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Making The Cut

Harrisonburg jeweler mines, creates and sells unique Shenandoah creations

July 2023


by Audrey T. Hingley, Contributing Writer


Sitting at a workbench in his light-filled shop at 49 West Water Street in downtown Harrisonburg, Va., Stuart Mercer is clad in jeans, a comfortable-looking shirt and a well-used leather apron. A colorful three-tiered gemstone necklace he made dangles from his neck. He’s doing what he loves best: creating gemstone jewelry.

His constant companion Leah, a white shih tzu dog who weighs in at nine and a half pounds, attracts attention by lying curled up on her bed in the showroom window. Leah and Mercer’s colorful jewelry creations beckon customers to a window sign that tells the story of Mercer’s Elk Run Mining Company. The sign reads: “I mine, cut and polish Virginia gemstones and create sterling settings for each.”


Mercer says there are similar shops in the western United States that do it all; mine, cut and create jewelry, but he says to his knowledge there is no one else in Virginia who does it, at least not with locally mined stones.


Mercer calls hunting down the rocks for his artistic creations “the most fun part of what I do,” adding, “I have done underground mining in the past, but now I primarily focus on surface mining. It’s very easy for me. People know what I do and often invite me to surface mine on their property.” This often includes standing in creeks and panning like a 19th-century gold miner. Mercer says he often hunts for up to 30 different types of rocks in his adopted home of Rockingham County and other Virginia locales.

In his shop, all his finished jewelry creations identify a piece’s origins, many of which feature stones like quartz from Albemarle County; citrine from Fluvanna County; milky quartz from Madison County; and bloodstone from Madison, Page and Rockingham counties.

Mercer says he buys some subterranean rocks like amazonite — a striking turquoise-look type of microcline feldspar mineral — from Amelia County’s Morefield Mine near Richmond, but he has also worked in the mine himself.


Mercer’s passion for rocks and gemstones began as a child. He says one of his earliest memories is taking an empty chocolate candy box that his father gave his mother for Valentine’s Day, and filling it instead with colorful rocks found in his Cape Cod, Mass., hometown.

“There were naturally tumbled rocks everywhere along the waterfront — which drew me to them and spoke to me,” he recalls. “Soon I had a bookcase filled with rocks instead of books.” As a very young boy, Mercer says he often took his rocks to school for show-and-tell days. When he was a 5th grader, he says his mother gave him “a cheap rock grinder” that he still owns to this day.

A family friend who was an early mentor showed a young Mercer how to cut cabochons. A cabochon is a gemstone that has been cut, shaped and polished rather than faceted. Mercer says many stones can be cut into cabochons; a notable exception being diamonds, which are rarely cut as cabochons as their brilliant sparkle is brought out better via faceting. Mercer later earned a geology degree from James Madison University and took jewelry and metals classes, but says he is largely self-taught as a goldsmith and silversmith.

Beth Orebaugh


In the early 1990s after getting married and having two daughters, Mercer says his passion for rocks was forced to the side as he spent 22 years as a self-employed roofing contractor. A small home workshop allowed him to continue creating and selling jewelry as a sideline, but no more than that. “I had no seed money to start a [jewelry] business,” he says of the long journey to eventually owning his own Harrisonburg store.

After his two daughters finished college and left home, Mercer closed his roofing business and took the plunge, opening Elk Run Mining Company in 2013. Located on a side street adjacent to downtown’s Water Street Parking Deck, his compact store is surrounded by other small locally owned businesses.


Today his studio/workshop is filled with colorful creations utilizing polished cabochons set primarily in sterling silver, along with a limited number of pieces set in gold.

Most of his necklaces for sale are displayed on colorful ribbons; customers can buy their own sterling or gold chains to replace the ribbon as desired. His shop also sells earrings, pendants and rings, does jewelry repair, and creates custom items at customers’ request, such as the special necklace he did for Beth Orebaugh of nearby Keezletown, a 10-minute drive from Mercer’s store.

Top, lake of lace quartz mined in Albemarle County, Va.; Middle, citrine mined in Fluvanna County, Va.; Bottom, amazonite from Amelia County, Va.

Orebaugh is also a self-described “rock hound” whose father introduced her to rock hunting. She owns several of Mercer’s creations, including a pendant necklace featuring amazonite on one side — with her former pet cat’s ID tag on the back.

“Rocks are the only thing I collect,” Orebaugh explains. “For jewelry, I like amazonite and rhodochrosite from Argentina and rhodonite, a pinkish stone from Fluvanna County.”

She adds, “I collect rocks because to me they are a masterpiece of the Almighty’s hand, and no two are alike, so a collection is never complete. A dream I have is that when my husband retires, we can go and hunt for rocks.”


Mercer admits he still loves rock hunting as well. He often returns to the shop from a typical outing armed with several 5-gallon buckets filled with rocks. He uses a power saw to cut them, a grinder to shape them and finally, a finisher to smooth and polish the pieces into finished cabochons. There’s usually a whole day’s labor in one piece, he says.

Mercer says his 10-year-old granddaughter, Isabella, has exhibited some interest in continuing his passion for stones. “She comes in the shop, cuts rocks, works on the grinder, assembles jewelry … she’s very artsy,” he notes.

A typical day in Mercer’s shop includes creating cabochons, doing settings, replenishing sold inventory with new creations, and interacting with customers. He has a website and Facebook page, but notes he usually only sells online to current or previous customers. He advertises on local-area television during his two busiest holiday times of the year — Christmas and Mother’s Day.

“Others have described my work as ‘simple in silver or gold’ — the star is the gemstone. This is a work of passion and love,” he says. “I have to have this outlet — I want to cut and polish rocks. I’ll do it as long as I have health and ability.”