Ojo Laguna Agates | The Worlds Finest Banded Agates

January 2, 2024

The Exquisite Beauty of Laguna Agate

Article written by by Johann Zenz, Gloggnitz, Austria, European Union

Agates from Ojo Laguna in the northern Mexican province of Chihuahua are considered by collectors to be the best banded agates in the world. With incredibly rich colors, beautiful banding and other natural treasures created by the dynamic forces of earth's geologic history, Laguna Agates stand among the earths greatest gifts.

The Beginnings

After the construction of Highway 45 between Ciudad Juárez and Ciudad Chihuahua in 1945, American rockhounds discovered colorful agates in the region for the first time. On both sides of the approximately 70-mile stretch between Villa Ahumada and Ojo Laguna are the most important agate sites in Mexico. The area around Ojo Laguna is the furthest south agate deposit.

Initially, agate was only found on the surface. Typical agates from this early period show a weathered, somewhat loosened white exterior. After the ground had been extensively searched, the first mining attempts were made by means of manual excavations and the first claims were applied for. Rosario Villalobos submitted the first claim called Mesquite. The first commercial mining was carried out by a certain José Banda.

One of the most illustrious American traders who imported Laguna agate from Mexico at this time was probably Col. Elbert M. Barron from El Paso, TX. In the 1960s, he and his Southern Gem Mining Company claimed the exclusive rights to sell rough Laguna agates in the USA, allegedly agreed with the then landowner Enrique Borrunda, and threatened all other traders who also wanted to sell Laguna agates with legal action.

Until the early 1990s, the quantity of Laguna agates coming onto the market remained rather limited. It was not until 1993 that a mining attempt yielded a larger quantity of material, which became known on the market as "New Laguna" agate. An in-depth insight into the history of Ojo Laguna and the people involved in the success of these agates is provided by Texas agate expert Brad L. Cross in his still unrivaled standard work on Mexican agates "The Agates of Northern Mexico" (cf. CROSS, 1996).

Modern Day Mining In Ojo Laguna

The beginning of modern mining of high-quality Laguna agates was marked in 1995, when the Mexican dealer Gabriel "Gabe" Olvera came across a veritable agate bonanza on his Los Conejeras claim (later usually referred to as El Conejeros claim in collectors' circles). Such large quantities of the highest quality rough material with multicolored shadow agate banding had probably never been found before.

For several years, the site supplied excellent rough stones, which "Gabe" either sold on directly to mostly American dealers (such as Dave Hignett, who for years offered the highest quality Laguna collector's agates at his booth at the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show) or offered at the famous open-air mineral show in Quartzsite, Arizona. His old yellow school bus filled with excellent agates, visible from afar, has become legendary and every year it was hard to beat the excitement of searching the typical white plastic bags on "Gabe's" truck for great rough agates together with other agate enthusiasts.

Other mechanized mines emerged like the Alianza claim, including a Mexican-American cooperative with the participation of the well-known miner and dealer Eugene "Gene" Mueller from Wisconsin, who for several years brought very good rough material to the market at prices that were consistently quite collector-friendly. In the years around the turn of the millennium, it was always an incomparable pleasure to browse through the rough material on "Gene's" well-stocked tables at the Tucson Showplace during the Tucson Shows in Arizona, armed with the typical spray water bottle, and to acquire one or two promising rough stones.

Over the course of time, numerous smaller mines were operated on several claims in the Ojo Laguna area. Unfortunately, some dealers and collectors attach little importance to precise location details, so that most Laguna agates can no longer be assigned to a claim or an exact period of discovery. In addition to the claims already mentioned, the El Puerto Claim, Macedonia Claim, Ojo Laguna 1 Claim, Santa Monica Claim, Ojo de San Martin, El Hormiguero, Los Herraduras, Los Apuros, La Morita, San Martin and the Diana Claim in particular achieved mostly short-lived fame.

The Current Situation

After the death of Gabe Olvera and the virtual cessation of mining on his claims, the dedicated young Mexican Andres Carrillo (the Carrillo family had long operated the Coyamito Ranch in Chihuahua, which had also become famous for agate discoveries) undertook a new major mining attempt on the back of the hill of the former Conejeros mine and once again discovered a rich deposit of rough agate on the site now known as the Arco Iris mine, which again produced excellent qualities and sizes of agates.

Much of the newly mined material was initially marketed by the American company Highland Park from Whitinsville, MA. Meanwhile, Andres Carillo apparently has a kind of monopoly on all agate mining and sales of Laguna agates and sells only cut and polished stones through various online sales channels and the major mineral shows such as in Tucson, AZ. Unfortunately, there is currently hardly a broader opportunity for collectors to acquire rough material from Laguna agates at reasonably realistic prices.

The Price Trend for Laguna Agates

The price development of Laguna agates can be described as quite remarkable. While cut halves in the best quality grade were never really cheap, even in the 1950s and 1960s, they have reached almost unbelievable heights, especially in the last 4-5 years. The best pieces often achieve amounts in the five-digit US dollar range. Even smaller, more average pieces usually start at several hundred dollars per half.

To a certain extent, this rapid price development may suggest a not entirely unplanned monopolistic background, but it is also based on completely realistic reasons: Decades of mining have already largely exhausted the potential deposits, and finding good rough material is becoming increasingly difficult and requires enormous technical and human resources.

Only a small proportion of the rough material mined is suitable for collection purposes or for gemstone production. The workers understandably want to be adequately rewarded for their laborious work, machinery and fuel have also become extremely expensive and, of course, the landowner and the claim operator also want to achieve a corresponding economic success.

However, this development has also meant that collectors who cannot easily pay thousands of dollars for an agate or a few pounds of rough material must now largely do without Mexican Laguna agates as new additions to their collections. Yet the selection, cutting and polishing of Mexican rough stones in particular has a decades-long tradition, not only among American rockhounds, and for many collectors is a major part of the fascination of Laguna agates. It is very unlikely that this price trend will reverse in the near future. The supply of high-quality material is too small and the interest of collectors around the world who are willing and able to pay any requested amount is too great.

What makes the coveted agates from Ojo Laguna so special, given that high-quality agates can also be found in many other places around the world? It is probably an otherwise rather rare combination of an unusually broad, intense color spectrum, the finest, sharp-edged fortification banding and also a very appealing size of the agate nodules and the fact that good material has come onto the market and into collections worldwide in not so small quantities over the last 70 years. Particularly sought-after are high-contrast pieces with strongly changing intense colors in the individual bands in shadow agate quality (parallax phenomenon) and in absolutely crack-free qualities in at least small cabinet or better cabinet size.

The Uniqueness of Laguna Agates

Laguna agates are relatively easy to recognize even as rough material. The outer rind is usually heavily fissured, pockmarked and either covered with a greenish-white coating of celadonite or - especially the typically intense red pieces from the more recent finds - characterized by brown colors of the andesite parent rock. Agates from the Alianza claim rarely show the rough outer shell and often form smoother nodules with a mostly white-grey outer color. Typical for the Mez(s)quite claim are larger, rather smooth nodules with a green-black crust and grey-blue chalcedony with red and white tones in the center. While it is generally extremely difficult to recognize the agate quality from an undamaged rough stone, a few experts can already deduce the potential of the cut stone from the shape of the nodule, especially in the case of Laguna agates.

However, truly unique pieces of the highest color and band quality are also quite rare in Ojo Laguna. Many rough stones are unsuitable for collecting purposes due to pre-existing cracks or cracks formed during the mining process (e.g. the dreaded "black widows" are cracks into which black manganese carbonates have subsequently penetrated). Another value-reducing factor are various inclusions, such as brown-black iron carbonate spherulites (e.g. siderite) or macrocrystalline quartz, which is often found in the center of the nodules. The majority of the rough stones show little to no banding and only grey-blue, transparent chalcedony color. These qualities are completely unsuitable for collecting purposes.

There are also smaller deposits of vein agates and thunderegg type agates in the area around Ojo Laguna, but these have only been mined for short periods of time and have hardly found their way into collections.

Agates from Ojo Laguna are undoubtedly marvels of nature and creation. In any case, they will continue to inspire generations of collectors, even if the supply of new material will dwindle or even dry up in the foreseeable future. But Laguna agate will certainly continue to exert its pure magic on agate collectors all over the world for a very long time!