Whittaker enjoys the rocky road of gem mining

Becky Whittaker, a rock hound since age six, works in her workshop at the Bertram Rock Shop. (Photo by Dana Delgado)

Becky Whittaker, a rock hound since age six, works in her workshop at the Bertram Rock Shop. (Photo by Dana Delgado)

By Dana Delgado

BERTRAM — Becky Whittaker had a lot of reasons to walk away from her secure “real” job at a hearing aid manufacturing plant some 13 years ago.

Besides being bored and no longer wanting to endure a long commute to work, Whittaker missed the joy she had as a child.

“I love being outside,” she said.  “And I love rocks. I’ve been collecting them since I was six years old in Amarillo where I grew up. I would always bring them home after a family trip. I would look out the window just hoping to find that special one.  Eventually, my mother made me take them out of my room and put them out in the flowerbed.”

That exhilaration never left her. It actually ate away at her until she finally up and left her “real job” and dived head first into the adventure of her lifetime.

By then, in the 1990’s, she had already bought out the collection of a store in San Marcos owned by a college professor to kick start her new career. In 2000, Whittaker opened up a rock shop she named Balcones Gem and Mining Co. in Bertram at 155 E. Vaughan Street in a historic building. The store space had once been a barbershop and had all the trimmings of the former business including mirrors and cabinets and are still visible in the rock shop. It was the perfect stage for her new business.

“I love old buildings and history,” Whittaker said. “That’s why I was attracted to Bertram and opened here and live here in the store, too.”

To see the store is to see a rustic but quite welcoming place filled with unimaginable gems, rocks and fossils of all sizes, colors and shapes.  It is the kind of place you might find near the Grand Canyon or Petrified Forest but not Central Texas; although the Hill Country is a virtual goldmine for unique and rare specimens.

The Rudist Clam cluster, an amazing pillow-size 65 million-year-old specimen inlayed with quartz, is among Whittaker’s prized finds. It was recovered from nearby Georgetown about five years ago. Llanite, found nowhere else in the world but the immediate Llano region, is another celebrated stone in her store. Yet another unusual specimen in the rock shop is Alexandrite from Russia which won Whittaker “Star of Show” honors at a recent gem and mineral show. A large chunk of Celestite recovered from Lake Travis is an eye-opener. Then there’s the blue zircon and the gorgeous blue Lapus Lazuli from Afghanistan with pyrite imbedded inside it, and an intriguing 200 pound piece of Calcite from Marble Falls.

With an extensive variety of specimens, it is obvious Whittaker has maintained a constant vigilance far and wide to secure the rare and unusual and the impressive.

“It’s the thrill of the hunt, “she said. “Sometimes, I just close the shop which is open most days and go hunting. I’m hoping to find an unknown mineral or a unique fossil. It’s like a kid playing.”

Her searches have taken her to Minneapolis while it was under snow, to Haiti, to St. Marten, but mainly Central Texas. She’s even gone out at night looking for phosphorous, which is abundant in Burnet County, with an ultraviolet light because of the mineral’s glow properties.

Not surprising, her knowledge and ever-expanding experience and vast collection has gained her a level of acclaim within the gem and mineral circles. Even the University of Texas will call her for specimens or fossils that they don’t have, she said.

A silversmith class in Austin got her interested in creating gold and silver jewelry, which she now offers in her shop. Whittaker also repairs jewelry and has taken to teach others about her passion. She and her field engineer, Jerry Rhine, have gone to schools in Burnet and Williamson counties to make presentations.

“What can I say,” Whittaker said. “I’ve always had a thing with rocks. I love rocks.”