northern Scottsdale resident John Hornewer

After eight years of intensive work, northern Scottsdale resident John Hornewer and his brother Steve discovered a new gemstone, currently on display at the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase through Feb. 16. 

Northern Scottsdale resident John Hornewer and his brother Steve explore abandoned mines, mining for gold and traversing the Sonoran Desert.

“We’ve been rockhounds our whole lives,” John said, adding, “I guess you could say it’s in our DNA.”

And as far as rockhounding states go, John said Arizona is “absolutely off the hook.” 

“It’s one of the greatest states for finding minerals,” he said.

And after years of mining, John and Steve finally struck gold – and inadvertently uncovered a new gemstone.

“We were just looking for gold. That’s really how it started is we’re gold prospectors, not gemstone prospectors. We just adapted to this new find and became gemstone miners,” John said.

About 15 miles from John’s home in an abandoned mine, he and Steve discovered a new gemstone they called Sonoranite, currently on display at the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase through Feb. 16.

“It never occurred to me we would make a find like this,” John said. “We’re always looking for the next find, but we weren’t really looking for gemstones.”

For the past 10 years, John has leased abandoned mines on state and federal land, spending countless weekends extracting and bringing home samples of rocks and minerals.

John stumbled upon the mine containing the new gemstone while on a hiking expedition.

“There were some mountains north of my house where I live, for whatever reason, I just kept getting drawn to those mountains probably for five or six years,” John said, adding he made 10 to 15 journeys out there.

One day, John walked over the top of the mountain.

“But I didn’t see any mine entrance,” John recalled. “I was getting ready to leave, and I said, ‘You know what, there’s got to be something there.’”

After learning the mine’s location was not recorded on state or federal maps, John leased the mine from the government. 

Eight years ago, the brothers began digging solely with hand tools, returning to the mine on average about once a month. 

Two years later, the brothers found a gold vein inside the mine, and “then we spent a bunch of years crushing the material for gold,” John said. 

“There are veins of gold in the rock, but there are also platinum, silver, copper, palladium, cobalt, zirconium, and yttrium,” he added.

The actual discovery of the gemstone, John said, was two years ago.

“I saved one of the pieces from the crusher – because some of the pieces we crushed are just unbelievably beautiful rock specimens – and I threw a polish on it and it took such an amazing polish. From that moment on, we never crushed another single chunk of rock,” John said.

The brothers sent the rock to several universities, including Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, but geologists weren’t able to identify the rock.

They then sent a sample to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the world-recognized authority on gemstones and their authenticity, where analysts confirmed the stone does not, in fact, fit into any previously known categories of gemstones.

This marks the first discovery of a new gemstone in the United States since 1980, when Helenite was found on Mount St. Helens in Washington. 

“To bring this new find to the world for the first time is just exciting as can be,” John said.

Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase attendees are among the first to view Sonoranite. 

“People are really excited about it,” John said. “The fact it’s a gold-bearing ore and it comes from Arizona, it really lights people up.”

The Sonoranite exhibit is located at Space 15 at the 22nd Street Mineral, Fossil, Gem & Jewelry Show.

“I invite gemologists and lovers of fine gemstones to stop by and see this stone,” John said. “I believe they will be impressed by its rare beauty.”