In nineteenth century Connecticut, a man by the name of J. T. Robertson owned a business that manufactured and sold cleaning products such as soap and scouring powder. The latter was made from silica quartz, and while it did the job it left scratches on anything and everything it was used on. Happily for his business and post-Civil War housewives all over New England, Robertson discovered a new ingredient to make a scouring powder that didn’t scratch surfaces. He had noted that some of the workmen at the company mine had highly polished shovels – but without scratches!
These workman with the highly polished shovels had one job, to manually separate freshly-mined silica quartz from feldspar, a white mineral with no apparent economic value. The mineral was simply discarded, up until the time Robertson realized that feldspar was useful as a scratchless scouring powder. In 1886, the J. T. Robertson Soap Company introduced a new cleaning product that – even after 135 years – is still popular and widely available today: Bon Ami.
The market for Bon Ami grew rapidly, and new sources of feldspar were sought. One of the places it was found in abundance was in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 50 miles northeast of Asheville, NC. Located a mile or two west of the resort town of Little Switzerland (an hour drive from Asheville), the appropriately named Bon Ami Mine is no longer a funtioning mining operation, but it is open to the public for tours. Emerald Village, which now owns the mine, is open from April through the end of October, which they must reckon to be the tourist season in these parts.
Although the feldspar is gone, the area is still rich with gemstones. Visitors can pan for pieces of real emerald and garnet and other precious rocks. There’s also a museum dedicated to the history of the mine, and of course you can take a tour of the mine itself. Ten times a year, they put on a light show, of sorts, down in the mine, they call the Black Light Mine Tour. Hyalite, abundant in the mine, is a type of opal that’s colorless and transparent, similar to glass. Uniquely, hyalite glows bright fluorescent green when black light is shone on it.
The Bon Ami Mine and Little Switzerland are both situated close to the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. Asheville, of course, has the world famous Biltmore Estate and mansion that may be on your bucket list. If you’re looking for a vacation road trip, this area has much to offer. Just be sure to schedule a stop at the mine on a day when they’re showing off the hyalite.