Beckham's Barn Rock and Gem Shop

Reprint of article in Lake Murray Magazine - April 2006 - copyright THE STATE. Used with permission

What a gem!

    In the Midlands, thousands of these natural wonders can be found in one place — Beckham’s Barn, Rock and Gem Shop in Irmo, where owner Joan Beckham still pursues her little-girl fascination with rocks. “It’s like a hobby that got out of control,” she says. “I appreciate the finer gemstones, but I like snakeskin agate and ocean jasper, too. Those minerals still fascinate me.”
    Beckham and her late husband, Claude, opened the shop about 25 years ago. Her knowledge of rocks comes from lifelong study and visits to gem shows across the country. The largest national show is in Tucson, Ariz., every February. But the State Fairgrounds hosts one each November. Beckham also is affiliated with such local organizations as the S.C. Gem and Mineral Club.
    In her barn-like shop on Kennerly Road near Irmo, Joan moves from stone to stone, saying complex genus names with ease. “Here’s some fluorite, selenite and calcite in white, blue, green and orange. There’s blue Celestite and labradorite from Madagascar. We have uvarovite, a green garnet found only in Russia. We have Baltic amber and many newer types of amber from South America. Now that other countries are opening up their borders to gem exploration and stones are being polished in different ways, more things are available now than ever before.”
    On a hobby level, Beckham says, it is a lot of fun to cut and polish rocks, and she has all the materials and machines for that. “Some of our customers are also interested in making their own jewelry. Although we don’t do any jewelry designing here, we do offer bead-stringing, bead-knotting and wire-wrapping classes.”
    Children who come into the shop love pyrite, or fool’s gold, because it looks like real gold but is fairly inexpensive.. Children also like tumbled stones because they are smooth and feel good in their hands.
    Some older children are becoming collectors. “One regular customer is a 12-year-old boy who spends his allowance on faceted stones”  “He has quite a nice collection so far. He has some tourmaline, a pretty little emerald and a small, odd-shaped sapphire that would never have worked in jewelry but it’s a great piece in a collection. These are all very affordable, just a few dollars a piece in most cases.”
    Some of her adult customers are intrigued by crystals and what they believe to be healing powers. A collector might buy a beautiful crystal cluster. A natural-healing enthusiast might buy a larger, less intricate specimen. “We have lots of natural crystals and healing wands made of solid stone.”  “I believe in the soothing nature of rocks. One of the most memorable trips I ever took was to a rock show in Nevada. On the way there, we stopped at the Valley of Fire in a national park just outside Las Vegas. The rock formations were beautiful and so calming.”
    To show off some of the shop’s natural crystals, joan points to a foot-high geode displayed on the floor. “See that?” she asks. “See how it’s been cut open? That’s some beautiful amethyst in the center. And here's more quartz: clear, smoky, citrine and rose. Quartz has six sides, all uneven. Some of our customers like the state’s official gem, which is amethyst, found in Antreville. The purple comes from small amounts of iron.”
    To help explain color and quality, Beckham reaches into two bowls and plucks out two amethysts: one is lavender, one is deep purple.
    “See the difference? The pale stone is a South Carolina amethyst. It's not as colorful, not as valuable as a darker amethyst from, say, Brazil. But it’s a South Carolina stone, and it’s pretty rare, and that makes it interesting to a lot of people.”
    Other South Carolina discoveries include garnet, found near Lake Murray. The state’s official rock, blue granite, is found in Winnsboro.
    “This mica is from South Carolina,” she says, holding a small, white rock in her hand. “Mica is actually a large group of about 30 minerals. Here’s another South Carolina mineral: barite, from McCormick County. It’s usually colorless or white. In jewelry-making, it’s often used as a backdrop for brightly colored crystals.”
    Nodding toward a shelf full of brown rocks, Beckham points out that up close, the rocks are surprisingly rich and lustrous. “Petrified palm wood,” she says, picking up a hefty slice of solid rock. “Thousands of years ago, it was real wood here in South Carolina. Thanks to volcanic activity, pressure and lots of time, it has turned to stone. You can see these pieces have been polished by man, but inside they're marked by nature. We also have petrified wood from Arizona, Washington and Oregon, but customers like the South Carolina samples best.”
    When asked what her favorite stone is, Joan pauses a moment before answering. “I have several, but one of them is yellow sapphire,” she says, offering up the large, emerald-cut ring on her left hand. “I love sapphires in general. They are such hard stones, and they sparkle.”