In the June 1958 issue of National Geographic, he was given the title of “Tiffany of the Hills.” Tiffany and Company began and continues as a fine jewelry distribution business in New York City. The real story, as you will see, makes that label a shallow substitute for the brilliant, multitalented, creative, and industrious artist of Hawk, NC ,we call Roby.
Roby Milton Buchanan was born June 8, 1903, the youngest of six children of Albert Carter Buchanan and his wife Judith “Juda” Burleson in the Hawk community of the Bakersville Township.
Roby’s Grandfather was Thomas Aaron Buchanan, son of William Greenberry Buchanan and Mary “Polly” Burleson. Aaron enlisted in the Union Army in 1863 at the age of 42 and served as a Corporal in Company C of the 13thTennessee Volunteer Calvary. Roby’s Grandmother was Minerva “Nervie” Burleson. Aaron and Minerva are believed to have had 19 children.
Roby’s Mother died when he was 6. He completed the eighth grade and at 15 left home and spent three years in the West. But the mountains called him home, and when he returned he never strayed.
His father and grandfather were mica miners, but Roby apparently was not drawn into the mines as a place to work, but a place to find “the pretty rocks” his father had often brought home. Instead he began to work in his father’s grist mill. With time on his hands in the mill, he began to look again at the rocks and realized the special beauty they had inside. He began to gather a collection of rocks from the area and was so fascinated with the potential beauty that could be taken out of the rough stones, he sent some away to be polished. Once he realized the cost: “I got to thinking about doing it myself.” He was around 19 at that time.
“I tried to get a book and there wasn’t one,” Roby said. So he wrote to some 50 jewelers in big cities asking how to polish the stones. Considering where he lived, they wrote back saying that he would have to learn that on his own.
On April 23, 1924, Roby married Minerva Silvers in Unicoi, TN. They had two sons, James Harmon and Richard. Meanwhile, his father became ill and Roby had to take over the entire operation of the mill. In his spare time from farming and grinding meal, he began experimenting and attempted every technique he could think of to process the rough rocks, including “licking” them with a chisel. Then he turned his attention to the possibility of harnessing the power of the huge water wheel “to free their imprisoned beauty.”
Entirely from available materials, he created the machinery for cutting and polishing stones using a belt from the overshot mill wheel. This was the first and to date the only water wheel gemstone operation. Every step required him to use his mind, creativity, and hands in ways no one else had ever done before.
He made specific machines for each operation, including making his own copper discs for cutting the rocks. He added a carborundum wheel to shape them. At first he could only produce smooth convex cabochons, then he decided he wanted to do facets for sparkle—especially for the transparent stones such as smoky and rose quartz, tourmaline, and his favorite aquamarine. He also liked the rhodolite garnet and said, “It’s a mighty important gemstone, and it’s found nowhere else in the world.” Roby said he usually put 100 to 200 facets on a stone, but he had put up to 900 on some.
He was paid $20 for the first successfully cut gem stone, a cut and polished garnet.
With gemstone polishing as a hobby, for several years he continued to farm and grind meal, “Gems are for pretty, but bread is the staff of life,” Roby once said. However, his mill race was washed away by a spring freshet in the early 1940’s and he did not rebuild it. Instead he began to rely on electricity and his hobby became a full time occupation. In the 1960’s he built a block house for a workshop, we would now refer to it as his studio, just a few steps from his home.
Roby could only provide unset gems until his son James returned from WWII with a bride, Margerethe, who had training as a gold and silver smith. She and James worked with Roby in his shop “Gems by Roby.” Following Minerva’s death in 1966, Roby married Gazzie McKinney in 1968 who also began to work cutting stones.
For most of his life, over 90 percent of the stones he cut were ones that he gathered from mine dumps or walking the ridges and fields gathering potential jewels such unakite from the top of Roan Mountain or rubies and beryl from beside the railroad track. Or perhaps the white topaz from a mine on Little Hawk Ridge that once belonged to the county’s original mining team Heap and Clapp, owned by Ella Clapp Thompson in the late 30’s.
Not only was his health an issue in the later years of his stone gathering, but the way in which minerals are taken from the earth and processed, which left only crushed waste that forced him to rely on other sources nationally and internationally.
He apparently declined to offered positions at the Smithsonian and Cornell University, but he did lead workshops for the Penland School of Crafts in the 1940’s. Asked if he would write a book, he claimed that he was not smart enough to write one, but “I’m smart enough to know that most of books [on the topic] are a bunch of bunk.”
As many as 3000 people a year came up the winding road to the white block building in Hawk. Many purchased rings, bracelets, and necklaces created by Roby, Margerethe, and James. Many more commissioned pieces specifically designed for them which were shipped a few weeks later. He frequently attended arts and crafts exhibitions, but preferred to work with individuals to create their own unique designs.
Roby once said that the Toe River Valley is special because there are over 360 varieties of gems and minerals found here, which no other area of our size can come close to claiming. Death claimed a similar unique and special person on October 21, 1974.
A sign on Roby’s wall once read: “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is an artisan. But he who works with his hands, his head, and his heart—is an artist.”
Join the Mitchell County Historical Society as we celebrate both the talents of artists such as Roby Buchanan and the unique offerings of gems and minerals native to Mitchell County at the 60thNorth Carolina Mineral and Gem Festival. The Mitchell County Historical Society will display photographs relating to mining and other aspects of Mitchell County’s history. Come out and visit with our Society Thursday through Sunday, 8/1-8/4, and learn about some of the ways we are dedicated to preservation of our county’s heritage.