By Marv Baskin
As published in The Desert Advocate
What does a guy named Horatio, a bunch of grapes, and a starving French goldsmith all have in common? Black Hills Gold!
What in tarnation is Black Hills Gold ya’ll might be a-askin. Well, I’ll tell ya: other than bein’ a spectacular line o’ jewelry from South Dakota, there’s a fascinatin' history behind it. So let me take ya back to the time o’ cowpunchers, beanmasters, and California widows.
In 1874, a scout named Horatio Nelson Ross spied for himself a glimmer of gold in the sparklin’ waters of French Creek in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He and his mule were on one o’ them there geo-graphic expeditions with the Seventh Calvary, led by none other than General George Armstrong Custer. This one small peek-a-boo in the water spurred what is considered the last great gold rush in these here continental United States.
This wild mountain region was far from the path of overland routes, but it changed virtually overnight. No surprise that, even though the area was officially Lakota Indian territory and anyone venturin’ within was considered trespassin’ on sacred land, treasure seekers flocked to the Black Hills from across this great land of ours. These once-quiet canyons now bustled with greed, booze and gunslingers.
Now, it’s been told that the first to arrive found gold nuggets the size o’ pinecones! Some were vet’rans of the 1849 California Gold Rush and others were unemployed miners from the coal pits of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, out a-lookin’ fer any kind o’ job durin’ the nasty post-Civil War Depression. The allure of gold tempted visitors like Preacher Smith, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, Colorado Charlie Utter, Calamity Jane, Potato Creek Johnny and the infamous Wild Bill Hickok to Deadwood gulch and the Black Hills.
As if that crowd weren’t colorful enough, wouldn’t you know it, jewelers soon emerged in these boomin’ hills, carryin’ with ‘em what was soon to be the famous tri-colored grape and leaf designs of Black Hills Gold. Funny thing, though: the design actually originated in the California Gold Rush of 1849.
Now here’s an honest-to-God old west legend: A French goldsmith named Henri LeBeau became lost during the mid-1870's in the Black Hills. Thinkin’ he was dying o’ starvation and thirst, jus’ plunked it right down and fell asleep. Durin’ a dream, ol’ Henri saw a mountain stream with grape vines growing on its banks. Upon awakening, he walked over a rise and found the stream and grape vines, just as they were in his dream. In gratitude, he decided to devote his talents as a goldsmith to creating jewelry in the shapes of grape clusters and leaves fashioned in rose, green and yellow gold. Then, by golly, a style of jewelry as fine as cream gravy was born: Black Hills Gold.
So what’s it take create such unsurpassed quality? Today, up to 40 different steps are necessary to capture the dramatic detail in today’s Black Hills Gold designs. Silver and copper alloys are added to yellow gold to obtain the distinctive green and rose golds this jewelry is known for. Many gemstones are used including diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, amethyst, and aquamarine and mother's rings are still popular.
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