Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Fall 2021 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
Something happens to a certain type of person when they traverse the beaches of northern Michigan.
As if taken over by some unseen force, their bodies become bent at the waist and their eyes transfix upon the shoreline below. It’s natural treasures they’re after; rocks and particles, some of which are most plentiful in northern Michigan.
Cris Telgard traded the restaurant business for the jewelry industry two decades prior. Now, he and his wife Kathy Telgard co-own Tampico Imports, a shop located in Leland that specializes in sterling silver jewelry. There, one can find iconic northern Michigan gems such as the Petoskey stone and Leland Blue.
“There’s no other, really, blue rocks in Lake Michigan, so when you get a piece that’s bright blue it really stands out,” said Telgard.
Leland Blue is a remnant of the town’s early industry. The Leland Lake Superior Iron Company, formerly housed in Leland, produced a waste element known as slag. The forces of the water splintered the byproduct into sometimes colorful pieces, thus Leland Blue was born, according to the city of Leland.
The stone represents both a piece of the town’s history and a wearable emblem of northern Michigan memories.
“There’s kind of a local pride. This is from here. ‘This is from a place that I go and a place that I love,’” said Telgard.
When it comes to rock hunting, finding the state stone of Michigan, the Petoskey stone, awards a special kind of badge of honor.
The Petoskey stone is coral that has become fossilized. The stones are relics from the Devonian period which dates back 350 million years, according to the state of Michigan. That means the coral that have become keepsakes from northern Michigan, lived close to 100 million years before the dinosaurs roamed the planet, according to some estimates.
“I like antiques. It’s hard to fathom something being 350 million years old,” said rock hunter John Tomczyk, who lives in Empire. Tomczyk both snorkels and scuba dives, activities that give him an edge when it comes to stone searching. Also, when local construction projects upheave the ground, he sees it a potential treasure trove.
“If there is a new house being excavated like on a bluff … you can just ask permission when they are excavating if you can take a few stones,” he said.
Jenn River Wolf is a massage therapist and artist who lives in Traverse City. Her work, which is featured on both Etsy and Pinterest, includes jewelry made with local stones.
When tourists pack up, her hunting season begins.
“Actually in the off seasons, the storms are different, the winds are different and it brings us actually more treasures,” said Wolf.
If she has a technique, it’s simply not giving up.
“Just be persistent. It’s not luck, it’s persistence when I go rock hunting,” she said. “I think a lot of rock hunters are a wee bit OCD.”
While luck may not be at work when Wolf searches, it might have played a role in landing one of Betty Bailey’s stones under the forefinger of one of the most powerful people in the world.
In 2011, Bailey, who owns Bailey’s Place, sold a Petoskey stone to a customer looking for something special for a friend’s 50th birthday. Later, the customer returned.
“I asked her ‘how did your friend like the birthday present?’ She said, ‘Now I can tell you who it was for. It was for the President of the United States.’”
The customer, Bailey said, was the then-fiancé of White House photographer Pete Souza.
Bailey knew the President wouldn’t pose with her stone, but later, serendipity stepped in when a photo of President Barack Obama pictured at his desk in the Oval Office with his right forefinger poised over a Petoskey stone went online.
Media outlets confirmed the stone was indeed the one that came from Bailey’s store, she said.
“Considering I’m a just a little shop on the side of the road and the President of the United States had a piece of my merchandise on his desk in the Oval Office, that’s pretty, pretty good,” she said.
No matter where northern Michigan gems land, they serve as a regional emblem and visual timestamp offering a glimpse of what came before.
“All the stones are different, you know its Mother Nature at work,” said Telgard.