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About mineral collecting part 2 of 5.

Some personal observations, ruminations, reflections, reminiscences, ramblings, digressions, grumblings, approbations, wisdom and advice gleaned from 50 years of collecting and dealing in minerals.

In mineral collecting, as in most avocations, it will take you about ten years to learn your way around the block, and then another ten years to get good at it. After ten years, if you have diligently applied yourself to all of the educational activities recommended in the previous installment, you should be able to look at a well crystallized mineral specimen and know what it is, where it is from and how good it is relative to others of its kind. If you can't, you may need another few years of seasoning, but who cares? It's great fun no matter what, and you can progress at your own pace.


How Much Can You Get?

Since the goal of all collectors is to get stuff, I thought that before I talk about the different kinds of mineral collectors I might talk a little about how much you can get, that is, how many mineral specimens you can hope to acquire in your collecting career. If you add one specimen a day to your collection, after ten years you will have 3,650 specimens--well, perhaps 3,652 if you take into account a couple of leap years. After 50 years of collecting one a day you will have something over 18,000 specimens. If you collect two or ten a day--well, you can run the numbers as well as I. So, since I myself have something like 20,000 specimens in my collection, I am about a one-a-day guy. There are others like me, and some have surpassed me by a considerable amount, certainly in quantity if not quality.

To put the size of collections in perspective, it is useful to consider mineral collections that have been formed in the past and those that are currently in the process of formation. I think that all of the large mineral collections without exception have been formed by individuals. Large mineral collections in museums are agglomerations of many large personal collections that have been given or (more rarely) sold to museums over the years. In recent times, were it not for the ability of collectors to donate specimens to museums and write off their appraised value against other income, the quantity of donations to museums would be considerably reduced. In this as in other facets of human activity, modern efforts equal and surpass those of previous generations.

The Past

The earliest private mineral collections in Germany in the 16th century were surprisingly similar to good study collections today. However, that purity of approach faded, and by the 17th century there were few, if any, collections devoted solely to minerals. Instead, natural history collections became "universal" in scope; the minerals were gathered together with other curiosities like shells, fossils, plants and animals, and housed in special rooms or Wunderkammern. These collections were assembled by the wealthy for the amusement of their friends and the aggrandizement of their reputations as patrons of the arts and science. No attempt was made to differentiate minerals from fossils.

Mineral collecting was helped along by the Industrial Revolution, which necessitated the finding and exploitation of mineral resources to feed the growing demand for raw materials. The more raw materials that were needed, the more rock that had to be dug and moved to supply them. This brought many more mineral specimens within the reach of collectors. Originally only the super-wealthy and members of the aristocracy could afford to indulge themselves in such things, but as disposable wealth grew, even the middle class and people of more modest means could afford to collect minerals, although of course on a more modest level. It is interesting to note that in poor countries any museums, if they exist at all, are very meager affairs compared to those in richer countries.

Most old collections are and were sold by mineral dealers, but some were donated or sold intact to schools and museums. These formed the foundation of today's great institutional collections. Often these once-private collections, though perhaps not completely intact, are still recognized as subunits in today's institutional collections. Today the great institutional mineral collections are pretty much limited to the United States and Europe, with some in Canada, Australia and Japan.

The three great old collections in the United States are the Bement, Roebling and Canfield collections, and probably the Bement Collection was the greatest of these. Clarence S. Bement (1843-1923) was a wealthy manufacturer from Philadelphia who had the means to spend generously on his hobby. His collection was purchased by J.P. Morgan and presented as a gift to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It took two freight cars to carry the collection from Philadelphia to New York City.

Washington Roebling (1837-1923) was a civil engineer who was perhaps best known for his construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Following his death, his collection was given to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., where it remains today, essentially intact. It contained about 16,000 specimens, and his specimens in the Smithsonian all have black catalog numbers preceded by an "R."

Frederick Canfield (1849-1926) was a mining man whose collection was particularly strong in minerals from Franklin, New Jersey. He also spent time in the mines in Bolivia and discovered the mineral that was eventually named after him: canfieldite. His collection consisted of perhaps 9,000 specimens that were also given to the Smithsonian Institution. His specimens bear catalog numbers that are preceded by a C, and (in accordance with a stipulation of the bequest) are never sold or traded.

The collection of German industrialist Carl Bosch (1874-1940) contained about 25,000 specimens. Before the Second World War his collection was shipped to the United States and was stored in the basement of Yale University for a number of years. Eventually it was sold to the Smithsonian Institution, and many of the specimens remain there today.

Museums in Canada, England, France, Germany, Australia and other countries each have major once-private collections that form the core of their holdings of mineral specimens. The list could go on and on but this will give you a little idea of what has gone before.

The Present: Institutional Collections

Currently the Smithsonian Institution may hold the record for the largest number of mineral specimens owned by an institution. Curator Paul Pohwat estimates the mineral collection at 375,000 specimens but adds that "Meteorites are a separate and similar total." This number is eclipsed, however, by the Smithsonian's Rock and Ore Collection, 95% of which needs to be stored at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland because of its size.

The great collection at the British Museum of Natural History (today called simply "the Natural History Museum"), according to curator Peter Tandy, has "in rather rounded figures ... approximately 170,000 minerals, 121,000 rocks, 30,000 ores, 30,000 ocean deposit samples and 4,000 meteorites. The Harvard Mineralogical Museum contains about 75,000 mineral specimens, 150,000 rocks and 1,200 meteorites. The American Museum of Natural History has about 95,000 cataloged mineral specimens (with more to catalog) plus 20,000 rocks and 5,000 meteorites. I don't know any large museum in which the cataloging of the mineral collection is up to date: cataloging is a very time-consuming business and curators work at it only when they can or when they have volunteer labor they can trust to work on it. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, by no means extraordinary in its mineral holdings, has about 150,000 specimens, of which about 100,000 are micromounts.

The collection at the Mining Academy in Freiberg, Germany certainly deserves mention here as well. Andreas Massanek, the curator of the museum, informs me that the main collection has about 92,000 mineral specimens, 29,000 rock specimens, 120,000 ore samples and a stock of 400,000 specimens for exchange and scientific use. In October of 2008 the Mining Academy plans to open a new exhibition in the Freiberg castle with 5,000 specimens from Dr. Erika Pohl-Stroher. She has thus far donated 18,000 specimens and may donate many more.

Private Collections

There are two very large private collections today that are probably more than twice the size of their next nearest rivals, and there are a few others that I will talk about which are worth honorable mention for one reason or another. All of these collections have been built with a lifetime of effort and at considerable expense. As you might expect, the more money and time that have been brought to bear, the more impressive and massive the collections are. These are the ones that I know about, but there may be others.

Certainly the most massive modern collection, and probably the one with the highest quality specimens, is that of a man who lives a bit north of New York City. He made his money in the high-tech communications industry, and he has been collecting minerals for decades--not just with the "silver pick" but also as a field collector in his early years. He is highly intelligent, knowledgeable and has excellent taste. His collection may rival or surpass those which belong to large public institutions, though he claims modestly that the commonly held notions about his collection are exaggerated. He prefers to remain anonymous, but he is known to many collectors and dealers in the mineral world as the "Black Hole" of the East--ostensibly because most of the specimens that pass his event horizon are rarely seen again. However, he does usually display something at each Tucson Show, and that is more than many collectors do. He also recently displayed some of his gold specimens at the American Museum of Natural History. He actually owns some specimen-producing mines and has operated them for some years for specimens and gem rough. I think little of this material has been sold. I have heard him complain about the difficulty in locating specimens in his storage facilities, usually in response to people who have asked--almost always in vain--to see his specimens. He frequently buys sizeable batches of fine specimens from specific localities, and during the "glory years" of specimen production in Peru, he had a man living in Lima (Terry Szenics) who would buy specimens for him, pack them in barrels and send them up to the States. He finally got so many pyrite specimens, and I mean fine ones, that he told Terry to stop sending pyrites. Once at the annual Denver Gem and Mineral Show, when the designated theme of the show was pyrite, I was asked to exhibit a couple of display cases of fine pyrite specimens from my collection. This collector came up to me and said "I need those specimens for my collection." I laughed and asked, "What do you want them for? To top off a barrel in your basement?" His only reply was a grin. I don't know that anyone has seen more than a few of his specimens, and in fact I think it is likely that even he has not seen them all. However, every so often a display case of some of his mineral specimens will appear at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, never under his own name, and people will cluster around that case and drool. One year it was crystals of Imperial topaz from his mine in Brazil; another year it was a little case of gorgeous Paraiba tourmalines (Cu-rich elbaite); and occasionally he exhibits one of his most famous "ikons," the Great Phosphophyllite. For many years he has been planning to build a private mineral museum that would be open to the public; when and if it finally opens, it will be an extraordinary event in the mineral world.

The other large private collection is that of a wealthy woman who lives in Switzerland and founded the Wella Balsam company many years ago. She has loved minerals and has collected specimens all her life. She has substantially supported many European mineral dealers with her purchases, and I have heard some of them saying "thank God" for Frau Dr. Erika Pohl. She has particularly loved Tsumeb minerals for many years and has many of them in her collection. She also has many good things from Morocco. She recently donated many specimens in her 60,000-piece collection to the School of Mines in Freiberg, Germany.

John Ebner, who lives in New Jersey, has about 55,000 micromounts, but he did not make them all himself: he has purchased individual collections made by other micromounters. He specializes in micromounts of species that were made by the people after whom the mineral was named.

Victor Yount, who lives in Virginia, specializes in calcite. He has been a collector and a mineral dealer for most of his life. He inherited a modest fortune from his family, which has enabled him to do less dealing and more collecting. He tells me he has about 10,000 specimens of calcite that he has collected over the years, and has many of them on display in about 100 meters of display cases at his home.

Probably the finest collection of rare species has been built by Mark Feinglos, who lives in North Carolina. He has about 3,500 of the 4,000 or so known species, which is about as much as anyone can ever hope to acquire. When you get a large collection of minerals you really stop counting. The thing that sets his collection apart is that many of his specimens are type specimens and are about as good as you can get for the species; that is, they are not just little specks in gelatin capsules. He doesn't even have some of the more common species because that is not where his interest lies.

On High-end Dealers and Heavy Hitters

At the highest level of aesthetic collecting and dealing, only very high-priced specimens are involved. Among these are what we might call the "world-class" specimens. The prices of such specimens in recent years have escalated into the realm of fine art prices (as the late Smithsonian curator Paul Desautels once predicted they would), and the specimens are indeed gorgeous. For many years back in the 1960s, for instance, $2,500 was about as much as you could ever hope to get for any mineral specimen unless its gem value was greater. Then in the 1970s it moved up another order of magnitude. Today the top price has escalated yet further, with some specimens reportedly being sold for over a million dollars.

There seems to be a significant cadre of world-class collectors active in the market today, but it wasn't always so. It used to be that, if the going price of a fine specimen was "X" dollars, someone would periodically come along and be willing to pay "2X." The guy who would pay "2X" often knew he was paying more than the market price, but he also knew that word of his purchase would spread and that he would then be offered first crack at other really fine specimens. It was kind of an advertising gambit on the part of the high-end buyer. When this type of collector stopped buying, reality would set in for a few months or a year until the next guy would come along and start paying elevated prices once again. Then the rush would be on again for the high end-dealers to romance him and sell him top-level specimens until his interest also waned.

Many of the top-level buyers today are not extremely knowledge able about the technical side of mineralogy, and may not have been collecting seriously for very long. So (as is common in the antiques world and the art world) they work with one or a few trusted dealers, relying on them for advice. Before a dealer can sell specimens in this elevated market, he must first sell himself. Once he can convince the wealthy collector that he is knowledgeable and trustworthy, he is "in" and can sell that collector a lot of stuff. I say "him" because most of the buyers of expensive specimens are men.

Most of the really expensive specimens are not sold at gem and mineral shows, but directly to the well-heeled collectors. Nevertheless, high-end dealers do like to attend the big shows because there they have the opportunity to meet other heavy hitters. Of course, where so much money is involved, there is often a rather tense competition among dealers for the top clients. They will often try to coax the best clients away from each other. Sometimes real catfights erupt among the high-end dealers. Some dealers operate on the principle that there are no new customers, only other people's customers.

Once a dealer has developed a good relationship with a top-level buyer, he can sell him specimens, and he can also vet the offerings of other dealers who are not as well known to the buyer. Many dealers, rather than fight their way to the attention of a heavy hitter and try to convince him to buy their specimens, will simply give the specimen to the customer's preferred supplier and pay him a suitable commission to offer their specimen to the heavy hitter. Often the commission is 10 or 20 percent of the sale price. If the specimen is sold for $ 100,000, the preferred dealer will make $ 10,000 to $20,000 dollars for very little work. Museum curators have also been known to command good commissions when they become the trusted advisors of heavy hitters. This arrangement mimics behavior that has taken place for thousands of years. Those who have the ear of the king and the key to the throne room, profit handsomely.

Sometimes heavy hitters will put their purchasing decisions completely in the hands of one or two trusted individuals and pay them an agreed-upon commission to buy specimens for them. They use these people as fire walls to avoid having to deal with the hundreds of sellers that would be bothering them if it became generally known that they were in the market for top-level specimens.

Like all high-end dealers in antiques, coins, jewelry, paintings, etc., the high-end mineral specimen dealers know that it is better if they can set themselves apart from the "riff raff" of dealers in lesser-quality specimens. They do this by segregating themselves as much as possible from those dealers who may sell good, but not the best, specimens. At the Tucson Show, for example, most dealers used to sell from rooms in inexpensive motels in the downtown area near the Convention Center. At these comparatively inelegant venues the top-end dealers and their clientele had to jostle cheek by jowl with their less well-heeled counterparts and occasionally suffer the outraged indignation of the older long-time collectors who were shocked by the current top-level prices. The top-level dealers had also grown reluctant to ask their best customers to visit such modest quarters--as one dealer put it, he was uncomfortable trying to sell someone a specimen that was worth more than the entire motel they were in. Consequently they established their own high-end show at a separate venue in a country club hotel in the northern part of the city.

Typically a high-end dealer gets nervous when one of his big buyers is in the room along with some of the old-time, knowledgeable but less well-heeled collectors. His fear is that the old-time collectors, who obviously know what they are looking at, will start saying things like, "I thought the specimen was fairly priced and was thinking about buying it until I realized I was off by two zeros! Can you believe it?" Or "Someone has got to be kidding on these prices. Just last year I bought one of these, even better than that one, and paid about ten percent of this price." These kinds of comments can be deadly, and only a limited number of them can be explained away. A common tactic to keep from scaring people away is to put on the labels of extra-expensive specimens "POR," which means "price on request." The implication is that if you are a person of modest means you can't afford the specimen.

Of course, to be fair, these old knowledgeable collectors are often living in the past, still thinking (or at least wishing) that a dollar today still had the same value as it had 10 or 20 years ago. They also don't want to accept the idea that the new, higher prices are real, because it means they won't be able to afford to add many fine specimens to their own collections. I must admit that I look at some of the specimens with high prices on the Internet and wonder who in the world is buying them. But in a gradually inflating economy, whether it be in 21st century America or the Roman Empire, many older people are outraged by rising prices.

Specialty Collectors

As a mineral collector you will soon find yourself becoming partialized to certain kinds of minerals. It may be that you will find yourself attracted to perfect small specimens like micromounts, thumbnails or miniatures. Perhaps you will find yourself drawn to minerals from one locality, state or region. Perhaps you will find you want to concentrate on a particular mineral like quartz or calcite, or on a particular mineral group like copper minerals, sulfosalts or feldspars. The possibilities are extensive. Often collectors will have general collections and sub-collections of various specialties. Of course, over time these preferences tend to change and morph into others. Specialty collecting is something that happens naturally to collectors and can produce very interesting collections. If you specialize you will soon find you know more about your specialty than almost anyone else, and you can build a unique collection that no museum can match. One collector I know joked that the longer you collect, the uglier the minerals you tend to acquire, and if you collect long enough you end up collecting only black ones. As some collectors mature, color becomes less important to them and other factors like crystal form and rarity become of paramount interest.

Field Collectors

I know a few collectors who hardly ever buy specimens. They collect their own. Some of these hardy individuals have spent their lifetimes running around, often in terrible weather, exploring remote places and dangerous abandoned mines. Some of them have transformed themselves into human TBM's (tunnel boring machines) and eat rocks for lunch. Well, if not rocks, terrible things from ancient tin cans that have been bouncing around in the back of the car/truck so long that the labels are long gone. Some of the things they have collected are amazing. However, unless you are very smart, extra hard-working, and lucky, I would advise you not to quit your day job. Most of the difficulty in making a living by field collecting is that you just can't move enough rock to get to the minerals that will allow you a comfortable life. But then again, who would describe field collecting as a comfortable life?

If you pursue this kind of collecting, you will get a lot of good exercise which will probably let you live years longer than if you choose the silver pick kind of collecting. There are few experiences in life as gratifying and as memorable as breaking into a wonderful pocket of beautiful specimens and collecting them. This experience is what usually hooks a collector for life and sets him on the path to being a dedicated field collector. You will not find many world- class specimens, but if you persist you can eventually put together a display that will stop traffic and be all the more impressive because you collected all of the pieces yourself.

Most field collectors don't work at it very hard, or if they do they live in areas that don't offer many good opportunities for field collecting. It used to be easier to collect in the field. Today it seems that most of the places you would like to collect are owned by someone else, posted "keep out" or closed to collecting for other reasons. Some really hard-core dudes make middle-of-the-night collecting trips into working quarries and underground mines, hang from ropes on rock faces, hiding out from the guards when they come around, and occasionally get busted for trespassing.

If you really want to get hard-core, here are some things you will need to learn to be a successful field collector. You will need to learn how to read topographic maps and how to find your way around geological libraries to locate leads to possible productive collecting areas. You will need to learn about various kinds of collecting tools, and, if you get serious, to learn about various kinds of heavy equipment and how to use explosives. Also you will need to learn the laws regarding explosives, claims, government land of various kinds, and the laws regarding trespassing. You will need to learn more than just a little bit about geology, and you will need to learn persistence. You will need to learn how to locate the owners of the land on which you want to work, and how to charm them into letting you collect on their property. You will need to learn how to use GPS (Global Positioning Satellites) equipment to find where you are relative to where you want to be. You will need to get a four-wheel-drive vehicle and learn how to set up a comfortable all-weather camp. You will have to learn how to sight-identify minerals and use a hand lens to identify minerals and rock types. You will need to learn about the various dangers present in abandoned mines: poisonous air, rotten timbers, dangerous ladders, water hazards, bad ground that may send a rock to squash you flat, and old explosives, to name just a few. It will help if you can learn some rock climbing techniques and how to get up and down ropes. You will need to develop the ability to drive night and day to get somewhere that is near nowhere. You will need to develop "the eye": a sort of psychic ability to discern where the crystals are hiding. Then, of course, you will have to learn how to clean and trim the specimens once you have collected them. Thank God this is only a hobby.

Field collectors are a remarkable and accomplished breed. They are perhaps the rarest and purest kind of mineral collectors. They hearken back to the very beginnings of what we now call the earth sciences, and in many ways they embody the simple thrill and youthful joy of the treasure hunt. If you look you will find them "out there" trekking over just one more mountain, digging down just another foot, and hoping for just a little bit longer that they will find something. But remember, the first law of field collecting states: "The best to be found is still in the ground and the best that has been found has been ground!" (that is, ground up into powder in the mill and processed into metal).

In the southwestern part of the United States there is a vast number of abandoned mines. Thirty years ago many were freely available for any fit person to explore, and many still are. Many of them are base metal mines with substantial oxide mineral components, especially large quantities of mixed iron and manganese oxides known by the old and venerable names "limonite" and "wad." Some of these mines are particularly dirty, and after collecting for a couple of days in one of them you come crawling out looking like a demon from the 9th circle of hell. You are completely filthy, impregnated with fine limonite dust which will take several long showers to remove, and your underwear will remain forever pink.

We were in central Arizona, and had left the mine in mid-morning to spend the next 5 hours climbing the steep trail up along the canyon wall to reach our car. Then we hit the road for the ten + hour drive back to Los Angeles and our day jobs the next morning. After five or six hours we had to stop for gas. The doors flew open, and beer cans and an empty bottle of Thunderbird clattered out onto the concrete next to the gas pumps. We created a further disturbance with good-natured horse play and squabbling about who would use the bathroom first. There were a couple of cars full of good citizens gassing up at the same station. Simultaneously, they grabbed their kids, jumped back in their cars, rolled up their windows and locked the doors. Wow!! Did we cause that? Yes, I guess we did. It was at this point that I realized I had probably achieved some proficiency as a field collector and at the same time wondered just how much further down that road I wanted to go.

Micromount Collectors

What do you call a pygmy rapist? It's obvious! He is a "micromounter." I apologize; that was a terrible joke. Micromounters take big rocks and break them down into little ones and put them in little plastic boxes. Also, this is something you do for fun, not profit. You do it because you want to learn about minerals and in pursuing this collecting discipline you almost always end up learning more about minerals than your cousins with their big flashy expensive rocks who look at you as if you are afflicted with some sort of mental disorder. When and if you sell your micromineral collection, conventional wisdom tells a dealer that he can't pay more than about a dollar a specimen for the collection and make any money on it. I suppose it could happen, but I have never seen or heard of a case where a micromounter has made money. So resign yourself to the fact that you will never make any money by collecting micromounts--but on the plus side, you won't have to spend much either, except for the one-time expense of buying a good microscope. You will, however, spend huge amounts of time playing with rock trimmers, glue, and little plastic boxes.

Micromounting is a solitary discipline because of the considerable labor involved. The collector of flashy minerals merely buys his specimens and plops them in a drawer or a display case with a label that has been made by some dealer. You, on the other hand, must carefully examine mostly large, ugly - looking rocks under a microscope to locate the best nest of barely visible crystals, then break the rock down into little bits, taking care not to damage the tiny specimen(s) you are trying to create. Then you get to clean each specimen, mount it on a tiny pedestal of cork, plastic, cactus thorn, hair, etc. and carefully glue it into a tiny box, a tiny plastic mausoleum, where with luck, the little specimen will spend eternity undisturbed and protected from the vicissitudes of life. Then you carefully label the box with information about its contents. And after all that, you have the privilege of looking at it from time to time and showing it to the occasional rare person of similar bent who might be interested in seeing it.

What on earth could induce someone to collect these kinds of mineral specimens? Well, just look through the microscope at some good micromounts and you will understand. There you are in a glass-bottom boat, slowly cruising above the most amazing fairy gardens of shapes and colors--things straight out of a science fiction movie. You could never invent or imagine such things. If these were blown up in size, they would put to shame most macro-size mineral specimens because of the perfection of their crystals. Once you are hooked, you usually spend the rest of your life chasing these tiny, perfect jewels. Yet micromounters are quite sociable creatures and have occasional conferences where they trade specimens among themselves, look at each others' specimens, and listen to lectures. They even have a Hall of Fame. Many advanced micromounters become photomicrographers (note: not "micro photographers"--which would be very tiny photographers) so they can better share their amazing little treasures with others. Their collections usually contain wonderful specimens of species not available to collectors of larger specimens because Mother Nature doesn't make them any larger. Micromounters are better at mineral identification than most other mineral collectors because they see a wider range of mineral species in good crystals than their cousins who collect larger specimens. There are many more minerals which exist as fine microcrystals than occur as larger crystals.

Each micromounter develops an individual style of mount. There are two or three more or less standard sizes of little plastic boxes used. In past generations, when small plastic boxes were not available, the variety of boxes and containers used by micromounters was quite diverse. It seems that everyone develops a somewhat different method of preparing these boxes, using different mounting materials and different labeling formats. Considerable ingenuity has been brought to bear on how to mount various kinds of specimens, such as tiny single crystals, unstable minerals, etc. The way each mounter prepares his specimens, prepares the boxes, mounts the specimens and labels them is like a signature. If you want to become a micromounter, I recommend a couple of books: The Complete Guide to Micromounts by Milton L. Speckles and The Complete Book of Mineralogical Record Bookstore at

I was introduced to micromounting by Neal Yedlin, who was elected by his peers to their Hall of Fame. He collected other kinds of minerals and had a wonderful book collection as well. When I lived in New York City, I used to drive up to New Haven and visit him, and would usually buy a few specimens and books from him. He always made time for us to spend some time looking at his wonderful micromounts. I had always thought I would like to do that kind of collecting but never quite got to it because I was always chasing around to various countries trying to buy specimens for my wholesale mineral business. Then one day, because I got around, I happened onto an auction mandated by the state of Arizona for the estate of Bob Massey, who had died without a will and had no relatives to claim his things. Among many other items, his micro-mount collection was for sale. I am not sure what prompted me to bid on the collection, probably the memory of Neal Yedlin and his wonderful micrornineral collection, but I was high bidder for the micromounts and hauled my treasure back to California.

Shortly after I purchased the collection I wandered into the room of one of the few dealers at the Tucson Show who catered to micromounters. There turned out to be a real nest of them in that room, and they were all talking to one another in the sociable way they do while looking through microscopes. Word of my purchase had preceded me, and one of the ladies looked up from her scope and said to me, rather crossly, "What do you want a micromount collection for?" These people knew me as a wholesale dealer who sold large quantities of things like quartz crystals and Brazilian amethyst: in other words, a pillaging barbarian. The best way to defuse situations like this is to admit to what the person is implying about you. So I told her, "Well obviously to cloak myself in a veneer of mineralogical respectability." Another sour look and a bit of a stiff smile and the matter was closed. I was accepted into the pack ... well, sort of.

In the years since that incident I have made it a point to salvage micromounts from of the tens of thousands of specimens that flood through my warehouse. I've extracted many specimens that have the potential to make wonderful micromounts and shipped them off to my good friend Richard W. "Dick" Thomssen. He is a sharp geologist and a demon micromounter. He is no longer in retirement; a mining company has agreed to pay him to go back to work. He makes my micromounts for me. Now you know my dirty little secret. I am grateful that he considers the specimens I send him worthy of his time.

The mounting time Dick has saved me has enabled me to create and develop a computer database program that has the ability to make the labels for my micromounts and other specimens. This software application has gobbled up thousands of dollars in professional programming time and thousands of hours of my time for development and testing. It is becoming quite usable, and none too soon, as I am no longer able to print by hand the small, neat labels needed for micromounts. Even on my best day, I could never match the character compactness, legibility, and neatness that computer-printed labels provide.

I think a lot of dealers respect micromounters for their knowledge. More micromounters should approach dealers and offer to make micromounts for the dealer if the dealer will supply the specimens. Many dealers would be amenable to such an arrangement. Often when a dealer gets a collection, or just a lot of minerals, the haul includes specimens that could be judiciously trimmed to produce mount material without loss of value to the original specimen. I have "de-microed" a number of collections and many large lots of specimens and have harvested terrific micromount material.

If you become a micromounter, you can kiss certainty goodbye. In some instances you can look through your microscope and see sparkling, colorless, transparent hexagonal crystals with striations perpendicular to the C axis and the prism capped by six pyramids. And then you say to yourself, "Yes! That is certainly a quartz crystal." Certainty is a wonderful thing, but wait a minute! What are those little blue crystals down among the quartz crystals? OK, let's crank up the magnification. That's interesting: they are little dark blue cubes like boleite, but look at that strange cross-like pattern on the faces of the cubes? Those are pseudoboleites I think! Hmm! Certainty is beginning to slip a little. Hold the horses, what are those little green sprays of crystals down at the base of the cubes? OK, let's crank up the magnification again. Is that all we can do? Yes, we are at 100x. Gee, what can those green crystals be? Maybe pyromorphite? But is the chemistry right for this paragenesis? Oh my goodness, scattered in among the tiny green needles are some super-tiny little white needles that are barely visible; what could those be? Well, you are beginning to get the picture. "Big fleas have little fleas up on their backs to bite 'em, and little fleas have lesser fleas and so on ad infinitum."

Systematic and Rare Species Collectors

There are about 4,000 known "official" minerals, and each year roughly 50 more are approved by the Commission on New Minerals and Mineral Names (CNMMN) of the IMA (International Mineralogical Association). The number of minerals yet to be discovered probably exceeds the number already known. The number of known minerals is really very few compared to the numbers of species known in the plant and animal kingdoms. The number of known insect species exceeds a million and even the number of different fleas or tape- worms probably exceeds the number of described mineral species. With such a relatively limited number of species it is possible to build a collection that contains a majority of known minerals. No collection in the world has them all, and there are probably less than 25 collections in the world which have reached 80%. There may not be a single collection that has 90% of them. The people in charge of many large institutional collections frequently don't have any idea of how many species they have, or which ones they lack.

A lot depends on how much you believe the identification given by the labels accompanying the specimens, and which list of accepted species you are using. A few rare species collectors seem to derive most of their satisfaction from checking off minerals from their "want list." I think that this is a shallow sort of satisfaction, but I must admit I have found satisfaction in checking off a long-desired mineral species that had been absent from my collection. Most people who attempt this rigorous discipline learn far more about minerals than the average mineral collector.

The standard list that many collectors use as a bible is Fleischer's Glossary of Mineral Species by Malcolm E. Back and Joseph A. Mandarino. Europeans tend to use the Strunz mineralogical tables (Mineralogische Tabellen), first created in 1941 by the venerable Hugo Strunz (1910-2006) and updated periodically now by Ernest Nickel. The International Mineralogical Association has very recently posted a list of minerals on its website that will, at least for a while, be the most authoritative list of currently valid species. Many other collectors utilize the mineral database at as their preferred list. Every mineralogist worth his salt has his disagreements with the IMA and with other mineralogists regarding exactly which species are valid or even what exactly constitutes a mineral. If you collect long enough, you will form your own opinions.

If you choose systematic species collecting, you will need to determine the size and quality that you plan to collect. Will you be willing to accept a fly speck of a mineral inside a small gelatin capsule Scotch-taped to a label? Many people dislike this minimalist approach, pointing out that if a specimen is so small that it would be entirely consumed by a test necessary to identify it, then you don't really have a specimen at all! On the other end of the spectrum is the rare species collector who insists that his specimens be at least an inch or more across, showing the mineral richly by eye and, if the mineral forms in crystals, showing well-formed crystals on the specimen. If you choose the latter collecting style you will likely never obtain even half the known species, since nature just doesn't make most minerals like that. Or even if one or two specimens like that really do exist, the odds are that they will never be offered for sale or trade. Most rare species collectors, when confronted with the choice between lowering their standards and never acquiring a specimen of a species, will usually cave in and accept specimens of lower quality, even sometimes a fly speck in a gelatin capsule, until they can get something better (which might not exist anyway).

Some dealers in mineral specimens have commented, only half in jest, that there is only one thing rarer than a rare mineral, and that is someone to sell it to. It has been joked that sometimes a mineral is so rare that it isn't even on the specimen. This means that often the amount of a particular mineral on a specimen is so small that it cannot be seen even with a powerful reflected-light optical microscope. Sometimes the amount of the mineral is so small that it can only be imaged with high-resolution scanning electron microscopes or microprobes. When it takes this kind of instrumentation to verify the presence of a mineral, the collector or curator is almost always at the mercy of the dealer selling him the specimen, because he does not have access to that kind of equipment. In such cases, it is a temptation for the rare unscrupulous dealer to label a likely-looking rock with the name of a really rare species, believing that it is unlikely that the fraud will ever be discovered. In the long run such dealers are eventually found out and are forced out of the business. The rare-mineral-collecting fraternity is small and word travels fast.

Collections of rare minerals are sometimes referred to as "arrow rocks" because dealers often glue tiny paper arrows onto the specimens that point to the minute area which contains the mineral of interest. Collections of rare minerals typically look terrible because in most cases the crystals, if there are any visible crystals at all, are so small they can only be seen with a microscope. Quite often what you are looking at in rare species collections are rocks with specks of rare minerals on them. For example, collections of minerals from the zinc mine at Franklin, New Jersey look like rock collections rather than collections of crystallized minerals. A friend of mine, Dick Hauck, had a wonderful collection of Franklin minerals, one of the best in private hands, and once was showing it to a beginning collector who liked to collect his own specimens. The beginner observed, "I see you like to collect your own specimens too"--meaning that my friend's collection looked like the rubbish he was used to collecting.

Rare species collectors are lonely people because there are not many people with whom they can share their avocation. They are the nomads of the mineral collecting fraternity. Information about the availability and quality of rare minerals is difficult to come by. A mineral may be rare, but it may be abundantly available at a particular mine. Such is the case of teallite, a rare sulfide of tin and lead that is one of the main ore minerals at the Carguaicollo mine in Bolivia. One afternoon Alfredo Petrov and I wandered into this remote mining camp and bought about 200 pounds of beautiful cleavable teallite at prices only somewhat higher than the smelter would pay.

Sometimes a species is really rare, i.e. only one piece the size of your fist or smaller was ever found. However, that piece can be broken up into hundreds of tiny specimens which can at least temporarily saturate the shallow market for such things. The truly difficult fact to know is that there was only one small piece found and it was broken into six 1-centimeter specimens and hundreds of tiny ones. A knowledgeable collector will know this and try to lay his hands on one of the centimeter-sized specimens rather than a gelatin capsule holding only a pitiful speck of the mineral. If only two specimens of a mineral are known, that fact will be enthusiastically advertised. If, however, 500 tons of specimens of a particular mineral have been found, this fact will not be advertised. The existence of huge quantities of a particular kind of specimen makes it "uncollectible." Not many collectors will put a piece of common Brazilian amethyst in their collections. A dealer may advertise antlerite as a rare species but fail to mention that at Chuquicamata, in northern Chile, home of the largest open-pit copper mine in the world, antlerite is a common ore mineral.

If you decide to collect rare minerals, keep in mind that you may only be able to recover a small percentage of your purchase price should you need to sell the collection. Here is more food for thought. Each year the IMA declares some minerals to be invalid because they are determined to be varieties of already known minerals or mixtures of more than one mineral. Most of the species that are approved are of little interest to the average collector because they are unattractive. There are approximately 40,000 mineral names that have at one time or another entered the mineralogical and geological literature. At one time, these were all considered to be valid minerals. For one reason or another, over the last century, most of these mineral names have fallen from favor and been cast upon the mineralogical rubbish heap. However, in nearly all cases, specimens by these names were once sold by mineral dealers. Using these numbers, it would appear only 10% of the minerals that were at one time considered valid, are still valid. Based on these numbers one could make the case that if you buy a specimen of a rare mineral species today, there is only a 10% chance that it will be considered a valid mineral 100 years down the road. That figure is probably too pessimistic because many old now-discredited species were first described using relatively primitive and unsophisticated analytical techniques. Far more accurate methods are available now. But even more accurate techniques will be available in the future.

The process of throwing out the names of minerals that are shown not to be valid and approving the names of new minerals will continue into the foreseeable future. We think, however, that the numbers of minerals cast into the outer darkness will diminish substantially because of the rigorous vetting process instituted by the hard-working members of the IMA-CNMMN.

The market for rare minerals is small, but the world market for them is large enough to keep a few dealers interested in obtaining and selling them as part or most of their inventory. It is interesting to note that in Russia a cottage industry has developed to find, describe, and sell rare specimens. The proceeds from these sales have helped keep some few of the mineral laboratories in Russia warm in winter.

Competition develops naturally in all fields of human endeavor, and the field of rare-mineral-collecting is no exception. The prime objective is to collect as many species as you can. The more successful you are, the smaller your "want list" will be. A small want list can, for advanced collectors, be a way of competing. He who has the smallest want list is king. If you are a rare species collector and can get your want list down to a page or less, that will usually impress and perhaps even intimidate your competitors. Once the list is down to a page, then you work toward making larger margins on your page, increasing the font size, and even perhaps some day decreasing the number of columns. You will, however, never get them all.

Collection of the British Museum



Somondoco (Chivor) mine, Colombia

Emerald crystals were being mined in Colombia by the Incas in 1537 when the Spaniards first encountered them, and many chests full of crystals were shipped back to Europe. This example (pictured in James Sowerby's Exotic Mineralogy, Plate 100, dated 1817) found its way eventually into the collection of the British Museum, and may well be one of those early specimens. Fine crystals are still being found in Colombia today, at the Muzo and Cosquez mines.


Collection of the Technical High School, Stuttgart



Ichinokawa mine, Shikoku, Japan

Stibnite was mined on Shikoku Island in Japan as early as the 7th century A.D., and the earliest collection known to possess a specimen was that of Kiuchi Sekitei in 1773. The mine continued in operation, occasionally yielding fine specimens, until 1957. Today most good stibnite specimens come from China. The illustration shown here is from Gustav Adolf Sauer's Mineralkunde (Stuttgart, 1905-6).


Collection of Philip Rashleigh



Cook's Kitchen mine, Cornwall, England

From Rashleigh's (1797) book on his own collection, Specimens of British Minerals Selected from the Cabinet of Philip Rashleigh (vol. 1, plate XV). Rashleigh began collecting minerals around 1765, and assembled the finest private collection of Cornish minerals ever made. Most of it later ended up in the British Museum.


Collection of the

Technical High School, Stuttgart


Orthoclase with Smoky Quartz Baveno, Italy

The Baveno granite quarries on the shore of Lake Maggiore in Novara Province, Italy, have been worked since the early 1500s. Occasional pockets have yielded over 50 different mineral species so far, the most famous being twinned crystals of orthoclase called "Baveno twins." The example shown here is from Gustav Adolf Sauer's Mineralkunde (Stuttgart, 1905-6).


Collection of W. Edmund Rundell



Probably from the German Erzgebirge

This illustration was published in James Sowerby's Exotic Mineralogy (Plate 33, dated 1812). Fine specimens such as this can circulate for centuries in the best private collections; this one is in the Steven Smale collection today.


Collection of the Technical High School, Stuttgart



Bigrigg mine Cumberland, England

British calcite specimens from Cumberland have long been considered classics, and were available in abundance in the 19th century. The mines are now closed and specimens are rare and valuable. But calcite is among the most widely occurring minerals, and fine specimens are always available from a variety of localities. The example shown here is from Gustav Adolf Sauer's Mineralkunde (Stuttgart, 1905-6).


Collection of James Sowerby



Faeroe Islands, Denmark

Today, most zeolite specimens on the collector market come from the Deccan Traps of India. However, in the 18th century the main sources were the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Scotland, and a few places in Central Europe.


Collection of the Technical High School, Stuttgart



New Cornwall mine, Kadina, South Australia

Mineral localities are often concealed for many years before becoming generally known. In the late 19th century the world's finest atacamite specimens were collected in South Australia and found their way into many prominent collections. They were all labeled "Burra Burra," South Australia, but have recently been determined to have come from a different mine 90 km away. The illustration shown here is from Gustav Adolf Sauer's Mineralkunde (Stuttgart, 1905-6).


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Author:Currier, Rock
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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