North Carolina native Wayne Messer made a living as a fishing guide in the wild backcountry of the Appalachian Mountains, but his true passion lay more at the geology under his feet and less the catch at the end of his line. In 1990, the self-described "rock hound" was walking along a stream bed in the western mountains of North Carolina when he came upon trace amounts of corundum, the mineral responsible for rubies and sapphires.
"He’d often see something in a stream bed that drew his attention, and he’d trace it back to some origin and dig down into the ground to follow the trail," Arlan Ettinger, founder and president of the auction house Guernsey’s, told Garden & Gun. "For this particular find, he had to dig about eight feet down."
What Messer discovered at this undisclosed site would come to be known as the Mountain Star Ruby Collection — four extremely rare star rubies totaling 342 carats.
"When I found it, there was a red-tailed hawk that soared right over me," Messer told local talk show North Carolina "Now" in an early 1990s interview. "I knew it was something special, but I didn’t realize how important the stones would be."
One of the gems, nicknamed the "Appalachian Ruby Star," is considered one of the largest star rubies ever discovered. It weighs 139.43 carats, and it's only slightly larger than the 138.72-carat Rosser Reeves Star Ruby, which is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
"I was stunned and astonished that nature could come up with something as large as this," Sam Fore, a gem cutter who polished Messer's original find into the Appalachian Ruby Star, told a North Carolina news station in the early '90s. "Its original carat weight was 377 carats. That alone is a world record."
While rubies are already extremely rare compared to diamonds, star rubies are rarer still. The brilliant star pattern is revealed when the gem is cut into a cabochon (a domed, rounded shape), reflecting light off titanium needlelike crystals trapped within the stone. Called an asterism, this optical phenomenon is also present in other gems such as sapphires.
"I realized what we had found when I made my first cut," Messer said in a 1994 interview. "The star just popped right out. Right from the beginning, I could see it portrayed attributes that no other stone has."
In October 1992, an exhibition of the Appalachian Ruby Star at the Natural History Museum in London drew an estimated 150,000 people. According to Garden & Gun, various attempts have been made over the years to sell the collection, with several appraisals valuing the stones at close to $100 million. Only recently, years after Messer passed away from cancer, did his family decide to pursue a sale through the New York City-based auction house Guernsey’s.
According to Ettinger, the stones will only be sold together, preserving the collection as discovered by Messer.
"It was suggested to us that part of the extraordinary nature of them is where they were found and their individual brilliance, but also the fact that they are four matching stones and it would be crazy, almost criminal, to destroy the collection and the set," he told National Jeweler.
The collection will first be offered through a private sale before heading to auction at a later date. "These are wonderful and important stones," Ettinger added. "The world will determine what they’re worth."