Magic Moments: The Mystery of the Disappearing Gems

Mystery of the Disappearing Gems

Here at the Britannia Mine Museum, we deliver school programs throughout the year. While our winters our are for the most part mild, we can have cold snaps and even snow. This presents an extra challenge to delivering our programming as a good portion of a school’s visit is in the elements.

On the colder days, there is no place this might be felt more than at gold panning. Cold winds are rarely enough to deter students struck with gold fever, however. Once the search for gold and other ‘treasures’ to be found in our gold panning troughs begins, the cold is a secondary thought.

Now, as everyone knows, ‘not all that glitters is gold’. Our Interpreters will tell you they have lost count of how many times they have been asked by an excited student ‘Is this gold?’ while holding up a glistening nugget of pyrite. This story is not about fool’s gold, however. It is a story about another mineral given a mistaken identity.

At the end of one of our winter school visits, a girl came to her Interpreter quite concerned. She had followed all the instructions on how to collect the gold, pyrite, and various gemstones from her pan and yet now missing from her bag were all the beautiful whitish gemstones she had found.

The bag was sealed tight and there were no rips in it. Gold and water remained in the bag. So where did the gemstones go?

Her Interpreter asked what the gems looked like. With that description, he asked where she found them. The answer revealed all. This innovative student had collected them up off the boardwalk around the panning area. The gems were halite – salt crystals. As is often the case during our winters, our maintenance crew spread salt on the boardwalk before the visitors arrived to melt the frost and prevent anyone slipping.

While the girl ‘lost’ her ‘gemstones’, she discovered how some minerals dissolve in water, which for us is as good as gold.

Photo: Sandip Dey [CC BY 3.0 (]