After a decade of feverishly collecting exquisite rocks, an Evergreen man is selling his collection for $15,000
Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Sally Finneran
Of course, Don Smith says his collection is worth more. A lot more. Inquire about his asking price, and he’ll laugh. He’ll say, “You mean my giving away price?”
Smith has rock from Australia, Afghanistan, and Indonesia. Rock collected from the foot of the second-highest mountain in the world and from a now-flooded mine 7,700 feet under Butte. Rock that’s been polished by the winds of the Gobi Desert. Some with “heal-y feel-y properties,” though that’s not Smith’s specialty. He has the classics, including more varieties of turquoise than you ever knew existed, but he’s more enchanted by the newly discovered marvels. Current favorites include charoite, a purple-flecked rock from Russia; schalenblende, a rare Austrian stone with wisps of silver mirror; and Sonora sunrise, a Mexican rock known for its striking combination of greenish-blue chrysocolla and fiery red cuprite separated by a jagged black band. All in all, he estimates the collection is worth $100,000.
“I’m okay with giving this away — I need to move on,” Smith says. “I’m building a house [on the Idaho border]. I have to move and I do not want to move this building full of rock. [The collection would] be up in the mountains, and nobody will ever see it then.”
He already owns the property he plans to move to, and he’s prepped the plot for construction. But he won’t leave the valley until he sells every last rock in his shop, which is housed in a dark, windowless, 20-by-30-foot storage shed in his Evergreen yard. He’s been looking for a buyer for about a year, with little luck. Recently, he had one interested customer, a man from Arizona with a rock business who had hoped to stock his stores across the Southwest.
“He had me convinced he was going to buy it — then poof,” Smith said. “A lot of people are interested, but times are tight. A lot of people don’t have 15 grand laying around. Even though it’s a steal, and people know it’s a steal, it’s still 15 grand.”
“His price is really reasonable — if I had the money, I’d do it,” says Velvet Phillips-Sullivan, owner of Rocks and Things Metaphysical in Whitefish. “I think it’s well worth what he’s asking … He’s got some stuff that’s pretty rare.”
To fund his rockhound habit, which is only a hobby, Smith makes necklace pendants, earrings, rings, belt buckles, bolo ties, nightlights, and more, which he sells from his shop and at farmers markets across the valley. His main career was building railroad track across the Northwest, which he did for 30 years. The only rock he encountered on that job was gravel. (He does not have any in his collection today.) But he’s been drawn to rare and beautiful rocks since childhood, when he received his first rock, a chunk of petrified wood, from a guard who worked with Smith’s father at a cement company in Missoula.
“I have no idea [what I love about rocks],” he said. “It was something that happened real young. That day when my dad took me to the gravel pit and that old-timer gave me that rock is probably what flashed it all off.”
He only began collecting rocks with vigor a decade ago, dropping “ungodly figures,” thousands of dollars at a time, on slabs and chunks and cabochons, which are gems that are polished but not faceted.
“For most people, this [collection] would be a lifetime [of work to acquire],” he says. “This isn’t common; this is a disease.”
Smith used to run a Mexican imports store, formerly located along U.S. Highway 2, but he says it became a nightmare to ship so many goods from south of the border. He introduced jewelry to his product line, and it quickly became his most popular item. He began tinkering, making some pieces himself, and eventually decided to sell the import store’s entire contents to focus on jewelry. With the cash, he bought a few old lapidary machines and a CD with instructions for cutting cabochons.
“It went from there,” he said. “As I started cutting and making jewelry, I’d fall in love with one rock and I’d buy a bunch of it, usually online, on eBay, and by doing that, I met a bunch of rock dealers all over the world. And here we are.”
Smith kept his growing rock collection in his living room at first, but, as he says, “it got a little out of hand.” The more rock he bought, the better deal he’d get, “so I always bought extra rock when I was buying whatever I thought I had to have for jewelry,” he says. Eventually, he moved his rocks into the shed next to his home, and they’ve been there ever since.
The outbuilding does not look like a typical shop. There are no lighted glass cases or rocks lined up clinically on velvet surfaces. The space is lined with shelves stacked high. Loose rocks sit in piles. Visitors walk softly through, careful not to send a cascade of stone to the floor. Tall museum cases sag in the center of the room. Long tables run down the middle of the space, with small boxes displaying rows and rows of jewelry. On the back wall, crates and milk cartons stand in towers, stuffed to the gills with rocks that haven’t seen the light of day in a long while. Imagine a mad scientist’s laboratory — this building is the cluttered product of a passion project.
The store has a name, Darsroc, and it doesn’t have regular hours. Buyers should call Smith before showing up on his front porch to make sure he’ll be there to unlock the padlock. It’s in a residential neighborhood “in the middle of nowhere,” not the kind of place a tourist might stumble upon. You have to go there on purpose. “That’s why I’m here,” he said, instead of a big store on some busy downtown street. And, he added, “It really tore me up to pay rent when I’m not making any money.” Smith doesn’t mind the relative obscurity, so long as he’s successful at the farmers markets and rock shows.
“I sit over here with a collection to die for, and I can’t get anybody over here … business has been way off this summer,” he said. “The park is setting records, and we are usually big winners out of that, but tourists don’t seem to be spending money this year and I can’t say I blame them.”
But it’s not too far-fetched to think Smith will soon find a buyer for the whole collection. He once bought a declining local business, Montana Alpine, for “many thousands of dollars.” He happily took on boxes and boxes of thin, polished Brazilian agate discs used to construct delicate rock windcatchers. His buyer will likely be someone else in the industry, who already has a collection and often buys or sells large quantities of rock. Smith just has to find the right person.
“I have put together a fabulous collection here and … if nothing else, somebody ought to display it somewhere, or sell it, or whatever, but somebody needs to do something with it other than me,” he says.
Once he moves to the Montana-Idaho border, he won’t necessarily get out of the jewelry business, or even the rock business — just “this rock shop business.” He’ll keep collecting, at least when something catches his eye.
“I’ve done it my whole life; I don’t know why I’d quit now,” Smith says. “If I see a rock I like, I’m going to buy the damn thing.”