About mineral collecting; Part 1 of 5.
Our Growth as Collectors
As we grow as collectors we become "partialized" to particular mineral species or localities. Perhaps early in our lives we worked at a borax mine that produced fine specimens of borate minerals, and we came to love them. Or perhaps we attended a mineral show and became hypnotized by an exhibit case full of fabulous silver specimens displayed by an old collector. Or we were out field collecting with a friend and discovered a superlative pocket of meyerhofferite pseudomorphs after inyoite. These and other life experiences partialize us, often without our realizing it, to certain kinds of minerals, and we will always have a soft spot in our hearts for them.
If you become a mineral dealer, you will need to learn that the partialities you developed during your early years are, in many instances, not reflected by similar ones in your clients. In learning this lesson your first reaction may be irritation that others, because of their ignorance, do not appreciate the same kinds of specimens that you do. You think that if you can just educate them sufficiently, they will come to adopt your preferences as their own. These are rocky fields to till, and eventually you come to accept, at least to some degree, that the world is as it is, and not as you want it to be. After many years you look back at some of your early attitudes and wonder where in the world they came from. And at last you find that your personal tastes have indeed been shaped by the marketplace after all. However, as Mark Twain remarked, "It is better to be a young June bug than an old bird of paradise."
Over the years your value system will change. Every collector has had the experience of visiting a collection and being highly impressed, then in ten or 15 years going back to look at it again and wondering what happened to all the good specimens. In most cases the specimens did not change, only your perception of them. This sort of phenomenon strikes particularly hard at field collectors. When you break into a good pocket of crystals and collect them, they look like the finest things in the world. Usually, however, when you get them home, unwrap them, clean, trim and label them they look smaller and not nearly as good as they did when you took them out of the ground. Then after you take them to a mineral show, where they have to compete with all the other specimens offered for sale, they look even less remarkable.
Here is an example: One summer my best buddy said to me: "Come on! Let's go to Colorado and collect some amazonite. I have some claims near Crystal Peak in Teller County, Colorado that look good. You pay for the bulldozer and we will split 50/50."
That sounded great to me, so off we went. It was a glorious summer spent camping among the pines and aspen trees and collecting amazonite. I learned to drive a bulldozer and swat flies at the same time. We got about 1,000 pounds of amazonite crystals. We found many different pockets of amazonite and one of them, let's call it pocket #17, produced some particularly fine specimens. One of them was a stacked cluster of fabulous dark blue amazonites about a foot high. We thought it looked like the Empire State Building! We carefully packed it away in a box and marked it so it would not get lost among all the other boxes.
A few months later we got around to cleaning up that particular batch of specimens and unwrapped the specimens from pocket 17. We were both shocked! The specimen had vanished. We scrabbled in vain among the packing materials, thinking we had not unwrapped everything, but the specimen simply was not there. We even considered the possibility that someone had gotten into the box and stolen it. Eventually I pointed to a small specimen and said, "You know, it was sort of like that one, but much larger." We both examined the specimen and put it back down on the table and stared at it in silence. At the same moment we looked at each other and came to the sinking realization that this small, modest specimen was in fact our cherished Empire State Building specimen that we remembered so vividly. It had shrunk to the size of a small cabinet specimen. We just broke up laughing about it.
I don't think anyone is immune to such "shrinkage." Dick Bideaux, one of the authors of the multi-volume Handbook of Mineralogy, and a stickler for accuracy, carried a small plastic ruler in his wallet to measure crystals so he could record their dimensions rather than have to rely on memory, which he knew was not very reliable.
Not all collectors will continue to collect all their lives. Sometimes it is a passing fancy. Life is continually changing and it takes us in many directions. Young collectors who get married may find that a wife and children cause an interest in minerals to become dormant for many years, only to flower again later in life.
Also, fashions in minerals change. For a few years thumbnail-size specimens might be all the rage, but then some years later fewer people seem to be collecting them. A few collectors (fortunately only a few) come to feel that they have been led down the garden path by dealers who loaded them up with overpriced specimens, and consequently they drop out of the hobby in disgust and disillusionment.
Most of what I have written below is directed not at transient collectors but rather at those who will most likely become collectors for life. There is much literature out there for novice collectors that I never found very useful, informative or "real-world," so I decided to write this for dealers, curators and advanced collectors who should, if I have done my work successfully, experience some cognitive resonance when reading my remarks.
How much can you know?
No matter how much you have done, read or observed, you are never going to know it all. The best you can hope for is to learn more than anyone else. If you think you know a lot about minerals, consider this example: tell me all about the minerals and specimens from Cerro Rico. What? You have barely heard of the place? Well, it has been continuously mined for the last 450+ years and is considered by many to be the richest silver deposit ever found. The city of Potosi in Bolivia sits at the foot of Cerro Rico ("Rich Mountain"), and during its heyday it was the largest city in the western hemisphere, with an opera house and riding academies. Potosi is probably best known to collectors for the world's best phosphophyllite crystals, but, considering its long and illustrious history, how could you not know about all the other specimens produced at this locality? Some people do possess bits of information (perhaps recalled from the Mineralogical Record article on the locality in 1999), but we can be sure that no one can know more than a tiny percentage of the truth about this place. In fact, we can also be certain that no one at all has ever known about or seen many of the best specimens, which have ended up pulverized and smelted into silver coins produced by the Casa de la Moneda (minting house) established there by the Spanish. The best azurite specimen that was ever found is probably now in the form of a copper pipe somewhere under New York City.
Where can I find out about fine mineral specimens and what they are worth?
There is much more to a well-rounded mineral maven than just knowing about specimens. Much of our civilization is built from the raw materials produced from the mines and quarries that produce the specimens we crave. The history of humanity is entwined with these localities, and wars have been fought over them. All of our lives as specimen-collecting nut cases we spend learning about why some specimens are better than others, their current availability, and how much they are worth. Collectors are always gossiping about such things, but the discussion of collecting's financial aspects in print seems to be largely avoided.
For one thing, financial evaluations are a matter of opinion, always changing, sometimes according to fashion or from one encounter to another, and are not easily pinned down with any precision.
Another concern for magazine editors may be that someone's opinion about the quality or value of a specimen will offend some of their readers, or worse yet, step on the sensitive financial toes of the dealers who advertise in the magazine. Heaping praise on a specimen, or specimens from a particular locality, presents no problem, but saying or implying that some are not worth as much as others is "taboo." There is little financial upside in making such value judgments in print, only a down side.
If a dealer has what he thinks is the best of a particular mineral species in the world, he will proclaim it to the heavens. If, however, he does not, which is almost always the case, he is not anxious to compare his goods with the best. The reason is simple and obvious. If comparisons were made, the specimens offered for sale would appear less appetizing and be more difficult to sell. Even if we don't have the best specimens, we are usually able to exaggerate the quality of our wares enough to make a profit on them. We get away with it most of the time because we usually know more than the person buying the specimen. Need I point out that this "evil" behavior is not limited to mineral dealers and used car salesmen, but is common in most areas of human commerce? Caveat Emptor.
As collectors, when we are looking at a display case of mineral specimens, especially fine ones, we often play the game "What is the best specimen here?" or "Which one would I like to have?" It is a way to hone our ability to discriminate between the best and near-best. Often, when buying an expensive specimen, even collectors will ask the dealer, "How good is this specimen?" This same question is asked in many different ways: "Is it worth the money?" "How many better ones have you seen?" "Is the mine still producing specimens?" Of course any answer(s) from the person selling it should be taken with a grain of salt. If you put these questions to another dealer, keep in mind that he may be reluctant to praise a competitor's merchandise because he would rather sell you something from his own inventory. In such cases his praise of the specimen might be less fulsome than true objectivity might call for. Depending on whom you are dealing with, the amount of waffling about the desirability of a particular specimen may be in direct proportion to its price.
Here is a tip that all collectors should take to heart. If you borrow a specimen from one dealer to show to another, show it in private and in circumstances that preclude the possibility of the owner knowing who you are showing it to. Even if you follow this rule, many dealers and collectors are reluctant to comment honestly on the value and quality of a specimen because they have found out that such opinions will more often than not cause them problems with other dealers and collectors.
When all is said and done, we are often still not sure of how valuable a specimen is. I told a dealer friend of mine after the Freilich auction (see below) "You know, sometimes I think I don't have any idea of what's going on in the mineral business anymore!" He answered, "Well, I do ... one or two days out of the week."
Eight things you can do to learn about mineral specimens
To learn about minerals and mineral specimens you must see them and handle them. It is very important to handle them. A picture can be very good and can teach you a lot, but it provides only a limited one-dimensional view of a specimen. It will not teach you the feel, heft, smell and taste of a mineral or allow you rotate it in three dimensions and look at it from all angles. Doing so allows you to more comprehend surface textures, weight and the three-dimensional nature of different kinds of crystals.
To really learn about minerals it is essential to go to where the specimens are, and see them in person. (1) Visit museums and schools that have mineral collections, (2) ask to see private collections, (3) attend meetings of gem and mineral societies, (4) visit gem and mineal shows, and (5) collect your own specimens as a learning exercise. You also need to study about them; (6) read mineral magazines and mineral books, (7) take classes, atten study sessions and (8) surf the Internet. Here are some suggestions about each of these approaches:
Some great institutional mineral collections to visit
The great public mineral collections include, but are by no means limited to, the following institutions, not all of which have their collections on display:
Harvard Mineralgical Museum, Cambridgem, Massachusetts Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
American Museum of Natural History, New York
Academy of Sciences, Philadelphia
Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
U.S. National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution), Washington, D.C.
Seaman Mineral Museum, Houghton, Michigan
Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Houston Museum of Natural Science
Denver Museum of Natural Science
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles
Canadian National Museum, Ottawa, Canada
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
Natural History Museum, London
Ecole des Mines, Paris
Sorbonne University, Paris
I chose to mention these few either because I have spent a lot of time studying the specimens in those institutions or because the curators granted me extraordinary privileges in handling and photographing their treasures. For a more complete listing and description of many mineral museums, see the 25-year index to the Mineralogical Record and look under "Museums and Private Collections" in the General Index (available online at www.mineralogicalrecord.com). Also see the book World Directory of Mineral Collections (1994) by the International Mineralogical Association.
Good private collections
See as many of these as you can. Donated private collections are the foundation upon which great institutional collections are built. Most collectors love to show off their collections. If you meet someone who has a good collection, introduce yourself and say "I've heard that you have a wonderful mineral collection; may I come and see it?" Most collectors will be delighted by your interest, and only very rarely will you be turned down. Even in the reluctant cases, a little perseverance will usually gain you access. Among your fellow collectors resides much of the knowledge that you are seeking. Convince the collector or curator that you are interested and knowledgeable, and the doors will swing wide, granting you access to their specimens, their knowledge and their help.
If you are allowed to examine a mineral collection, observe good collector etiquette: do not pick up any of the specimens unless you understand the correct protocol (which I will outline below).
Books & Magazines
You should invest in some of these. Much of what you need to know as a collector is scattered through the mineralogical and geological literature, but some sources are much richer than others in information about what constitutes good specimens.
I have always had a pet peeve about the descriptions of minerals in books. Many books will give lists of minerals found in various geological environments or found at various localities, but say precious little about the quality of those specimens, nor will they present a photo to see. My main gripe has always been "Where's the beef?" When pictures of the described specimens are not present, which is usually the case, consider what kind of knowledge about specimens the author is likely to have. He may have profound knowledge of what fine specimens are, or he may be a geologist or a mining engineer with a very limited knowledge. In the latter case, the author may wax enthusiastic about a mine that has 3-foot green fluorite "crystals," but fail to mention that they are only massive, highly fractured blobs of fluorite, barely distinguishable from the country rock and of interest only to people who want to make fluoridated toothpaste.
Many years ago when I was doing a lot of field collecting I called up Dr. Richard Jahns, an expert on pegmatites, at Stanford University. I asked him for advice about where to go in the Petaca mining district in New Mexico, since he had written the USGS Professional paper on the district. He enthusiastically told me about a fabulous mine there that had 3-foot fluorite crystals and sprays of columbite and tantalite in the walls of the mine. But he cautioned me not to tell anyone else! We found the fluorites to be as described (strictly speaking). The most memorable things about the mine were some amazing, round, white hemispheres of slime mold, some almost a foot across, that we found growing on old, wet mine timbers near the water level in the incline.
Here are some books I have found particularly useful and instructive: in other words, those which have the most "beef" in them for specimen lovers.
Das Mineral Reich (1903) by Reinhard Brauns
This book was also issued in an English translation, The Mineral Kingdom, in 1912. It contains colored plates which show what fine mineral specimens were considered to look like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The specimens were taken mostly from German collections and mineral museums. For many years it was perhaps the best book to consult when you wanted to determine where one of your specimens stood in the hierarchy of mineral quality. Although the image quality in the book was good for its day, one wishes that it could be republished today using modern photographic and printing technologies. Still, it is plain that the best specimens of 100 years ago are still fine specimens today.
Dana's System of Mineralogy; 6th & 7th editions, and Dana's Textbook of Mineralogy, 4th edition
James D. Dana is generally considered to be the Father of American Mineralogy, and the various editions of his System of Mineralogy have long been cherished by American mineralogists and collectors. The 7th edition lacks descriptions of silicate minerals but has good crystal drawings. Pictures of fine specimens are lacking. However, for each species, in the "Observed" section, there are mentioned many localities that have produced specimens. I can't think of how many times I have consulted these weighty tomes for correct locality information. But I should also pass on a word of caution about these localities. Many have been carried forward from earlier editions and references. Sometimes the authors had never even seen a specimen from the locality they were citing. When the earlier source reference was published, the specimens from those localities were frequently the best ones available. Quality standards have escalated, and many of those old specimens would hardly be given a second glance by today's collector. But if these localities were referenced by the illustrious Dana, the specimens must be worthy of being included in new books--right? Well, sometimes, quite often in fact--but not invariably.
Handbuch der Mineralogie (1897-1975) by Carl Hintze
Publication of this work began at the end of the 19th century and continued intermittently for decades thereafter. Although this work is in German, any serious mineralogist or mineral collector should at least be familiar with it. The complete work consists of 247 volumes of mineralogical information. Well, OK, it isn't 247 volumes, it just seems that way. The work is so large and detailed that it is at first intimidating. Some Americans just throw up their hands, saying "Only the Germans would do something like this." But the Hintze volumes are to European mineralogists what Dana's System has been to Americans. It sort of reminds one of the Encyclopedia Britannica or the full, unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. Its sheer bulk makes Dana's System seem rather anemic in comparison. But you will need to understand some German to make much use of it.
Mineralogy for Amateurs (1964) by John Sinkankas
This is a deceptively simple-looking book, but one that embodies a wealth of mineralogical knowledge and wisdom. It has many photos of good specimens and tells you about others. Get a copy and use it; you will find it rewarding. This is the one mineralogy book that we carry in our wholesale warehouse. Depressingly, we find that it is difficult to sell, and it is in fact outsold (by a factor of 100+ to 1) by books on the metaphysical attributes of minerals. I become depressed when I consider what this implies about the reason-based society that, I think, most of us would like to live in.
Handbook of Mineralogy by Bideaux, Anthony, Bladh & Nichols
At six hefty volumes, it sure doesn't fit in a hand. The work is arranged alphabetically by mineral species, and each volume deals with chemically related groups of minerals like silicates, phosphates, etc. This will certainly be rated, in time, as one of the great mineralogies. The most common complaint about the work is that it allows only one page to describe each mineral, whether it be an extremely rare one-locality mineral or a common mineral such as quartz or calcite. At the top of each page is a brief discussion of "Crystal Data." For the collector, perhaps the most interesting feature of this section is mention of the largest known crystal of that mineral. It often will not tell you what locality that largest crystal might be from or much about what it looks like, but you will at least know how big the crystals of this species get. I do not know how much work each of the authors did in writing this book, but Dick Bideaux was a real stickler for accuracy, and considering that he personally financed the publication of the handbook I believe the accuracy of the data in this mineralogy may surpass that of all others. Dick offered a five-dollar reward to anyone who could spot an error in the text and, if I recall correctly, up to the time of his death he had paid out less than $100.
Popular Guide to Minerals (1912) by Louis Pope Gratacap
Written by a former curator of the American Museum of Natural History, this book includes a description and some photos of specimens in the Clarence Bement collection, which in its time was considered the greatest private mineral collection in the world. Its gift to the American Museum, thanks to the generosity of J. P. Morgan, instantly catapulted the museum to the top ranks of great mineral museums. It was reported that at the time the museum had not a single specimen that was not bettered by a similar specimen in the Bement collection. Over the years, after the departure of longtime curator Fred Pough, this magnificent patrimony was frittered away by inept curators and misguided museum policy. Although today the curation again appears to be in competent hands, the specimens remaining in the museum from this great collection cast but a faint shadow of its former greatness.
Gratacap infused his work with mineralogical wisdom for the collector, most of which is as true today as when he wrote it early in the 20th century. Examples: "A delicate regard for one's pocket book will not enhance the distinction of one's cabinet." Speaking about bournonites: "Many fine, but one recalls with regret those in the British Museum." Speaking about cuprites from Bisbee, Arizona: "They allow a patriot a pardonable thrill of pride in their flattering comparisons to their British counterparts."
En Visitant Les Grandes Collections Mineralogiques Mondiales (1964, 1972) by Claude Guillemin
The author visited many museums and private collections and made lists and a few line drawings of the specimens he thought were the best, then published them in two paperback volumes. Had he sufficient resources to publish these with good color photos instead of line drawings, these books would be much better known to collectors than they are. Even so, these are good books to have if you are interested in fine minerals.
The World's Finest Minerals & Crystals (1973) by Peter Bancroft
This is surely one of the best efforts to the date showing what the best specimens in the world look like. It is somewhat limited in the variety of mineral species depicted, and many specimens have since been bettered by recent discoveries, but the book was a benchmark for its time.
Gem & Crystal Treasures (1984) by Peter Bancroft
This book is a wonderful collection of photographs and descriptions of classic mineral localities with descriptive text by a prominent collector of considerable knowledge. It also has some good pictures of fine mineral specimens from those localities. You should have this book and read it if you want to be a well-rounded collector. Unfortunately it is rather scarce on the used book market, but a new, updated edition is said to be in preparation.
The F. John Barlow Mineral Collection (1996) by F. John Barlow, Robert W. Jones & Gene L. LaBerge
Barlow's lavish personal collection catalog contains many good color photos of fine specimens from John's collection and many interesting "war stories" about the acquisition of his specimens. It is nice because the photos are scattered throughout the book with the relevant text adjacent rather than being all bunched together to save money. Much of John Barlow's former collection is now in the Houston Museum of Natural Science. If you need to buy one book that will show you what fine specimens are (even if not always the very finest), this is the one you should get. As in all books, there are some errors; for instance, the stannite pictured in the book is really a sphalerite.
The Desmond Sacco Collection (1999) by Bruce Cairncross
This book describes the specimens in Desmond Sacco's collection and shows predominantly specimens from South Africa and Namibia. Many of the specimens pictured are very fine and they will give a collector a good perspective of what fine specimens look like from those localities. One young man I know considers this to be the "Bible" of fine minerals. You will need to make up your own mind.
The Magnificent Mineral Collection of Joseph A. Freilich; a Sotheby's of New York auction catalogue, January 11 & 12, 2001 (Sale 7586)
The specimens pictured in this auction catalog are all from the Joseph A. Freilich collection, and many very good ones are included. Calling the collection "magnificent" may be an exaggeration if one knows about some of history's other great private collections, but I suppose the hype is understandable, considering the commercial aspect of the auction. And unlike many historical collections, this one was assembled in only about two years, so it constitutes a time capsule of what was best on the market during that brief period. Many of the great color photos were taken by premiere mineral photographers Harold and Erica Van Pelt (although Sotheby's neglected to give them credit for their photos in the catalog).
This catalog and the separate list of hammer prices from the auction are important to collectors because this was the first time in at least 100 years that there has been a major auction of fine mineral specimens. The hammer prices at the auction were all over the map, from modest to silly, but they provided a concrete benchmark of how much people are really willing to pay for fine specimens.
Don't go bothering Sotheby's for copies of the catalog because they were all sold out shortly after the auction. If you want one you will have to get it from dealers in out-of-print mineral books. However, the Mineralogical Record's special issue (January-February 2000) on the Freilich collection, depicting over 100 of Freilich's best specimens, is still available from the publisher.
The reserve prices on the Freilich specimens were known only to the auctioneer and one or two other individuals. Almost 40% of the specimens failed to reach their reserve prices and were withdrawn. Of the specimens that were sold, 60% went for less than the minimum estimate. Many of the specimens were sold for about 70% of the low estimate, which was about as low as the auctioneer seemed willing to accept.
A number of specimens in the Freilich collection were not in the auction because Freilich had not yet paid for them himself, and so they were returned to the dealers who had supplied them. Some of the specimens that had not been paid for were purchased by Sotheby's because they thought the auction would not be successful without them. One very knowledgeable dealer was shocked when a pyrite specimen from Peru sold for $75,000; well, to be honest, we all were. Yet a wonderful crystallized gold called "The Eagle" only brought $69,750. Dealers bought more than just a few of the specimens. One dealer bought back a specimen that he had sold Mr. Freilich because he was able to buy it for about half of what Freilich had paid him for it. The "companion sale," so to speak, to the mineral auction was the auction of the much more valuable collection of mineral books owned by Mr. Freilich. Conventional wisdom has it that Sotheby's really wanted the books, but to get them they also had to take the minerals; the books, unlike the minerals, sold briskly for high prices.
Tsumeb (1999) by Georg Gebhard
Tsumeb, Namibia (formerly South West Africa) is a classic locality known to all collectors. This locality was mined for more than a hundred years, and almost all but the most specialized collections have specimens from it. You can't be a mineral collector and not be familiar with the wonderful specimens Tsumeb has produced. This book provides the collector with pictures of fine specimens from Tsumeb, wonderful pictures of the locality, and a good historical perspective.
Probably the most influential of the mineral magazines today is the Mineralogical Record, which has been published without interruption since 1970. The full run of this periodical is certainly the single greatest repository of information about fine specimens. Its articles and photographs will help you learn more about fine mineral specimens than any other single source. Its editor-in-chief, Wendell Wilson, produces a magazine that is a tough act to follow. He is, however, more shy about putting controversial items into the magazine than are the editors of some of the foreign magazines. This may be more due to the litigious nature of the American culture than to a fear of controversy. Another good magazine is Rocks & Minerals, which has been in existence much longer (since 1926), although it has not always focused exclusively on fine minerals. Among the good foreign publications, some that come immediately to mind are two German magazines, Lapis (a tough competitor for the Mineralogical Record) and Mineralien Welt; the Italian magazine Rivista Mineralogical Italiana; the French magazine Le Regne Mineral; the Spanish magazine Bocamina; and the British U.K. Journal of Mines and Minerals.
Another word of caution. Some articles are written with the purpose of publicizing a particular find that is currently on the market, or promoting the commercial desirability of the specimens described. Commercial motivations are usually obvious enough, and may nevertheless result in good information being shared. Other articles are written by authors who love the specimens of a particular area and hope to infect others with their enthusiasm. Most of the time the authors just want to pass on knowledge they have accumulated, enjoy seeing their name in print, want to add another title to their personal bibliography and make a name for themselves, or all of the above.
Gem and mineral shows and dealers
A great part, perhaps the greatest part, of mineral collecting is your interaction with other mineral collectors, dealers and curators.
The Tucson Gem and Mineral show is arguably the best place for you to interact with peers, and offers the most intense learning experience that a collector can have. Every February for more than fifty years mineral collectors, curators and earth science professionals from across the U.S. and around the world have been converging on the desert community of Tucson, Arizona. Here they interact with each other, listen to or give lectures, buy, sell and display mineral specimens, books, gems, jewelry and vast amounts of any imaginable related material. It is the ultimate bazaar of our hobby. This is the "Mecca" of the mineralogical world and you owe it to yourself as a mineral person to make the pilgrimage at least once in your life. More on this show later.
Many other gem and mineral shows are also worthwhile. The big European show in Munich in early November is exceptional, and the shows in Denver in September and Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France, in June are good. It is at these shows that you will be able to meet and get to know mineral dealers and learn about the prices of minerals.
In addition to attending shows, you should visit individuals mineral dealers at their homes and shops whenever you can. Unless you become strictly a field collector, dealers will provide you with most of your specimens.
If you learn to collect your own specimens in the field, it will add a substantial dimension to your appreciation of minerals. Climb down 600 feet of wooden ladders of questionable integrity into an abandoned mine, camp underground in the darkness for a day or two, exhaust yourself breaking and moving rock, collect a pocket of good specimens, carry them back up the ladders on your back and you will come away a different person. Try it, and you will remember it for the rest of your life. And, strangely enough, if you are young, you will want to do it again. It is an unforgettable experience to break into a pocket of fine minerals that has been there for millions of years, and then to collect them.
The problem is that it is not easy to do, and it is more difficult yet to make a living by doing it. Even the most successful field collectors do not live high on the hog. Why more collectors are not killed in abandoned mines is a mystery to me. I have done more than a little of this kind of collecting and have had a couple of close calls from falling rocks that could have killed me. All field collectors worth their salt have harrowing stories about how they nearly met their ends in quarries and abandoned mines. But when you are young you feel immortal, so you don't worry about it.
If you want to learn how to field collect successfully, you should locate an experienced field collector through gem and mineral societies or internet chat rooms and see if he will agree to take you under his wing and show you the ropes. Carry his rock hammers, pay for the gas and all the food, laugh at his jokes and tell him how handsome and intelligent he is. Whatever it takes, it will be worth it. It is not that you can't do it on your own, but with an experienced field collector as your guide you can learn essential safety procedures, save yourself years of effort, and make your collecting more productive and enjoyable by an order of magnitude. With a good collecting buddy you will find that you will egg each other on and find more good rocks.
Gem and Mineral Societies
Many gem and mineral societies for amateurs exist all over the United States and sparingly in other countries. Most of them are oriented toward gems and jewelry-making, even though they usually have a few lonesome souls whose main interest is mineral specimens. A few societies are mostly mineral-oriented, and you will need to find one of those to join. Here you will meet your soul mates. If you have no idea how to connect with one of these clubs, do a Google search on the phrase "mineral club" and your state name. At my last look, Google gave me over 50,000 hits when no particular state was specified.
Also the Internet has various chat groups devoted to gems and minerals. Www.mindat.org hosts a number of chat groups specializing in various aspects of mineral collecting. Here you can ask for information about groups or people in your area. You will find many people willing to help you. If you live in a country where there are no listings, professors at your local university should be able to put you in touch with kindred souls.
In the United States, perhaps the most influential institution which has shaped the perception of what quality specimens are has been the American Federation of Gem and Mineral Societies and its regional affiliates. The Federation has developed a set of rules governing competitive gem and mineral exhibits, and these rules are still in use. If you decide to enter these competitions you do so at your own risk. In addition to the rules, you will learn that the decisions of some judges can be arbitrary, and that some of the judges don't know all that much about minerals anyway. The Federation rules spell out the different categories in which you can compete, the things the judges look for, and how many points can be won or lost for different aspects of the exhibit. These include perfection (freedom from damage), rarity, labeling, and quality of presentation (are there wrinkles in the fabric lining the exhibit, or is there lint on the liners?).
In the mineral specimen competition there are different size categories in which you can compete: micromount, thumbnail, miniature, cabinet, etc. Federation rules specify that specimens competing in the thumbnail category must fit within a 1-inch cube as displayed, and miniature-size specimens must fit within a 2-inch cube as displayed. The "as displayed" means that when sitting in the display case, you must be able to set a 1-inch or 2-inch cube straight down over the specimen.
There are categories for different kinds of specimens: self-collected, minerals containing some element like copper, educational displays, pseudomorphs, etc. The rules specify that you can get up to a maximum number of points if all your labels are correct, if your display is perfect, etc.
Most of the time, competition hinges mainly on the quality of the specimens and their freedom from damage. When a collector loses a competition because some of his specimens have some slight damage, you can imagine how closely he will inspect future specimens before he buys. I have heard dealers complain that some collectors go over prospective purchases with a magnifying glass. A collector who became a dealer, David Wilber, was notorious for his insistence on perfection, and even the tiniest, barely visible chip became known as a "wilber." The European collecting community, which does not have a similar competitive environment, does not have the mania for perfection that we do in America. The influence of the federations has been declining for a number of years, but the emphasis on perfection persists.
If there is a junior college, college, or university near you that has a geology department, go over and get to know the mineralogist on the faculty. He can be of great help, and may allow you to officially audit (take without being graded) or unofficially sit in on his mineralogy lectures.
Local mineralogists sometimes become involved with gem and mineral clubs and will hold regular study meetings and lectures for club members interested in learning more about mineralogy. Find out what your local club has to offer in this area, and if they don't offer anything, talk to other members and round up enough interested people to form a study group. Show a sincere interest in learning, and there will almost always be someone with training who is willing to step up and teach your group.
Surfing the Internet
Increasingly, the Internet and the information posted on it has become an important tool for learning about minerals. For some people it has largely replaced the traditional sources of information represented by books, magazines, gem and mineral societies, and gem and mineral shows. Dr. George Rossman of the California Institute of Technology told me that almost all of the references cited in his students' papers were Internet references.
The Internet allows you to interact with people of similar interests in chat groups, and you can learn about the technical side of mineralogy from publications available online. If you are interested in building a collection, the Internet is full of hundreds of web sites created by people who would love to sell you specimens and have posted more pictures than you could ever look at. Many are for sale at fixed prices and others are for sale at auction on sites like eBay. Visiting the auction sites and the dealer websites is a good way to learn about specimen pricing. There are dealers who specialize in high-end specimens, rubbish specimens, and all intermediate qualities. I would caution you to pay close attention to the size of the specimens, because you will usually find when the specimens arrive that they look smaller than you imagined them to be. Also keep in mind that the people who take pictures to post on the Internet often know how to take really good pictures under highly idealized lighting conditions, and that when the specimen(s) actually arrive they will frequently look inferior to the pictures you saw on the net. A woman photographed by a master photographer in his studio always looks better than she did before she got there.
An increasingly important website for collectors and even professional mineralogists is www.mindat.org. Here you can find much mineral information included in standard mineralogy texts plus much of interest to collectors. This site contains a searchable database listing thousands of localities and pictures of thousands of mineral specimens from these localities. The chat groups on this site are frequented by the most knowledgeable and sophisticated mineral people in the world. There is also an extensive list of links to other websites. You can learn a great deal here and can share your knowledge with others.
Huzzah! Now that you have finished reading about the eight things to do in your quest to reach mineral collecting Nirvana, perhaps you will read further. What follows in the next installment are some observations about the various kinds of mineral collectors. You may be one or more of them and, if not, you will probably become one in due course.
Editor's Note: The engraving shown in the heading of this article is part of the title page engraving in Ignaz von Born's personal collection catalog, Lithophylacium Bornianum (1772), volume 1. The cameo-style vignette depicts the ancient Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.). His Peri lithon ("About Stones") is a work of special interest in the history of mineralogy, and is the most significant document on minerals to survive from Classical times. It is unique among ancient and Medieval writings in its relative freedom from mythological and magical components, and remained for 1800 years one of the most authoritative treatises on minerals.
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|Publication:||The Mineralogical Record|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2008|
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