Writer Amanda Christmann
Photography by Brandon Tigrett, Loralei Lazurek and Bill Watters

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t seems an almost surreal find: polished and honed, a sizeable specimen of fossilized stromatolite stands on display, its telltale waves and swirls evident to the trained eye. Somewhere around 3.5 billion years ago, give or take a few hundred million years, the very cyanobacteria inside (a precursor to today’s algae) were busy converting Earth’s uninhabitable atmospheric gases into oxygen. Without them, none of us would be alive today.

Yet this stromatolite isn’t on display at a museum, or even in a private collection. It’s one of tens of thousands of pieces of home décor, jewelry, landscape pieces and more created by Nature herself, available for sale at Rare Earth Gallery in Cave Creek.

Rare Earth Gallery is a treasure trove of rare gems and minerals, luring collectors and buyers from across the world who want something special to add to their personal collections. The fact that it’s located in Cave Creek is almost as fantastic as turning a corner in the store to find one’s self face-to-face with ancient stromatolite.

Behind the magic is owner Wayne Helfand, whose enthusiasm for earth art began over 40 years ago. Helfand envisioned the creation of one of the largest (if not the largest) natural art home décor stores in the U.S., making rare gems and minerals available to everyone, from new rock hounds to the most discerning of collectors.

Each year, he travels to dozens of shows and locations to procure the best of the best specimens, often envisioning practical uses, like jewelry or tables, and other times seeing the artistic beauty in matched pairings of stones, such as the brilliant butterfly-like duos of amethyst in the store’s showroom.

Azurite, turquoise, malachite, onyx—if the Earth has created it, there’s a good chance that Rare Earth has turned it into something stunning.

Helfand and business partner Chad Brandfass enjoy finding opportunities to flex their creative muscles when it comes to showcasing the beauty of their finds.

Creamy swirls of onyx, lit from inside, glow with warmth. The gentle tones of rose quartz bring calming elegance to a room when transformed into a tabletop. Petrified wood becomes a lively conversation piece when it is shaped into a rustic outdoor bench.

There is more than the eye can take in within the span of an hour or two. Recently, the store began carrying gemscapes—beautifully inlaid, backlit gem and metal artwork that brings an almost three-dimensional element to wall art. Brandfass takes pride in conceptualizing many of the Chihuly-inspired blown glass works, and the space is rife with bowls and vases carved from colorful, breathtaking stone.

Just as in nature, no two pieces are alike. Like all good collections, it takes a keen eye to discern what is, and is not, a treasure worthy of Rare Earth Gallery.

That’s where Helfand’s expertise comes into play.

“I started mining opals in Australia at 19 years old,” he explained. “It fascinated me—the mesmerizing things that came out of Mother Earth.

“I kept my first huge geode in a crate in my garage for 10 years. Any time company came over, I’d take them into the garage and lift up the lid for them. Eventually I figured out that I could do something better with it.”

Like any rock hound, the biggest challenge Helfand faces is procuring pieces once he finds them. Fine earth art is in high demand, and any time there is a gem show, there is a race to claim the best pieces. Judging by the showroom at Rare Earth, Helfand and Brandfass have honed the process.

Another challenge is transporting large pieces from quarries and other sites across the globe. More often than not, beautiful pieces are found in the most remote of locations. Gem boulders have been slid across the earth on banana leaves and rolled down muddy embankments by teams of villagers to get them to awaiting trucks. The process of getting them onto the trucks and to Cave Creek is often another test in ingenuity.

The results are impressive. Like so much of Rare Earth Gallery’s selections, home décor choices range from contemporary to rustic, with something for everyone to connect with.

Rare Earth Gallery is in a transition stage for now, occupying a temporary white tent at the corner of School House and Cave Creek Roads while a new, nearly 9,000-square-foot gallery is built across the street. The growing pains are frustrating for Helfand and Brandfass, but one look inside the new location is enough to reassure locals that something incredible is about to happen.

The new building, set to open in fall 2018, features a sleek new showroom and carefully planned outdoor spaces that show off many of the landscaping art pieces available at the gallery.

Originally Rare Earth occupied space a few doors down, but Helfand’s vision came to fruition much sooner than expected.

“When we first opened, we hoisted a five-and-a-half ton carved quartz crystal outside next to the building. People said, ‘What is that thing doing here? Nobody’s ever going to buy that.’ But they did! In fact, that piece got moved to a museum in Brussels.”

Despite what people believe and don’t believe about energy and vibrations of crystals and minerals, Helfand was not expecting some of the emotional responses people have when they enter the store.

“A lot of people have no idea what’s inside these walls,” Helfand said as his eyes passed over his impressive sampling of earthen riches. “Sometimes people come in here and are moved to tears. No one is expecting a chronological geographical evolution of the Earth inside these walls, but that’s what we have here. Being able to see it, feel it and touch it can be a very moving experience.”

Like the stromatolite, everything has a story. Amethyst tubes, many tall enough to gaze up at, are formed from the pressure inside of ancient lava tubes. Tree-like petrified wood pieces are the result of minerals settling into the spaces left by decaying prehistoric trees.

For every piece Helfand passes, he can share a story about where it came from, how it was formed, or how he found it. For him, and for the constant parade of customers coming in the door, Rare Earth is more than a home decorations store; it’s living history.

“This place and the life we have here is surprisingly fulfilling beyond my wildest dreams,” Helfand said. “I don’t care if people buy anything, so long as they enjoy it. I get to introduce people to a whole new world of beauty that’s not manufactured or produced in a factory. For most people, it’s a world they didn’t even know existed.

“Whether it comes from the bottom of the sea or an ancient lake bed in Wyoming, we give people the opportunity to look, learn and appreciate Earth’s magnificence. It’s something that’s not to be taken for granted.”