Running the family agate shop is a labor of love for Jim Harmon, who is involved with every step of the process from finding rough agate in the bed of the Yellowstone River to crafting the finished products displayed in his family’s shop within Yellowstone Marketplace in downtown Sidney.
Harmon’s Agate and Silver shop was founded in 1969 in Crane by Jim’s father, Tom. As a child, Harmon enjoyed floating down the Yellowstone River with his father as they hunted for newly unearthed agates, but he didn’t think he’d end up going into business with his dad.
“When I was in school, my dad showed me how to cut stones and it was drudgery for me,” he said. “So that was not what I wanted to do.”
After graduating from high school, Harmon left Crane for Billings, where he went to school to learn to be an auto mechanic. Harmon envisioned working on hot rods and racecars, but he learned the job was not as glamourous as his mind made it out to be while working at Midas in Billings, where he spent his days getting dirty under the hoods of “run-of-the-mill cars.” He didn’t know it at the time, but he now believes God was pulling him back home. “I maybe got disillusioned with what I thought I wanted to do when I growed up I guess, and I’m glad that the Lord brought me back here.”
Harmon, 42, returned to Crane when he was 21 years old to join his father’s agate business, where he learned how to cut the stone so well that he began doing custom cutting for people around the country. “Not only Montana agate, but anything else anybody would send me,” he said.
He got married in 1992, but he got so involved with his work that it began to destroy his marriage, which he believes would have ended if he hadn’t found God. “My wife was getting very disillusioned with our marriage,” Harmon said. “One reason for that was all my efforts were going into the business end of things and I wasn’t really paying attention to my family.”
At one point, his wife, Deanna, even threatened to take his daughter and move away. “It’s a pretty amazing thing what Jesus did for me,” Harmon said. “He changed my life completely. I was on a road to destruction in my marriage, and when I came to Christ, my wife also did.”
Harmon grew up a member of the Congregational Church, but he says it wasn’t a big part of his life. His religious awakening began about eight years ago when his sister-in-law, who was a minister, was staying with his family. She and Deanna were watching a DVD production of the Gospel of Matthew when Harmon walked into the room and heard the actor portraying Jesus say, “If you put your family before me, you aren’t worthy of me.”
“I just couldn’t grasp that concept,” Harmon said. “I started thinking about that and the Lord revealed to me that he’s the one that gave me my family.”
A month later, Deanna began searching for a church to attend. She discovered that the Church of God was having three services in a row and decided to go, but Harmon wasn’t interested. “She asked me if I wanted to go and I said no, I really don’t,” he said.
That night, while Deanna was at the church, Harmon did something he hadn’t done in at least 20 years. He picked up the Bible and began reading. “Only God can give you the desire to do that,” he said. “The next night I went with her to that service and came to Christ, and I haven’t turned back since.”
Harmon got so involved with the church that he eventually became pastor, something he never envisioned when he was a child. “That wasn’t anything that was ever even on my radar screen,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.” His faith has become so important to him that when asked to describe himself in only a few words, he says “I’d just have to say follower of Christ. That would have to be my description.”
Since his religious awakening, Harmon not only become more appreciative of his family, but also his work. In 2005, he co-authored a book with his father called, “How-To’s of Cabbing and Carving,” explaining how rough agate found among beds of gravel is turned into the beautiful jewelry and decorative pieces on sale in his store.
Harmon’s Agate and Silver has always sold rings, necklaces, earrings, belt buckles and keychains bejeweled with polished orange, yellow and brown agates, but he is beginning to sell other items adorned with the stone. His latest creations are a pair of knives with handles carved from Montana agates. He intends to begin selling matching sets of knives and sharpening stones made from agate slabs. He is also in the process of crafting rings made entirely of agate in a contrast to the more common gold and silver rings with agate centerpieces.
“What I want to do is try to do new things with the agate that keeps it in front of people and gets people excited about what you can do with the stone,” he said. “I’ve seen bowls. I’ve never seen a great big chalice, but I’ve seen small ones. Anything the imagination can dream up you can do with it, you just have to put your talents to work and come up with it.”
While he enjoys the hunt for new agates, Harmon says his favorite part of the job is the satisfaction he gets when a piece is finished. “When a piece comes together that you’ve taken from the raw materials and everything comes together and the design looks really good, I enjoy that part of it,” he said. “There’s been some pieces that have went that I really didn’t want to see go, but if you don’t want it to go, you don’t put it out for sale. Usually when your eye is caught by a piece that you’ve made, somebody else is going to snap it up like that.”
The small business is still in the family and Harmon intends to keep it that way. He and his parents do most of the craftsmanship, while Deanna takes care of the bookkeeping. The entire family helps search for new agates, including his 16-year-old daughter, Jessi.
Harmon also enjoys hunting and fishing, but his favorite hobby is still the hunt for agates. “I guess that’s my hobby and work mingled together,” he said.