JEFFREY CITY — The Jeffrey City Volunteer Fire Hall was filled with curious visitors and passionate collectors this weekend for an event that would make any rockhound green with envy.
Wyoming jade was designated the official state gemstone in 1967, one of the many reasons David Barnet and his wife founded the Wyoming Jade Festival.
“There are two or three (jade festivals) in the United States. We’ve never had one in Wyoming. So, we decided we needed to have one here in Wyoming to celebrate the state gemstone,” Barnet said.
Wyoming jade is only found in Fremont, Sweetwater, Carbon, Natrona, Converse and Albany counties. So, for Barnett and the nine other vendors participating in the three-day event, there’s no better place to have the festival than Jeffrey City, ground zero for Cowboy State jade.
“It’s the heart of the jade fields,” Barnett said.
Jade, or nephrite, is a gemstone that inspires an active and passionate culture. The annual Big Sur and Monterey Bay festivals in California attract international artists and patrons.
With Wyoming jade known and sought after worldwide, the community of collectors at the Wyoming Jade Festival is intimate and highly skilled. But even in this remote corner of Fremont County, jade enthusiasts from Colorado, Utah and California came to Jeffrey City to see the pieces on display.
Wyoming jade hunters know where to find the best pieces, but that doesn’t always mean roaming for miles with their eyes on the ground. Barnet says many jade hunters make great finds at estate sales, while others buy or inherit vast collections.
Dave Freitag, who worked with Barnet to establish the first Wyoming Jade Festival, bought his first collection of Wyoming jade from an older couple looking to offload a lifetime’s worth of collecting. It took his pickup six trips to gather and transport all of it.
Freitag was exhibiting his “uncut and unhammered” jade, which he calls “a lost commodity” today because of intense collecting over the last century.
The discovery of nephrite jade in the 1930s sparked a jade rush in Wyoming. Over the next two decades, most large, high-grade jade stones were collected and transported elsewhere.
“It went to Germany and China back in the old days. They used to load up 55-gallon drums and send it over in shipping containers, 80,000 pounds at a time,” Freitag said.
What little was left was mostly collected by Jeffrey City residents who moved to the area for uranium mining in the 1960s.
“Not much to do in Jeffrey City. So what did they do? They went rock-hunting and picked up every piece of jade that was left over from the jade boom before,” Freitag said. “That’s why you can hardly go out there and find a piece of medium- or low-grade Wyoming jade.”
Generations Of Wyoming Jade
Nobody at the Wyoming Jade Festival seemed too jaded about the past. Most collectors exhibiting their pieces and products were continuing family legacies of collecting Wyoming jade in the region.
Mac Goss was at the festival exhibiting his pieces, including all-jade maps of Wyoming and the counties where Wyoming jade can be found.
“My family’s been hunting jade since the 1950s,” he said. “All of our jade is found by us. It’s our family jade.”
His passion is being carried to the next generation. Goss’s daughter Heaven creates jewelry from the jade pieces her father collects.
Heaven Goss recently won a Grand Champion ribbon and a Natrona County Natural Resources Reserve Champion buckle at the Central Wyoming Fair in Casper for her submissions of jade jewelry and science.
There is still a market for Wyoming jade. Many pieces of natural, polished, cut and crafted jade were on sale at the festival.
“There’s a piece for every price point, every size, every quality,” Barnet said.
One of the largest pieces at the festival was worth $12,000.
However, passion is what motivates Wyoming jade collectors.
“You’re never going to get rich doing this,” Mac Goss said. “I haven’t (sold) anything today, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
Tina Barnett, who sells her jade jewelry on eBay and Etsy, is thrilled to see the Wyoming Jade Festival growing “bigger, bigger and bigger.”
This year’s second festival had double the number of vendors.
Regardless of how many people come to see, sell or buy Wyoming jade, the event will always be held in Jeffrey City. And Tina and the others will ensure it never loses sight of its purpose.
“It’s not a rock show,” Barnett said. “It’s not a gem show. It’s a Wyoming Jade Festival.”
Andrew Rossi can be reached at: Arossi@CowboyStateDaily.com