A Return to Rocks: JMU Alumnus Pursues Lifelong Passion

Stuart Mercer got a chance to show his work to former JMU geology professor Howard Campbell when he stopped by for a visit.

"I grew up loving rocks as a child. Life happened. Now I've decided to return to my first love," claims Stuart Mercer. Mercer graduated from JMU in 1975 with a degree in Geology, but that is not where his story began.

Mercer says he started collecting rocks as soon as he could pick them up and put them in his mouth. Growing up on the water's edge of Cape Cod, Mercer had access to the smooth stones along the shoreline. He took his first collection of rocks into his kindergarten class for "show and tell," arranged neatly in a heart-shaped Valentine's candy box.

In the fifth grade, Mercer's mother gave him his first lapidary (means "concerned with stones") tool. Mercer learned how to use this tool after spending a day with a lapidary artist in Cape Cod. A year later, Mercer spent a day with the artist's wife, a metal smith, where his life's purpose became clear.

Mercer began selling his work in grade school and seized opportunities to learn more about his craft. He took a job in high school re-cutting damaged gems for a Florida jewelry store chain, and after graduating from Turner Ashby High School in Dayton, Va., Mercer went on pursue a degree in Geology from James Madison University. According to Mercer, "from childhood, I have known that I wanted a degree in Geology with the end goal of understanding the product I am working with (rocks). I am now more than ever utilizing that degree and the knowledge I gained at JMU."

Mercer says his decision to attend Madison was influenced by his mother, who graduated from the university the same year he graduated from high school. Mercer likens the education he received from JMU to eating candy. "It was just so good. I just wanted to be fed more."

Cutting rocks has been feeding Stuart Mercer's soul for 47 years. Outside of his time spent with a lapidary artist and metal smith in the fifth and sixth grades--and his formal education at JMU, Mercer is a self-taught "lapidary silversmith geologist" who has acquired his own style and techniques through reading, experimenting, asking questions and listening.

One of the comments Mercer most often hears is, "I had no idea that Virginia had such beautiful rocks and so many varieties." Mercer established Elk Run Mining Company is 2005 and obtains "beautiful and rare specimens for creating jewelry" from Elk Run, a creek that runs through his property in Rockingham County and flows down to the Shenandoah River. Mercer uses only Virginia rocks and minerals to set himself apart in the jewelry market.

And there certainly are enough varieties to go around. Nineteen of them. As to which is the most popular, Mercer says the coveted carats change depending on the season and fashion. While the Amazonite, Bloodstone and Blue Quartz have held an ongoing demand, the Purple Quartzite, Jasper and Midnight Quartzite have all had their time in the spotlight. Mercer rides the ebbs and flows and enjoys working with all types of rocks. "Personally, I have no favorite. I am continuously in awe of each flavor of rock as I work with it. Each one has its unique beauty waiting to be enhanced at the hands of the lapidary."

The job of a lapidary who mines his own materials is no small task. A rock hunt is the first step of the process, which often requires researching documents to determine where the stones should be. (Mercer says that the rocks are often not where they "should be.") Following the find, three to five hours are spent cutting, grinding, sanding and polishing the rocks using a diamond bladed slab saw and a dop stick before setting them in silver or gold. The result is a cabochon of a specific color and pattern. According to Mercer, "the color and pattern determine the setting. Some become simple hanging pendants. Others scream of becoming a cat, a tick or 'girl cootie.' It if looks like a lady bug, it becomes one."

Mercer adds, "I create what I like, and fortunately it seems to sell." He says his work reflects the natural world, as opposed to the abstract. Perhaps that's because his love for rocks stems from the intricate forces of nature that brought them to be. And while rocks are of this world, Mercer's love for them may not be. "My studies at JMU gave me the confidence to go and do what I wanted, more than what the 'world' wanted me to do." The confidence to pursue his passion has brought Mercer a great sense of fulfillment and joy over the years--as have the rocks themselves.

"Rocks excite my most inner being and have since my earliest memories. I have the opportunity to bring their beauty, which is often hidden, to the surface. Mercer also brings his recipe for success and happiness to the surface: "Being passionate in life is life itself."

Mercer's work is on display throughout the year at the Oasis Gallery, located at 103 South Main Street in downtown Harrisonburg. For more information, visit www.oasisartgallery.org or www.elkrungems.com.

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