The Snow Scene Agate of Lower Peninsula Of Michigan

As the field trip director of the Mt. Clemens Gem and Lapidary Society for many years, I often schedule week long field trips to Kentucky or Ontario to collect geodes, minerals, and fossils.

But many members had difficulties in getting away for so many days.  A few years ago, I decided to put together a shorter upper-half of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan weekend field trip to collect Petoskey Stones and other fossils. On the last field trip, we found the most amazing agates anyone in our club or other local clubs have ever seen. Every cabochon I cut from the new agate had a different picture scene in it.

            To start out with, I found that there are not as many places to collect in Michigan, as there had been in the past.  I had difficulties obtaining permission from the quarries, since they usually do not allow access to their property, especially for rock collecting.  Talking to quarry office personnel, I found out that the main reason that the quarry owners were reluctant was because of MSHA, The Mine Safety and Health Administration.  A new MSHA Law-Title 30, Part 46 that was put into effect November 2000- states that anyone entering an active mine or quarry must be safety trained before they can enter the property, unless accompanied by mine personnel at all times.  They also must be given on-site specific training each time they visit that mine or quarry.

            I decided to do something about this and talked to the MSHA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The MSHA lawyers gave me permission to train my club and other local clubs.  Hoping we would be able to obtain access into quarry and mining properties that we had been denied access to in the past. There are several old quarries in central and upper lower Michigan that have not been explored for a long time. Along with many new ones that opened over the last few years.  Now, by having the proper MSHA training, we have been allowed access to any mine or quarry we have asked to get into even those that were closed completely to rock collecting before.  The quarry owners feel more secure, knowing that we will follow all of the MSHA safety rules.

            Upon entering most of the quarries, we had no idea what to look for or what we would expect to find.  There has not been much written about some of the locations.  Most are not included in collecting guides. So, there were many surprises as we went from quarry to quarry. In one of these quarries, we thought we would be looking for fossils, but also found a few pieces of grayish chalcedony and brown/black flint in the gravel-piles that they had crushed for road work.  On broken surfaces, a couple-of the pieces of chalcedony showed a few white bands in the grayish color. They looked just like a banded agate, but there had never been any agates found in this area before.

            I took these pieces back to the rock club meeting and showed them to a number of club members.  No one had ever seen anything like them before.  Being from Michigan, the new material seemed very unusual.  So, on the next year’s field trip, we explored that quarry very closely and found a flat scraped off area, with some old piles of remains pushed off to the side.  The remnant piles contained many pieces of the gray chalcedony, many showing the white agate banding. The sizes of the material varied from small pieces up to a couple of pounds or so.  I was able to pick up a milk crate full in about an hour. (I found out later that the quarry owners did not like to crush the harder silica layer material, so they discarded them).

            I brought in one of the pieces that looked solid to the lapidary class I instruct at the Mt. Clemens Community Center. The rough showed some interesting banding on a side that was broken off; I thought this one had good potential.  As I started to slab up the piece to see what I could find, I was amazed.  In the first slab, I found three pictures that I could outline with a template, and make 40×30 ovals.  I became very excited with the new find and had to show everyone in the class.  The funny thing is, you would think the picture you saw in the template outline would be the one you say while you were cutting the stone.  The cabochohns seemed to come alive before your eyes as you cut and polished them.  Turn the stone one way and see one scene; then turn the stone another way and see something completely different.  Every scene in the cabochons seemed like looking out a cabin window at a snowy day here in Michigan.  I named the new stone “Michigan’s Snow Scene Agate.”

            The second slab had completely different scenes, and then there were more in the third slab, and so on.  Every slice was interesting and completely different.  The pattern never stayed the same.  I was able to saw eight slabs from that first piece, before my saw would not hold the rough securely in the vise any more. About a third of that first stone is left over after slabbing.  Look at the picture of that end cut of that first stone included with this article, so you can see all of the possibilities for outlining new cabs using a template.  I had to work around the bad areas of Earthy pitting on each slab, but I found I had no problem doing this.  I was able to cut over thirty stones from that first two pound agate, most of them 40x30’s.  All of the cabochons were unique having a different picture in each stone.  All of the stones shown in this article were from that first rough agate that was slabbed.  Many of these stones and examples of the rough will be on display at shows in our area.  The pictures in this article show the scenes very well and were done on a HP Flatbed scanner.

            Cutting and polishing the agates was done on a Diamond Pacific 8 inch Titan Machine.  I found that the smaller the cabochon, the less likely it was to find a scene in the stone. The smaller stones were interesting, but not too much different from any other types of similar looking agates.  The final polish was done on pink felt with cerium oxide powder.  I was amazed at how easy the agates cut, and the high polish they took.  I was quite pleased with end results. Every stone was exciting to finish and then to examine to see what kind of scene could be found.. I showed the finished cabochons to a number of people, and many of them saw scenes I had not seen before.  As an example, the ladies head cameo looked like a mountain valley to me at first.  It was fun to hear all of the things that other people visualized in the cabochons.

            Some of the most interesting scenes are pictured in this article.  The best one shows a water fall with a cloud of mist rising from the pool basin.  Another show the cameo head outline of a lady with long flowing hair.  Another looks like the parting of the Red Sea.  Just like the one in the motion picture.  Many of the agates show snow scenes of mountains and valleys.  If there are crystallized quartz sections included in the piece, they will sparkle like falling snow as you move cabochon from side to side in the light.  Some of the backs of the cabochons had pits, because I would try to get the best picture on the front of the stone.  If there were any pits or holes in the final polished stone; I filled them in with Epoxy, but so far there have been very few of them.

            If you wish any information on the Mt. Clemens Gem and Lapidary Society, our club field trips, the book I wrote on MSHA training (or what your club needs to do for their own training), or any questions about Michigan Snow Scene Agate, you can contact me at

Joel Vicary is a geologist/Math teacher trained at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.  He has been collecting rocks since he was eleven years old. He was a high school science and math teacher for 20 years.  For the last 22 years has been an instructor at Macomb Community College. Joel has been leading field trips for 35 years, ever since he led the geology groups while he was taking classes in college.  He was the head field trip leader in the 70’s & 80’s for the Baincroft, Ontario Gemboree.  Joe is now the field trip director for the M. Clemens Gem and Lapidary Society; leads field trips for his and other local clubs.  He is the lapidary instructor for the M. Clemens Community Center, where his club has their meeting and shows.  Joe has been” asked” to be the National coordinator of MSHA Training for rock collectors, since he wrote the manual for the training classes.