Cape May Diamonds: Natural Treasures on the New Jersey Shore

Cape May Diamonds

Thousands of vacationers flock to Cape May every summer, searching Sunset Beach for their very own cape may diamonds. These quartz pebbles look like diamonds, and when polished, they make wonderful souvenirs.

The actual source of these treasures is the faraway upper reaches of the Delaware River, where pieces of quartz crystal are eroded and broken off from veins and pockets. A rock jetty and the hulk of a concrete ship trap the pebbles here, diverting them from their 200 mile journey toward the ocean.

The Origins of Cape May Diamonds

Known locally as Cape May diamonds, these quartz pebbles are found on beaches near the tip of New Jersey’s penisula. They’re usually a quarter-inch or less in size and are clear or opaque. They’re rounded from their rocky ride down the Delaware River.

The glaciers that once covered the East Coast deposited quartz pieces along the shore. As the Delaware River swirled and rolled, it broke, buffeted, and polished the pebbles, which now resemble faceted diamonds.

The Kechemeche Indians, who lived along the Delaware Bay, were the first to find these gems. They believed they contained supernatural powers that brought success, good fortune and well-being to their possessors. The Kechemeche gave them in trade and to seal bonds of friendship and lasting good will. A large gem once belonged to Christopher Leaming, one of the earliest settlers at Cape May Point, who received it from the last chief of the Kechemeche tribe, King Nummy. It’s displayed at the Cape May Museum.

Sunset Beach

The nation’s oldest seashore resort offers more than 600 lovingly preserved Victorian buildings, but the highlight of any summertime visit is finding a strand of Cape May Diamonds. These quartz pebbles are found on beaches throughout the area, but they are most commonly found at Sunset Beach in Cape May Point.

They appear frosted milky white or cloudy beige when wet and when tumbled, they resemble the sparkle of a Tiffany’s jewel. Beach lovers can purchase these gemstones from local gift shops.

Legend has it that the Kechemeche tribe’s last chief presented whaler Christopher Leaming with one of these glistening treasures in 1750, and the stone passed down through generations as a symbol of friendship and love. It is believed to be the only diamond known to be found naturally on the shores of the Delaware Bay. Besides jewelry, other popular items for sale include sharks’ teeth, agates and Indian arrowheads. A stroll down Sunset Beach’s main street introduces visitors to boho boutique Cleobella, whose clothing and accessories are handmade in Bali; surf trunk shop Katin; Anderson Art Gallery, which features a collection curated by longtime local artist Bill Anderson; and groovy locally owned guitar store Beach Music.

Higbee Beach

A hidden gem in Cape May, this one-and-a-half mile stretch along the Delaware Bay lures folks passionate about all sorts of natural pursuits – bird watching (it’s an important habitat for migrating warblers), sunning themselves in the nude, hunting for beach plums and even taking their dogs for a run. It’s a place where the scent of entangling wild roses and sweet-smelling honeysuckle fills the air, and where a stroll through a dense forest of dune grasses yields rare treasures such as a flowering wild orchid called Spiranthes oderata.

You’ll know you’ve arrived at Higbee when New England Road dead ends and opens into thick woods and a swamp. This is where you’ll find the path to a quiet, free beach that remains a refuge from tourists. Until about 20 years ago, this was a nudist beach. But after a legal rebuke, Lower Township police began to crack down on the practice. Today, nude sunbathers are largely limited to the area between Pond Creek and Sunset Beach.

Where to Find Cape May Diamonds

The best place to look for Cape May Diamonds is on Sunset Beach. The sand is full of quartz pebbles, and you’ll have the most luck finding them when the water washes them ashore. The sand is also rich in sharks’ teeth, agates, and Indian arrowheads.

The quartz stones, averaging a hardness of seven on the Mohs scale, can be collected, cut and polished to resemble diamond jewelry, and sold as local souvenirs. They tell a story thousands of years in the making, washing out of nearby Pleistocene gravel deposits, traveling for hundreds of miles along ocean currents, and eventually washing up on East Coast shorelines.

It was on the shores of Cape May that one of these stones was presented to Christopher Leaming by the Kechemeche tribe. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted for centuries. The diamond is now on display at the Cape May Diamond Museum. You can even buy a replica of the gem for yourself at the gift shop.

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