How to Find a Diamond in Arkansas

A teenage visitor to Crater of Diamonds State Park takes home a 3.85-carat gem.

As teenager Tana Clymer discovered this month, watching where you step can really pay off—especially on a certain patch of volcanic soil in southwest Arkansas. Visitors to Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro have found more than 30,000 diamonds since the park opened in 1972.

No sophisticated tools or techniques are required; the two biggest finds so far this year were made by kids.

To find out more about about this unusual state park, we spoke with Waymon Cox, an interpreter at Crater of Diamonds since 2004.

Tell us about the latest big find.

It was on October 19. A girl from Oklahoma City and her family were out about two hours, digging and sifting with screens and buckets and shovels. They weren't having any luck, so she decided to just start "surface searching," looking on top of the ground. She saw what she thought was a candy wrapper, until she touched it. It turned out to be a 3.85-carat yellow diamond.

Does she get to keep it?

Yep, that's how it works here: finders keepers. You just have to pay the entry fee ($7 adults, $4 ages 6-12; equipment rental extra).

Most people associate diamonds with Africa, not Arkansas. How did they get there?

There was a volcanic eruption about 100 million years ago that created an 83-acre crater here. That eruption brought rocks and minerals from the Earth's mantle to the surface, and over time erosion has removed a lot of the lighter soil and left behind the heavier stuff, including diamonds and other gemstones.

Geologists had suspected there might be diamonds because the soil looked greenish, which meant it was a kind of volcanic soil called lamporite tuff, similar to the soil of diamond fields in South Africa. But they took some samples in 1889 and didn't find any diamonds.

So who did find the first sparkler?

The first diamond was discovered by a local farmer, John Wesley Huddleston, shortly after he purchased the land in 1906. Nobody knows the exact story. It's become the stuff of legend, but here's one version: He was crawling around on his hands and knees when he saw a glittering pebble. He took it to a nearby creek and washed it in a gold-mining pan. The glittering flakes floated away and turned out to be mica, not gold, but in the bottom of his pan he saw a smooth, rounded stone that he said shone in his eyes like fire.

He took it to the bank in Murfreesboro, and on the way he actually found another diamond on the surface of his road. The bank teller offered him 50 cents for the stones, which he flatly refused. The bank's president sent the stones to a jeweler in Little Rock, then eventually to Tiffany's, where a jeweler confirmed that these were two gem-quality diamonds.

There was a flood of prospecting in the area once word got out. Huddleston wasn't interested in diamond mining himself, so he sold the land to a group of investors for $36,000.

Was that a lot back then?

Yes, it was like being a millionaire. Huddleston expected it would take care of his family for the rest of their lives—though he actually ended up losing most of it in a series of bad investments. And nobody really got rich mining diamonds here. There were several commercial mining ventures, but none of them had much success, and by the 1950s there were two competing "pay to dig" tourist attractions here. They were sold to the same company in the late 1960s, which sold the land to the state a few years later. The park opened in 1972.

Are there any diamonds from the area that really stand out?

The largest diamond ever found in the U.S., a white gem named the Uncle Sam, was found here in 1924. It was 40.23 carats, which is basically the size of a gumball. And in the 1950s, a woman found a 15.33-carat diamond.

What about nowadays? How does Clymer's find compare with others in the park's history?

Hers was the second-largest this year; a 12-year-old boy from North Carolina found a five-carat one in July. Clymer said hearing about that was actually what made her want to come try her luck.

This year, we've had 400 diamonds found so far, which is about the same as last year, when we had 530 total. Some years it's more. Most are very small, about the size of a kitchen match head, but each year we do have one or two over five carats.

Are the diamonds very valuable?

Some are; it depends on the "4 C's" of diamonds: color, clarity, carat, and cut. There's also a fifth 'c' for us, which is "country"—people come to search here specifically because it's so unique to have an American diamond.

Most people we never hear from again, so we don't know what their stones were valued at. But recently a woman told us she had [a park diamond] cut and graded and it was valued at nearly $22,000.

The Strawn-Wagner diamond was found in 1990 by local resident Shirley Strawn. It was a 3.03 carat in the rough. She saved her money up, had it cut into a perfect 1.09 carat, round, brilliant shape. It was the only perfect diamond that's ever been graded by the American Gem Society: ideal cut, clarity, and color, just flawless. She sold it to the park for $36,000 that was raised by donations, and now it's on permanent display in our visitor's center.

Have you ever found any?

I've found two very, very small ones—one I actually found during a demonstration I was doing for tourists. Usually I'm too busy to spend my days off searching here. But when people bring these large ones up to the discovery center, you do catch a bit of diamond fever.

Is the park ever going to run out of diamonds?

Not any time soon. The land was tested by a private mining company in the 1990s. They drilled down 600 feet, and they ran out of drill before they ran out of soil, so there's quite a lot of it. Those tests determined that we had the eighth-largest diamond field in the world in terms of surface area. What we call the "pipe" of the volcanic crater is a little over 80 acres, and about 37.5 acres of that is our search area.

Why did commercial mining ventures there fail? I mean, how can you own a diamond field and not strike it rich?

Well, there's a minimum carat yield needed for a profitable mine. The diamonds here were just too small and too far between compared to the African mines.

And you don't necessarily need to mine to find these diamonds. It might surprise people to know that because of the nature of the geology and millions of years of erosion, most of the diamonds tend to be on the surface. So even while commercial mines were digging deep and not finding much, people who were just walking along, looking carefully at the surface, were finding diamonds.

There must be some sort of life lesson in that.

Something like the tortoise and the hare, yeah. The slow and steady approach wins.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Amanda Fiegl on Twitter.

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