyists getting the chance to check it out for the first time.

"They'll be amazed at how far this hobby can go," said Gregson.

"You could spend a lifetime learning."

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