Meet Your Merchant: Couple turns passion of rock hounding and jewelry into a successful business |

Meet Your Merchant: Couple turns passion of rock hounding and jewelry into a successful business

James and Deborah Hill, owners of Crystal Empire Gems in Grass Valley, pose with their sons, Azurite, 9, and Malachite, 4.
Cory Fisher/

Crystal Empire Gems

139 Mill St., Grass Valley


Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week

As a teenager in upstate New York, Deborah Hill fell in love with the search for rocks, fossils and minerals, a pastime also known as “rock hounding.”

It was a thrill when she discovered that Herkimer diamonds could be dug up right in the woods outside her own hometown, situated just north of the Mohawk River. They weren’t real diamonds, of course, but to Deborah the double-terminated quartz crystals were just as beautiful.

At age 21, she and a friend packed up and took off on a six month rock hounding trip all over the United States. With guide books in hand, the two fell in love with the thrill of the hunt, whether it was it the coral fossils of Florida, the sapphire of North Carolina, the selenite crystals of Oklahoma or the smoky quartz of Montana.

“It became a passion — the beauty was astonishing,” said Deborah. “I began mailing boxes of rocks back to my parents’ house. They thought I was crazy, but that’s how I formed my large collection.”

In 2007, on a trip to the Santa Cruz mountains, Deborah met a man named James who was making beautiful jewelry by wrapping crystals in sterling silver wire.

“By coincidence, he had just finished making a Herkimer diamond ring. I slipped it on and it fit perfectly,” she said. “Our first kiss felt like Romeo and Juliet. For years after we met, we dreamed of having a clean, spacious, well-lit shop with enough room to show off a broad variety of gemstones, minerals, fossils and all of the beautiful creations of the earth. After all these years I’m still amazed that molecules come together and the earth makes these beautiful sharp angles.”

Dream of a gem store

Today, Deborah and James have two sons, Azurite, 9, and Malachite, 4, both named after copper-based gemstones. According to gemologists, the synthesis of azurite and malachite “produces a mineral said to exhibit the properties of each individual stone, plus some which come uniquely from their partnership.”

The Hills’ dream finally came to fruition when they opened Crystal Empire Gems on Mill Street in Grass Valley. Each shelf features a different mineral or crystal from all over the world.

“Our goal has always been to offer variety and quality, but with affordable prices,” said Deborah. “We also provide space for kids. We have a sand dig table where kids can find anything from tourmaline to quartz to amethyst. For one dollar they get to keep two treasures. I’m a member of the Nevada County Gem Society and I work with the juniors. Kids who are between the ages of 7 and 10 really see the magic in gems, crystals and rocks.”

Some of the pieces on display at Crystal Empire Gems are dug up by the Halls themselves, others come from regional rock hounders and many international gems are carefully handpicked from the annual international gem and mineral shows in Tucson, Ariz.

“We try our best to stay away from areas that don’t practice free trade,” said James. “I enjoy the treasure hunt — communicating with miners from all over the world. Each piece has its own story. In addition to making jewelry I also do stone cutting, shaping, polishing and fabricating. I love it. The design possibilities are endless.”

Personalized touch

While James often makes jewelry using high-end pieces, he also understands the sentimentality of simple ones. For example, customers have been known to bring in rocks from the Yuba River, and James will wrap them in silver wire for as little as $20.

“It’s very satisfying to make a piece of art,” he said. “If someone loves it, I send it traveling on its way. The right person always seems to find the right piece. I think people are drawn to the mineral or gem they need at the moment, even if they don’t know it.”

So far, word of mouth has been the store’s most effective advertising.

“We feel so lucky to have done well here,” said Deborah. “We feel so grateful. James and I have so much passion and love invested in this business, maybe that’s why it’s worked out so well. I get to do what I love, and love what I do. My mom used to say, ‘You’re crazy — what are you gonna to do with all those rocks?’ Well, she doesn’t say that anymore. She’s really happy for us.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at

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