Late summer brings the annual gem festivals, so we look back at a Mitchell County gemologist who was one of the Mineral and Gen Festival’s early participants. Roby Milton Buchanan (1903-1974) has been judged the greatest jewel craftsman of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and an article in National Geographic referred to him as the “Tiffany of the Hills”
The son of Carter and Judith Burleson Buchanan, Roby as a boy was drawn to the “pretty rocks” his miner father brought home. He began working with gems in the 1920s, after finding emerald, aquamarine, amethyst, garnet, and other gemstones in mica waste on land his grandfather owned prior to the Civil War. Self-taught, he learned to “cut, shape, polish, and facet” gems with water power at his father’s gristmill. Water power was the only power available when he developed his craft, so a belt rigged from the mill equipment powered the home-made faceting equipment in his workshop. For many years, he also continued to grind meal for his neighbors; a 1938 newspaper interview revealing Roby’s view that, “Gems are for pretty, but bread is the staff of life.”
Buchanan’s goal as a lapidary was to free the “imprisoned beauty glowing deep within the rough stones.” Thousands of visitors came to his workshop at Hawk to see him at work, and thousands around the nation and worldwide paid for the privilege of owning a ring, bracelet, or pin fashioned by this master. A collection of the gems he wouldn’t part with numbered in the 100s.