A Cave Creek Gallery Turns Rare Minerals and Gems into Extraordinary Objets D’Art
Wayne Helfand turns a love for the Earth’s gems and minerals into a must-see Valley destination.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Carl Schultz
When asked about his favorite mineral, Wayne Helfand’s eyes light up like those of a child who sees his first glimpse of the presents under the tree on Christmas morning. His speech quickens, as he leans in closer to ensure that he’s being heard. “Azurite malachite,” he says with a smile. “It’s a deep royal blue and intense green that form together, and I have a passion for it.” This eye-catching blend of two copper-based gemstones is frequently found in or near copper mines. “Looking at a piece is like looking down from outer space onto the Bahamas and the crystal blue water,” Helfand adds.
These days, the gemologist doesn’t have to go far if he wants to gaze at a piece of this crystalline stone. Just inside the doorway of his Cave Creek shop, Rare Earth Gallery, sits a mammoth-size slab, about 5 feet long, that’s been transformed into a coffee table. Swirls of lapis-like blues interweave with bands of variegated green. Peppered throughout are rusty umber slivers of copper ore. Highly polished, this rare specimen from Arizona’s Morenci Mine, looks like an otherworldly landscape. “It’s a form of art,” Helfand says of the stone—and the thousands of others that line the shelves, walls and floor of the store. “I never get tired of looking at it.”
Helfand’s enthusiasm for the art of the earth, as he calls it, began almost 50 years ago when he was just a teenager. Using an inheritance, the Pennsylvania-born, California-raised college student purchased an around-the-world airline ticket and ended up in Australia, where he worked in an opal mine to support himself. When he returned to Los Angeles a year later, he brought with him a sock full of the spectral gems that he sold for $5,000. “That was a huge amount of money,” he remembers. “From there, I became a trader, dealing in gems and minerals.” He later went on to earn a degree in gemology from the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, California.
By the late 1980s, Helfand was working as a mineral wholesaler and jewelry designer, specializing in custom silver pieces that were crafted in Mexico and showcased colorful stones such as malachite and lapis lazuli. “At the time, most silver jewelry featured turquoise or a few semiprecious stones,” he recalls. “No one was making anything like I was doing.”
During an exhibition in Tucson in 1989, Helfand was approached by another wholesaler who would purchase items and sell them to retailers. The gentleman bought Helfand’s entire inventory and said that he could make similar deals at least once a month. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, maybe I want to be in Arizona,’” Helfand notes, adding that a trip to the Grand Canyon State proved that there’s more to the region than just desert. “An hour north, and you’re in the beautiful mountains, pines and streams. I decided that it wasn’t a bad place to live.” Four months later, Helfand purchased a home in Chandler, relocated from L.A. to the Valley and never looked back.
In the mid-’90s, Helfand opened his first retail store in the Chris-Town Mall, where he sold jewelry and some crystals. “Merchandising this type of material—being able to take these pieces and display them—just came naturally,” he recalls.
In 2010, Helfand moved his business to Sedona, opening up a 1,700-square-foot gallery. But the commute took its toll. “I got tired of driving up there three or four times a week,” he explains. Then in 2012, on a rare day off, he was riding his motorcycle through Cave Creek and passed a “For Lease” sign on a building at the corner of Cave Creek and School House roads. Next thing he knew, he was moving some of his large crystals into the 3,500-sqare-foot storefront. “People were saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re crazy. No one’s ever going to buy this stuff,” he remembers. Within three months, the new Valley location was doing so well that Helfand was able to close his Sedona gallery and put all of his time and energy into the Cave Creek location.
As the years passed, Rare Earth Gallery continued to grow. “Because I had so many years in the industry, friends of mine who were importers and miners rallied around me and helped me with merchandise and material to build this place the way it is,” Helfand says. “When I first opened up, I had a tremendous amount of inventory of my own, but some friends said, ‘Hey, let us park our stuff here for a while.’ And I did so well that I ended up buying their items.”
When the gallery lost its lease in 2016, Helfand and his team relocated temporarily to a 5,000-square-foot tent kitty-corner from the original location, where they stayed until they opened a brand-new storefront just across the street in fall of 2018. “I’ve been on three of the four corners here,” Helfand jokes.
Massive amethyst, citrine and smoky quartz geodes in vivid hues of purple, yellow and brown rest on handmade steel stands like sculptures on display in a museum. A 600-pound piece of labradorite from Madagascar rotates on a pedestal. The stone’s aggregate layers refract light, resulting in iridescent flashes of gold, blue, green and red. It is flanked by 4-foot-tall custom-designed onyx luminaries. Helfand hand-selects each piece of onyx from mines in Mexico. “I know how to pick the rough stones that will create these works of art,” he remarks.
Slices of vibrant red Arizona petrified wood share shelf space with microwave oven-sized nuggets of burnished float copper from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Ammonite fossils no bigger than baseballs are dwarfed by 2-feet-in-diameter agate slices and chunky quartz crystals. Two hundred and twenty-five shelves sparkle with jewelry ranging from $25 wire-wrapped crystal earrings to one-of-a-kind ruby and emerald necklaces commanding upwards of $10,000.
“There isn’t another gallery of this size or magnitude in the country or the world,” Helfand comments. “There are 9,000 square feet of unmitigated beauty here. Some of the pieces are epic in their size and dimension. They’re things you won’t see anywhere else.”
To fill the space, Helfand travels the globe, meeting with miners and dealers in such exotic locales as Thailand, Brazil, Spain, China and India to procure the rare and unusual specimens that are on display. “Everything we have, from the petrified wood to the crystals, is one to two degrees of separation from the person who pulled it out of the earth,” he says.
Malachite, citrine, kyanite and selenite: If the earth created it, Rare Earth Gallery is likely to offer it. There are even pieces that aren’t from this planet. Helfand points to a large chunk of meteorite sitting on the warehouse floor. “The crazy thing about it is that is it’s not from this world,” he says.
Chad Brandfass, who serves as the company’s vice president, has been working with Helfand for 20 years. “What Wayne has created here is a monumental task that did not come easily,” he explains. “He had the vision to put all of this together and create a mineral shop that is probably the largest and most profound in the U.S.”
Helfand credits his success to the fact that no one told him he couldn’t do it. “It’s almost like ignorance is bliss,” he says. Notes Brandfass, “Wayne’s creativity is on the realm of being childlike, in the sense that when a child thinks of something, they don’t consider whether it’s possible or not. They just sit down and figure out how to make it possible.”
For some, Rare Earth Gallery is more than a store—it’s a destination. Customers range from tourists who stop by while exploring Cave Creek and purchase a $20 piece of hematite carved into the shape of a heart to world-famous celebrities who seek out hard-to-find decor pieces that sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
When Janet and Bob Fletcher visited Cave Creek in 2013, the friends they were staying with told them they had to check out “the rock shop.” Notes Janet, “That piqued our interest. When we moved here in 2015, we couldn’t get enough of the store. All of the stones are so beautiful.” The couple have purchased numerous pieces for their home, including a stone slab coffee table, eight Chihuly-style glass light fixtures, two sets of luminaries, a large executive-style desk crafted of petrified wood and multiple raw stones. “We call our home Rare Earth North,” she adds with a laugh.
“We take everybody who visits us to Rare Earth,” Janet continues. “Wayne’s really got an eye for choosing stones, and the store adds an element of elegance to the town. It’s a real asset. Even if somebody might not be interested in buying something, it’s just great place to go look around.”
As he walks around the gallery, Helfand points to different pieces, remarking on how each was discovered or where it came from. He knows the background of every item and enjoys sharing his knowledge and seeing the wonder and amazement his treasures spark.
“I didn’t set out with a goal to be a purveyor of art of the earth or to have the coolest rock shop. It just took on a life of its own and led me here,” he says. “I’ve been very privileged to be entrusted with doing something unique and cool and adding to my customers’ lives. Taking something from the earth and showing people how it can accentuate their homes is fun. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life.”
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