Story by Alana Scharlop
Photos by Michelle Lee
When you walk into Elk Run Mining Company in Harrisonburg, a small storefront hidden right off South Main Street under the parking garage, you find a hidden treasure. A wall of mining artifacts welcomes you and the small light in the back near a work station deflects you toward the real attraction — glass showcases, filled with beautifully polished gemstones ranging in earthy tones and natural shapes. A collection of something simple, yet refined.
The work of Stuart Mercer makes these pieces of one-of-a-kind art that can’t be found anywhere else. “Everything in the store is a Virginia rock or mineral, with the exception of a dozen of them that are international gems,” Mercer says. “They are just too cool not to have them for sale.” Mercer, who grew up in Cape Cod, Mass., says his love for rock hunting started in his hometown, where he looked on the waterfront for the rounded and polished rocks as a young child.
“I think I was collecting rocks as soon as I was old enough to pick one up and put it in my mouth,” Mercer says. “I started cutting and polishing by fifth grade, silver work by sixth grade, immediately selling my stuff.” Mercer proudly talked about his business endeavors through the years. He had his own business as a kid and continued his business as a James Madison University geology student; he then sold his work at art and craft shows, festivals, in Staunton and at OASIS in downtown Harrisonburg before he opened his own storefront this past fall. However, he is most proud of the process he takes to get to his final product.
“I find a rock. It needs to be a rock without fractures, young enough where it is not weathered up and with an attractive design,” he says, as he shows a small diagram of the stages the stones go through during the process. “I slab it in a large saw and then I will know if I keep it or not. When I cut into it, that’s the most exciting part after finding it.” He continues the process by cutting the stone from a smaller saw and grinding around the template of the shape he has drawn. Then he polishes the back of the stones.
“At this point I have got a couple hours into the rock. Then I will mount it on a dop stick, which is a mixture of beeswax and shellac, that will hold it and give me control over what I am doing.”
Then he the shapes the crown using a coarse grit wheel, followed by a finer grit until it is ready for its final polish and setting. Mercer estimates that each stone receives his undivided attention for five to seven hours until it is ready to be sold. His pieces range from $25 pendants to $400 or $500 for more elaborate and rare pieces. Karen Mercer, Stuart’s wife, supports her husband’s business. “He does a totally handmade product and he is a perfectionist. He finds the beauty in rocks and minerals and gemstones that we just consider dirty rocks,” she says. “He brings beauty to them and then he tells you what they are and where they came from.”
Stuart explained that the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he mainly collects his gemstones, are part of the oldest existing mountain range on Earth. “So it has been literally through hell,” he laughs. Mercer collects his rocks from the deposits, the base of the mountains and the surrounding creek bottoms. The rocks he works with are mostly metamorphic. “All the original mineralogy has changed with the exception of a few intrusions. From my own backyard, I get mostly bloodstones,” he says. “That is a backyard rock and it is just incredible.”
Stuart’s trade is unique due to his specialization in Virginia minerals. However, he still greatly values the basics outside of his profession.
“I don’t want to be married to my store,” he says.
Stuart spoke fondly of his life outside of creating jewelry. He and his wife live on a small farm in the Harrisonburg area where they raised their two daughters. He says his daughters “broke his heart” when they moved away from the countryside. He refuses to “marry” his store because of his desire to continue mining and rock-hunting, just as he did growing up. He even entertained the idea of opening a school to teach others his art form.
He is grounded in the basics of his craft and life.