Well, kind of. What are known as "Cape May diamonds" are in fact pieces of quartz that have been polished smooth over thousands of years, tumbling along the bottom of the Delaware River until they reach the shoreline. The translucent stones are uniquely beautiful, though, and once cut and faceted, they are hard to distinguish from true diamonds.
Cape May, on New Jersey's southern coast, has been home to these gemstones for as long as humans have been around. Locals and visitors alike can enjoy searching for the stones in the sand, but if you don't find any, don't sweat it — you still just spent the day at the beach. We consider that a summer success.
How They Got There
The stones start their journey near the Delaware Water Gap, along the northern stretch of the New Jersey–Pennsylvania border, after being ripped from underwater veins of quartz by the powerfully rushing streams that flow into the Delaware River farther north.
Over time, as the river carries them southward, the constant abrasion along the riverbed turns the jagged quartz fragments into the smooth rocks that will eventually end up on the beaches of Cape May, which sits on the tip of the peninsula forming the easternmost edge of the Delaware Bay. While the tides may eventually carry them out to sea, many will first wash up on shore, especially after storms.
How to Find Them
Of course, the easiest way to get your hands on some of these gems is to stop at one of Cape May's many souvenir shops, where you can find the stones used in all kinds of jewelry and décor. Shops like the Sunset Beach Gift Shop find the stones themselves and may use them in their original smooth, round form, or — for the best specimens — they may send them to a rock cutter to be cut and transformed into faceted diamond look-alikes. Cape May diamond engagement rings are especially popular, especially if you've shared sentimental moments there: they offer an affordable and violence-free alternative to the "real" thing. Win-win!
If you want to find one of these beauties in the wild, though, you'll have to get digging. Sunset Beach, at Cape May Point on the east side of the peninsula, is known as the most promising location for seekers. A sunken concrete ship off the point — the SS Atlantus from World War I — is believed to trap the stones in the bay, preventing them from continuing their flow out to sea.
To aid in your search, you'll want to bring a bucket, a sand shovel, and a sieve. Start on the pebbly shoreline with the shovel and bucket, and use the sieve to shake off the sand and see what you've unearthed. The most commonly found stones are approximately pea-sized, and you may find them in a variety of colors, depending on the minerals in the quartz where the stone originated. Like seashells, you're free to take whatever stones you find from the beach, so load up your pockets if you can.
The Stones' Value
Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. While they may not cost much, Cape May diamonds can be a beautiful and unique summer souvenir, or they can make great gifts for loved ones to let them know you were thinking about them while on vacation — especially if you dug them up yourself. Throughout history, however, these stones have held even greater significance for those lucky enough to find one.
According to Doug Hunsberger of New Jersey Monthly, "In an earlier time, the local Kechemeche Indians, a part of the Lenni–Lenape tribe, believed the gems had supernatural powers to influence the well-being and good fortune of their possessor. The bonds of friendship and lasting goodwill were often sealed with gifts or exchanges of the sacred gems." Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, if you find a stone sparkling along the tideline, it won't be hard to understand how they acquired their lucky reputation.
The Jersey Shore
As long as you're here, you'll likely want to do more than only looking for pieces of quartz. After all, there's a reason the Jersey Shore is a summer tradition, and Cape May is rightfully known as one of the Shore's peak spots.
With its Victorian architecture and status as the oldest resort in the country, the entire town of Cape May has been designated as a National Historic District. Enjoy the old-fashioned charm of the nearly 600 Victorian-era buildings, or stroll along the Promenade and real wooden boardwalk past shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, and more. In addition to the beaches, there is no shortage of sights and activities in and around the town:
- Nature Center of Cape May
- Emlen Physick Estate and Museum
- Theater — and more theater
- Cape May Lighthouse
- Jazz and music festivals
To plan your visit, check out the town's information on getting around, and make sure you've got one of the best beach reads of the summer in your bag — along with your towel and sunscreen, of course.
Beyond Cape May
If you're looking for something more exciting after a few relaxed days at the beach, you're less than an hour's drive from Atlantic City with all its high-rolling energy. You're also about an hour and a half from Philadelphia, the birthplace of the nation and closest major transportation hub to the Shore. Explore some of the region's history and culture before heading home, with your newfound gemstones in tow.
Nothing says summer like a treasure hunt on a beach surrounded by family, friends, and historic Americana. For a sparkly spin on the usual seashell search this season, get to Cape May and try your luck finding a diamond in the rough — or at least a rock equally as beautiful.