OC RAW artist mines for gems and turns it into jewelry

In Art, Artist Profile, Arts & Entertainment, Multimedia, Slideshows, Video

A luxury BMW 4×4 Crossover rolls through a bumpy, dirt trail that goes on for five miles.

The vehicle encounters a hill, followed by a steep drop that sends the passengers abruptly lifting out of their seats.

The car is now dragging a metal object.

The driver, Stephen Habecker, gets out the car and throws the now missing skid plate into the trunk.

“I hate when that happens,” Habecker said.

He is a featured artist for Orange County’s RAW, an independent organization that highlights creative talents.

For Habecker, 31, there’s worse that can happen on a normal work day.

A massive boulder can crush him, poison ivy could leave him with a burning rash or a wild animal could have him running for his life.

Habecker, better known as “Steve the Miner,” is making his way to a spot located in Trabuco Canyon, Calif. where he hopes to find a silver 350 bullet shell to complete a custom order for a customer.

It’s not what you think.

The bullet shell will actually be the supporting foundation to a black tourmaline gemstone that he dug up while on a mining trip in San Diego.

To put things into perspective, Habecker is a prospector. Think of the Gold Rush, except on a larger scale. Although today he’s specifically searching for “precious metal,” which to him, is a “short” 15-mile leisure hike into the mountains, most of his work days consist of levering 700 feet below ground level digging for various gemstones such as morganite, aquamarine and gold.

To put things into a bigger perspective, Habecker is also a jeweler.

After calling it a day “on the field” he heads back home where he will grind, shape and smooth out his findings and reconstruct them into a ring or pendant, depending on the stone’s “personality.”

The stones are trimmed, sculpted and polished on a lapidary machine specially designed for the art of cutting gems.

Habecker said that while there’s not a big mining community, there really isn’t anyone doing exactly what he does.

He takes a lavender kunzite that he already lapidated, which he found in the Chief Mountain in San Diego, stares at it long and hard, examining each special characteristic.

“This is the hardest part. I look at the stone, the color, the shapes, the natural striations or edges,” he said. “It’s the stone’s personal style, I just dress it.”

He uses a pair of pliers to manipulate a sterling silver wire wrap around the stone. And presto, a beautiful pendant is born.

And while wire wrapped gemstone jewelry have become a top selling art form, especially in the Etsy community, there’s nothing like seeing a product being made from start to finish.

“Crystal healers are just drawn to me,” Habecker said. “They like the fact that I’m the only person who touched the gemstone.”

Like most things, the end product is rewarding. But for the one-man show, its the actual process that makes everything worthwhile.

The job requires patience, heavy lifting, tugging, budging, hands-on apprenticeships and several study sessions, more than what a geology course can teach.

“Look for contact zones between igneous granite rock. When you see those rocks that look like marble with wavy lines through them. That’s exactly what you want to find between two big chunks of granite,” Habecker said. “There’s going to be gold in there.”

Habecker opens a drawer’s worth of unsanded gemstones and takes out two miniature-sized clear capsules containing gold, which he found in the East Fork River in the San Gabriel Mountains.

And while gold is a rare find, other minerals such as tourmaline are abundant locally. Habecker said one uncut tourmaline is worth $2,000 a carat.

“And one carat is tiny. But I mean once you see gold … ” Habecker said. “You get gold fever.”

His eyes draw wide, but quickly dilate back to normal.

“The true value of gold is in the hunt,” he said. “If you’re out for the money you’re going to break your back and get upset all the time.”

Habecker will be presenting his craft at the RAW Orange County exhibition Oct. 20 at the Shark Club in Costa Mesa as part of the organization’s ongoing two and a half month competition.

He will be going up against 15,000 artists, ranging from fashion, film, photography and makeup, from all over the world.

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