Closer Look

Celebrating 50 years of gems and minerals

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Dr. Susan Ray

For half a century, in a brick building that was once Franklin’s jailhouse, gems and minerals from around the world have been on display. Countless people during those five decades have passed through the doors of the Gem and Mineral Museum at 25 Phillips Street.

Looking for a home

During the snowy winter of 1971, a small group of Franklin rockhounds met in various basements and schools around town to share their knowledge and love of gems and minerals. As their club membership grew, they realized they needed not only a permanent meeting place, but a way to display their collections so others could enjoy the beauty of such treasures. 

THE FORMER jailhouse at 25 Phillips Street in downtown Franklin has housed the Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum since 1974.

The Gem and Mineral Society of Franklin, Inc., (GMSF) having incorporated with the state in 1972, was rapidly growing and by December of that year had more than 110 members. The club officers presented a plan to the Macon County Commissioners to renovate and use the old county jail as their museum and meeting site. 

The old brick building was constructed in 1850-1851 after a fire destroyed the original wooden structure that was built in 1828. It was used until 1972, when a new jail was built outside of town, leaving the old jail abandoned to transients, the homeless, and teens looking for a hangout. Because of its dilapidated condition, the commissioners had debated whether to renovate the old building, rent it out, or raze it for a parking lot. Their dilemma was answered when the GMSF struck a deal to clean up and update the jail at their expense. They were to use it as a free public museum with the condition that the building would be rent-free, as long as the Society paid for upkeep. 

The commissioners readily agreed and GMSF began its year-long quest of cleaning, tearing out, and remodeling the old cells, plumbing, and wiring. More than 2,000 donated hours of labor by Society members, combined with financial support from families, town businesses, and town craftsmen made the dream come true.

Inside the Museum

In the 50 years since its opening, the museum has collected a plethora of gems, minerals, fossils, Native American artifacts, and unique items. In 1979, the museum negotiated a deal with a local farmer who had acquired a 48-and-a-half-pound corundum crystal in a land trade deal. The crystal had been discovered in 1888 in the famous Corundum Hill Mine. The enormous crystal had changed hands several times, but the owner in 1979 was anxious to sell it. He wanted to keep it in Macon County and negotiated with Society officer John Hayes. 

Hayes, at the behest of the Society, negotiated not only for the giant crystal but acquired in the deal a two-and-a-quarter-pound ruby, a seven-and-a-half-pound blue/white corundum, and a one-pound dark pink corundum crystal – all for $1,500. That was a large sum in 1979 and half of the Society’s savings, but the pieces have served the museum well as a draw for rockhounds. 

Solid future

Today, the museum’s collections are housed in eight rooms. Downstairs, the States Room has displays from all 50 states; and, the Native American Room has a large collection of bowls, arrowheads, and hand tools, some 3,000 to 6,000 years old, many of which were found in Macon County. The North Carolina Room houses more than 2,000 specimens, including emeralds, rubies, sapphires, topaz, aquamarines, and other North Carolina gems. 

Included in the N.C. Room is a display of the white clay, called kaolin. In 1767, many tons of kaolin were extracted from the Cherokee area by locals for the representatives of England’s Wedgwood Potteries. The clay was used to create Wedgwood’s “biscuit porcelain.” That initial extraction lasted Wedgwood 15 years, yet the company never sent for more North Carolina clay because of the expense. 

Also downstairs in the museum is the Fluorescent Room, which contains dozens of stones that fluoresce or glow in the dark under ultraviolet lighting.

Upstairs is the World Room and the International Hall, with displays from all seven continents, including Antarctica and outer space – meteorites! The Slammer is an original steel holding cell that was used to accommodate six grown men in less than 100 square feet. Honoring the historical significance of the old building are original bricks, a horseshoe, a beer bottle, and charcoal from the old fireplace. Historical graffiti in and on the Slammer walls has been preserved – minus those deemed inappropriate for public viewing – before the museum opened.

The Fossil Room is also upstairs and exhibits fossilized plants, insects, and animals. It includes a raptor dinosaur egg and coprolite (dinosaur excrement) – a favorite of young visitors.

Milestone birthday

For the past 50 years, the GMSF has become a central figure in the town of Franklin, which promotes itself as “the gem capital of the world.” Dedicated to public service, The Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum continues to be operated by volunteer members of the Society, which acts as hosts for museum visitors and as unpaid instructors of classes in the lapidary arts, including cabochoning, faceting, wire wrapping, beading, and more. 

Society members also host the Annual Spring Gem Show in Frankin and join the Franklin Chamber of Commerce in co-hosting the July Gemboree and the Fall Leaflookers’ Gem Show. Profits from these shows, monetary donations to the museum, and Society dues support the efforts of the GMSF. In turn, the Society donates scholarships to students at local colleges, offers free educational tours and classes to local schools, gives free demonstrations at community events, and provides rock guidance and field trips for rockhounds of all ages. Members are always willing to offer expertise to anyone inquiring about gem and mineral identification. 

As The Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum approaches its 50th birthday on May 25, guests are invited to learn more about its history through videos and photos at the museum. The public is also encouraged to stop by the Spring Gem Show in the Robert C. Carpenter Center May 17-19, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., where the GMSF will have a room dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of the museum. 

Anyone interested in tours of the museum, field trips, and/or joining the Society should stop by the museum, call (828) 369-7831, or explore the website at

Dr. Susan Ray is Gem and Mineral Society of Franklin’s vice president and secretary, writing this article “with grateful acknowledgement” to Fred Plesner, the group’s curator emeritus.