Diamonds in the Rough: Cape May Gems

Hunting Cape May’s sparkling treasures.

Shine On: Diamond hunter Richard Grasso with his Cape May finds. The transparent ovals make the best jewelry.
Photo by Anthony Smedile

Let’s give Hurricane Sandy credit for something. The October 2012 superstorm teamed with the nor’easter that battered New Jersey the following February to enrich the pickings for all who hope to pluck a diamond from the sand of Cape May Point’s Sunset Beach.

The diamonds—actually, semi-precious, glass-like specimens of quartz crystal—have been drawing searchers for decades to the somewhat remote beach at the southeastern end of Delaware Bay. The diamond hunters come in pursuit of transparent rocks that can be faceted into sparkling pieces of jewelry.

The diamonds are deposited after drifting down from the upper reaches of the Delaware River into the bay—a turbulent journey that can take thousands of years. Hurricane Sandy rearranged the bay’s floor, carrying in diamonds from far offshore and cutting a 4-foot ledge into the beach. The subsequent nor’easter churned over the new contour of the bay in a natural dredging operation that dissolved the ledge and made the fresh supply of diamonds easily accessible.

On this glittering, late-summer afternoon, we are searching for Cape May diamonds with Jeanette Bartolomeo, jewelry manager at Sunset Beach Gift Shop, and Cape May singer/songwriter Rich Grasso, a novice hunter.

Grasso plucks shiny stones from the surf’s edge and presents them to Bartolomeo, who holds them up to the sun to detect impurities. Transparent ovals free of colored streaks and fractures are the most suitable for faceted jewelry.

Bartolomeo picks up a flawless crystal rounded and freed of imperfections by the polishing action of the bay. It looks like a raindrop. Size doesn’t matter with these gems; specimens as small as 3mm—about the size of a pea—can be made into jewelry. Our guide explains that the stones are hard enough to cut glass. A real diamond has a hardness of 10 on the Mohs’ scale. A Cape May diamond, Bartolomeo says, “has a hardness of 7.5.”

The diamonds are easier to find after low tide, when the surf has wet them and revealed their transparency. Then comes the process of jewelry selection. Bartolomeo sends away 70 percent of her finds for faceting. She then sets the newly cut gems in 14-karat gold rings that retail up to $299.

The stones also have value in an unfaceted state. The gift shop offers whole diamonds, polished in a rock-tumbling machine, in pendants, bracelets, earrings and necklaces at prices from $6.99 to $39.99.
Bartolomeo does most of her hunting directly in front of the shop and to the north toward adjacent Higbee Beach, where she occasionally spots Indian arrowheads, particularly after heavy winds. Small petrified sharks’ teeth also turn up.

Best of all, the hunting is free. There’s no beach fee here, only rocks—and memories—for the taking.

Bill Rozday is a writer and rockhound who hunts gems from Jersey to California.

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  1. buybirthstones

    The stones also have value in an unfaceted state.

  2. himalayansalt

    It looks like a raindrop. Size doesn’t matter with these gems