Dan Snellings may fight crime as his full-time job, but his true passion is hunting for gemstones and turning them into beautiful pieces of jewelry.
Since his mother worked as a geologist, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s deputy, who resides in Casar, just outside Vale, with his wife and two children, grew up learning about gems, rocks, minerals and all things related to the geology field.
Living in Kansas as a child, where he said the area’s flat, prairie lands maintained little to no rocks and mountains, he would sometimes dig up items during rare finds, taking them home to Mom to correctly identify them.
“It was just like treasure,” Snellings said.
The rocks in his home state often stemmed from earlier time periods when the Earth was frozen.
“Any rock there was deposited by the Ice Age and glaciers,” he said. “My favorite thing to do was to collect all these rocks and find something different in a glacier deposit.”
About seven years ago, Snellings took his childhood interest to the next level, attending a school in Spruce Pine headed by Jerry Call, who now owns a home in Brazil, right in the heart of gem mining territory.
The expert geologist organizes trips to Rio Doce Gem Mine in Spruce Pine, according to travelchannel.com.
For three years, Snellings completed classes at the educational facility part-time, with Call taking the local law enforcement officer under his wing.
“He said, ‘If you are going to do this, I’m going to teach you how,’” Snellings said.
He showed Call some of his early pieces, mostly made of cabochon — a smooth, round gemstone, similar to tiger’s eye — hoping for positive feedback from the expert geologist.
“That’s when he took interest in me,” Snellings said.
It wasn’t long before the amateur rock cutter sought to put his knowledge to practice and purchased the correct machine for cutting gemstones.
Initially carrying out the work as a hobby, Snellings’ experience grew, prompting people to take notice of his budding talent.
He and his wife now “put up shop” at a farmers market in Shelby certain times of the year, selling the handmade jewelry items he’s shaped.
The couple currently receives customers by word of mouth, but they hope to blossom into a full-time business and secure a permanent site for their pieces in the future.
Snellings, who will retire from the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office in six years, the only law enforcement agency he’s ever worked for, is contemplating going ahead and getting a business license for the gem trade.
His wife, a Cleveland County school teacher, is even planning to attend a school on goldsmithing this summer to learn how to work with the soft metal and fashion jewelry items of her own.
Snellings maintains a variety of colorful gemstones and precious metals at his home shop, except for stainless steel and diamonds, a gem type more difficult to acquire.
“I love color, and I love sparkle,” he said.
Instead, he buys the coveted, pricey gem from a person who procures them straight from the source, cutting out the middleman and cutting down on price.
Snellings’ custom-cut items range in price from $150 to well over $1,000, he said.
While the rare, green emerald remains at the top of his list of gemstone favorites, he also admires sapphires and all things related to the quartz family, including citrines and amethysts — more affordable than other gems.
Lincoln County is also listed among his top hunting locations for amethysts. Other gem hunting spots for Snellings include Franklin and places throughout Burke County, where he often finds a number of garnets.
For those gemstones he can’t locate in the surrounding region, he notifies Call, who will send items straight from Brazil.
Before retirement, the Casar man has dreams of taking his family along on a gem hunting vacation outside the country, either in Brazil or Mexico’s central region.
“If things keep growing like they seem to,” he said, “I can see myself doing that in the near future.”
Snellings boasted about the quality of his custom work and affordable items — the same items that jewelry stores often mark up nearly 500 percent, he said.
While “thousands upon thousands” of different cuts exist, he uses between 12 and 15 that’s he come up with over the years.
He often takes up to four hours to cut something like a standard round brilliant cut diamond, often shutting out the world around him during the tedious process.
“I’ll actually get lost in it,” he said, “and lose track of time.”
Snellings is also one of few people who will facet an opal, he noted.
In addition to telling others about his pieces at local events, by word of mouth and on his Facebook page “Snellings Gemstones,” the Casar man also travels to area elementary schools with his rock collection, sparking an interest in students.
Their curious natures often prompt them to hunt for items or start a rock collection of their own, he said.
Passionate about the beauty of his natural medium, Snellings believes he has a true connection and talent for the trade and sees nothing wrong with having a diverse lifestyle split between the fields of criminal justice and gemology.
“Not everyone is good at everything they do,” he said, “and this just seems like an artistic niche I have an eye for.”