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George Washington Fiss (1835-1925) and his Micromount Collections.

George Washington Fiss, one of the first and greatest of all micromounters, created two remarkable collections--one of them built, in part, by the extraordinary expedient of breaking small pieces off of specimens in one of the greatest private mineral collections of all time, that of his friend Clarence S. Bement. Both collections have been preserved more or less intact.

Introduction

George Washington Fiss was born in Philadelphia in March of 1835, the son (probably) of Mary and George Fiss, a shoemaker. He married Ellen L. Mehl in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia in 1860, and made his living as a manufacturer of worsted wool yarn. Fiss lived at 1911 Green Street in Philadelphia for most of his life, but his five daughters were all born in Germantown, probably in the home of his wife's parents, Jacob and Harriet McCalla Mehl. Ellen died shortly after 1870, possibly from childbirth complications following the birth of her daughter Emily in December of that year. George lived thereafter with his daughters Elizabeth (Lizzie), Mary, Carrie, Helen and Emily; though the other daughters eventually moved out one by one, Lizzie never married, and continued to live with her father and care for him until his death at the age of 90 (she died within five years thereafter). They were a reasonably affluent family, inasmuch as they had three live-in servants from 1870 to 1920, though one of them, Blanche Balles (born 1870), was listed as a "friend" in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. Whether she was a "friend" of George or of Lizzie remains unknown.

In 1881 Fiss was among the first collectors in Philadelphia to begin mounting microscopic mineral specimens for study. In fact, he is considered, along with George G. Rakestraw (1827-1904), who began making mounts in the late 1870's, to be a co-founder of the hobby of micromounting (Wills, 1931). However, it appears from surviving correspondence of the British mineral dealer Bryce Wright (Wight, 1993) that William W. Jefferis (1820-1906) began collecting microminerals and mounting them for study much earlier, in the early 1850's, and Dr. J. C. Green of West Chester, Pennsylvania began making mounts as early as 1861.

Fiss was apparently not aware of these other early micromounters. He used small brass enclosure rings glued to standard glass microscope slides for his mounts, then changed to small 1-inch pasteboard boxes in the early 1880's. The use of the boxes was pioneered by Rakestraw, but Fiss was the first to blacken the insides of the boxes to eliminate unwanted reflections, and to affix the specimens on small, carefully shaped cork pedestals. Fiss, who was noted in his day for the quality of his specimens as well as the craftsmanship of his mounts, taught many of his friends and fellow collectors how to make micromounts.

Charles Palache (1951) remembered him thus:
  Mr. George W. Fiss was a noble looking man, tall with a full snowy
  white beard, splendid carriage and a most charming voice and smile. On
  my rare visits to Philadelphia he would promptly give me a huge and
  very strong cigar and plant me at his rotating table with the tall
  Zentmeyer binocular microscope. He always had new mounts and problems
  of identification. Hours would pass, and between the fumes of
  nicotine, the smell of the parafin lamp which he always used and
  eyestrain, I would find myself physically exhausted until I could not
  tell quartz from galena at the evening's end. But I found an unending
  fascination in his careful preparations. I believe he much advanced
  the art of making these mounts. He was a dear friend--modest, kind and
  humble.


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Fiss also had a close relationship with the two leading American mineral dealers of his day, Albert E. Foote (1846-1895) and George L. English (1864-1944), both of whom had their offices in Philadelphia--though English relocated to New York in 1892. Fiss obtained much of his working material from them. In fact, English sold Fiss finished mounts prepared for him by George Rakestraw. Fiss also obtained many specimens for mounting from the New York mineral dealer Lazard Cahn (1865-1940) before Cahn moved to Colorado Springs around 1915.

Despite his enthusiastic work as a micromounter, Fiss was modest regarding his own qualifications as an amateur mineralogist of any sort. He was also a bird-watcher and horticulturist, but when invited to attend a botanical symposium in 1904, he responded:
  Since our old friend the Doctor left us I have given practically no
  attention to botanical matters, my intent being centered in building
  up my collection of microscopic mineral crystals to the exclusion of
  all other hobbies. I say "hobbies" because these branches have really
  been so to me, and I have never ventured to call myself a student in
  any department of natural history.


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The Two Fiss Micromount Collections

Fiss was also a close friend of the great Philadelphia collector Clarence S. Bement (1843-1923) (Peters and Pearson, 1990). Beginning around 1897 he helped Bement build a micromount collection and eventually acquired it for himself as well. Then, after taking what he wanted from it, he offered it for sale to his friend Albert Fairchild Holden of Cleveland. Fiss recounted the history of the Bement micromount collection in a letter to Holden dated August 21, 1912:
  I began making a collection of these micro minerals in 1881, when I
  found I had neither time nor money to make a collection of first class
  cabinet specimens and so decided to gather crumbs that came from your
  big collectors tables and I believe I am the first to attempt to
  gather these scraps systematically. Bement from the first took a warm
  interest in what I was doing. Together we went over his large
  collection and broke off any micro things when it could be done
  without injury to the cabinet specimen.
    Whenever there was a duplicate, I mounted it and set it aside for
  him, for he said "if ever I part with my large minerals I will take up
  this branch." In this way up to [1900] when he sold his collection I
  had accumulated for him quite a good many mounts including material I
  had gotten from dealers and from correspondents in the West and
  elsewhere. He also bought a selection of 500 mounts from another party
  [G. G. Rakestraw] who had taken up the work. All these I remounted for
  him. He then took up in earnest (after he sold his collection in
  [1900]) to collect micro material and begin work with the microscope.
    You know his collecting habit, and on his yearly trips to Europe he
  searched everywhere for suitable material and except for his
  enthusiasm in this line, I believe some of his trips would never have
  been made. In this way he added many fine and rare things to both our
  cabinets without regard to cost. We always had an understanding that
  in case of the death of either, the survivor was to inherit the
  [micromount] collection of the other. Happily he is still living and
  in good health, but unhappily his eyesight has failed. He has many
  times said "You take my collection for I cannot enjoy it anymore."
  This I always declined to do and finally he agreed to sell it to me at
  a nominal price.


Fiss went through the Bement micromount collection after purchasing it and took out those specimens that he needed to upgrade or fill gaps in his own collection. He then replaced most of the ones he had taken with lesser duplicates from his own collection. Holden was quite happy to buy the Bement collection from Fiss, even though it had been high-graded in this manner. In fact, two other collectors had also expressed an interest in it: a Mr. Nicol and "Dr. Goldschmidt," both of whom were sorely disappointed that Holden had gotten it instead.

As it turned out, Fiss kept for himself between a third and a half of the Bement collection, replacing those taken with his own duplicates, for the most part, but also with 77 specimens from J. B. Brinton, Frank J. Keeley and L. C. Wills, and another 56 mounts from five different unidentified collectors. The Bement micromount collection as received by Holden consisted of a total of 2,278 mounts representing 475 species as catalogued at the time (of which 435 remain valid today).

Unfortunately, Holden never even got to examine his purchase. Fiss shipped the collection to him in early September 1912, and soon thereafter Holden was hospitalized and died of abdominal cancer. The Bement collection with its many substitutions, as packed for shipment by Fiss, had never been opened when it was passed on to the Harvard Mineralogical Museum in the spring of 1913, as part of Holden's bequest of his main collection of cabinet specimens. The collection is preserved today in the Harvard Mineralogical Museum, except for a substantial number of duplicates which were distributed by Harvard to various micromounters of the day. To distinguish this collection from what Fiss considered to be his personal collection, we shall refer to it here as the "Fiss-Holden" collection, whereas Fiss's personal collection, which later went to his friend Frank Keeley and thence to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, shall be referred to as the "Fiss-Keeley" collection.

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The Fiss-Holden Collection

The specimen boxes in the Fiss-Holden collection, like those in the Fiss-Keeley collection, are characterized by a rectangular gummed label with his initials ("GWF") and "PHILA" affixed to the bottom, and another with the species and locality neatly written on the lid. On a few of Fiss's oldest mounts the bottom labels are printed on green paper rather than white, and many of the mounts carry a serial number written in red ink on the lower left corner of the lid and the base. These numbers probably refer to catalog entries, but more importantly they perform the vital function of assuring that the lid (with species and locality data) can always be matched up correctly with the corresponding box in which the specimen is held. Chemical class and crystal system are noted in abbreviated form on the inside of the lids. Fiss was so meticulous that he marked with an "F" the side of the box which should be held facing the viewer, noting that each mount is best viewed with the light coming from the upper left. A recommended power of magnification is also marked on the box in each case.

The Fiss-Keeley Collection

Fiss continued his work on microminerals until a few days before his death at the age of 90. His friend Frank J. Keeley, curator of minerals at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, inherited Fiss's collection following his death in 1925. Much of Fiss's collection, in its attractive mahogany cabinet, as well as his microscope, accessories and revolving table, was presented by Frank Keeley to the Philadelphia Academy in 1949. Some Fiss specimens from the Fiss-Holden collection also found their way into the collection of the late Lou Perloff and subsequently went to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. In 2007 much of the mineral collection of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences was sold to a consortium of three mineral dealers; one of the three, California mineral dealer and micromounter Wayne Leicht, obtained the Fiss-Keeley collection as part of the transaction.

The Fiss-Keeley collection is still kept in its original two-column cabinet of drawers with glass-windowed doors. Each drawer in the cabinet has four small trays, each containing 20 micromounts (four across and five down). The boxes are paper fiberboard with black bottoms and red tops. The red is mostly covered with a white paper label and a white strip of paper wrapped around the sides of the top.

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There are some specimens that have vanished over the years, and also some that have decomposed. If the latter were removed (depending on what you would consider decomposed beyond use), there would probably be something over 2,100 specimens remaining in the collection. The overall quality is very high, and most micromounters today would not be able to achieve a collection of comparable depth and quality. The mounting of the specimens is, contrary to Fiss's reputation, rather careless in the shaping of the corks, often employing corks much larger than the specimen and very crudely cut to size. Often the specimens are not centrally mounted in the box and one wonders whether, over the years, the specimen/adhesive bond has suffered some "creep," and the specimens have slid off to one side.

The micromounts are arranged alphabetically by species. They are numbered consecutively in the upper left corner of the top label, in blue ink, running from #1 for the first specimen, an adamite from Greece, to #2230, a "zydadite" (variety of albite). In the lower left corner is a catalog number in red ink. Gaps have apparently been filled by empty boxes marked "missing," probably inserted after Fiss's time by an Academy curator. The person who inserted the empty boxes knew what should have been in the box and, in most instances, where it was from (probably by reference to the Fiss-Keeley collection catalog, which survives in the Academy archives). The consecutive numbering was probably added at a later time to make it easier to see whether any specimens had been taken from the collection. Had it been an active collection, such a numbering system would not have been used because it would not allow for any further additions; obviously it was a "frozen" collection being preserved intact at the time the consecutive numbers were added.

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On the inside of the lid is written, in pencil, a notation about the chemistry of the main species on the specimen and the crystal system, for example, "Carb-Cop, Mono" for an azurite. On the bottom of the box is a rectangular label printed in black ink with the initials "GWF" and "PHILA." and a repetition of the catalog numbers mentioned above. In addition, on the sides of the bottom black boxes are written in black pencil other numbers like "8/10" or "1 1/2," which are magnification numbers relating to the recommended choice of microscope objectives, and "F," indicating which side should be oriented toward the "Front" (i.e. facing the viewer). Not all the boxes carry an "F." On many of the sides of the tops is a three digit number like "187" which is present on some but not all of the azurite specimens. The barites carry the number "719," the cacites are "270," cinnabars are "66," coppers are "15," etc. We at first thought these to be Dana numbers, but the numbers do not match up with those in any edition of Dana's System, and instead probably refer to some now-lost master list of species represented in the collection, numbered in the order in which they were acquired.

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Incorporated into the collection are some specimens added by Frank Keeley. These are in identical boxes that have a pale blue paper label on the top of the box marked "F.J. Keeley" along the bottom edge. The quality of these mounts, while good, is not generally up to the quality standard of the Fiss specimens.

The best of the micromounts have a little "x" in the upper right-hand corner of the top of the box. The very best have "xx," "xxx" or even "xxxx" in the upper right corner. The specimens marked in this way are not necessarily the best, at least to modern eyes, but must have been Fiss's favorites for one reason or another. In a few cases the person who supplied the specimen is also noted on the top label, e.g. Genth, Palache or Penfield (this is typical of Lazard Cahn mounts).

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Some other random observations: There are many more adamites from Laurium, Greece than from Mapimi (only one). It is surprising to see Fairfield phosphates at this early date, as well as cyanotrichite and brochantite from the Last Chance mine (today known as the Grandview mine) in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. Tiger was not a producing locality back then, but one wulfenite from "Schulz, Arizona" was noted. Many good caledonites are present, but none from Tiger. Cuprites seemed to have been a favorite of Fiss, and he kept more of them than their quality would seem to warrant. The minerals from Vesuvius are well represented, perhaps as well as those from Franklin, New Jersey.

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Incidentally, it is interesting to note, with regard to microcrystals, that Fiss found a way to prove that no two snowflakes are alike. He is said to have developed a hot-wax photographic plate method of capturing snowflakes and then developing the plate. He produced four albums of plates; three were given to the Yale library and one to a daughter.

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Conclusions

We are remarkably fortunate today that the two historic Fiss collections have come down to us in such a good state of preservation. They represent a window in time when many specimens unavailable today could still be acquired, and also a place, Philadelphia, that holds a hallowed position in the long history of mineralogy and mineral collecting. The photos shown here (all drawn from the Fiss-Keeley collection) depict micromineral specimens having an elite historical pedigree--specimens that were studied, enjoyed and discussed by some of mineralogical history's most interesting and notable characters. Those old gentlemen would surely be amazed and delighted by the idea of such a publication as this for all collectors to enjoy.

Acknowledgments

Our sincere thanks to Wayne C. Leicht for granting the authors access to the collection so that it could be studied, and for loaning the specimens pictured here for photography. Thanks also to Eileen C. Mathias, information services librarian at the Ewell Sale Stewart Library in the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, for providing us with a complete photocopy of the Fiss-Keeley Collection catalog, prepared by Frank Keeley in 1949 just before his death.

References

PALACHE, C. (1951) Recollections of three Philadelphia mineralogists. Rocks & Minerals, 26 (9-10), 456-459.

PETERS, J. J., and PEARSON, C. L. (1990) Clarence S. Bement, the consummate collector. Mineralogical Record, 21, 47-62.

WIGHT, Q. (1993) The Complete Book of Micromounting. Mineralogical Record, Tucson.

WILLS, L. C. (1931) The preparation of micro mounts. Rocks & Minerals, 6 (4), 152.

Wendell E. Wilson (1), Rock H. Currier (2), Carl A. Francis (3), and Sugar White (4)

(1) Mineralogical Record, 4631 Paseo Tubutama, Tucson, Arizona 85750, Email: minrec@earthlink.net

(2) Jewel Tunnel Imports, 13100 Spring Street, Baldwin Park, California 91706, Email: rockcurrier@cs.com

(3) Harvard University, Mineralogical Museum, 24 Oxford Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, Email: francis@eps.harvard.edu

(4) 7686 West Copper Nugget Drive, Tucson, Arizona 85735, Email: sugar@white3.net
Table 1. Some especially notable specimens in the Fiss-Keeley
collection. Three-star specimens (presumably Fiss's favorites) are shown
in bold. Locality information added by deduction is shown in square
brackets.

Amarantite, Tocopilla Province Antofagasta Region, Chile [probably from
  the type locality: Caracoles, Sierra Gorda District], no. 28***
Anhydrite, Aussee, Styria, Austria, no. 73
Apatite and Rhodochrosite [Mt. Mica], Auburn, Maine, no. 85
Apatite and Epidote [probably Knappenwand, Untersulzbachtal], Sulzbach,
  Tyrol, no. 96
Apatite, St. Gotthard, Switzerland, no. 98
Aphthitalite, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, eruption of 1893, no. 109
Apophyllite and copper, Lake Superior [Upper Michigan], no. 120
Apophyllite on quartz, Guanajuato, Mexico, no. 124
Argentopyrite, Joachimsthal, Bohemia, no. 144
Arsenolite, Le Monteel, Loire, France, no. 150
Atacamite, Sierra Gorda, Chile no. 169
Atelestite, Schneeberg, Saxony, no. 174
Aurichalcite and Calcite [Kelly mine], Magdalena, New Mexico, no. 178
Axinite, Franklin, New Jersey, no. 188
Azurite and Carminite, Tintic, Utah, no. 197
Barite, Frostberg, Maryland no. 230 and 231***
Barite and Quartz [Frizington?], Cumberland, England no. 235
Binnite [=tennantite], Binnental, Switzerland no. 261***
Biotite, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, no. 265
Cabrerite [=Annabergite], Laurium, Greece, no. 338
Cacoxenite, Waldgirmes, Nassau, Germany, no. 339
Calamine, Franklin, New Jersey, no. 345
Calcite and pyrochroite, Franklin, New Jersey, no. 369
Copper in calcite and copper in quartz [rare!], Lake Superior [Upper
  Michigan], no. 376
Calcite on descloizite, Georgetown, New Mexico, no. 383
Calcite on amethyst, Guanajuato, Mexico, no. 386
Caledonite, Inyo Co. California, no. 394
Cassiterite, Durango, Mexico (twins), no. 407
Cerargyrite, Centennial mine, Eureka, Utah, no. 424
Cerussite and Pyromorphite, Wallace, Idaho no. 434 and 436***
Cerussite and Aurichalcite, Kelly mine, New Mexico no. 444
Chalcopyrite, Pribram, Bohemia, no. 484
Childrenite, G & C mines, Cornwall, England, no. 494
Chondrodite twin, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, no. 501
Cinnabar, Redington mine, Napa Co., California, no. 513
Clinochlore, Pfitsch, Tyrol, Austria, no. 525
Clinohumite and magnetite, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, (Penfield), no. 538
Cookeite, Paris Hill [Mt. Mica], Maine, no. 552
Copper on analcime, Lake Superior [Michigan], no. 568
Copper on analcime, Lake Superior [Michigan], no. 569***
Cuprite, chalcotrichite, Bisbee, Arizona, no. 614
Cuprite, National mine, Lake Superior [Michigan], no. 621
Dalalite, Bartlett, New Hampshire, (Palache), no. 656
Descloizite, Cordoba, Argentina, no. 686
Dolomite, Lengenbach Quarry, Binnental, Switzerland, no. 728
Egglestonite, Terlingua, Texas, no. 736
Endlichite, Lake Valley, New Mexico, no. 755 [many good ones]
Euchroite, Libethen, Hungary, no. 795
Eulytite, Schneeberg, Saxony, Germany, no. 801 and 802***
Fiedlerite, and Laurionite, Laurium, Greece, no. 812***
Fluorite, Lake City, Colorado, no. 825
Franklinite, Franklin, New Jersey, (Palache), no. 849
Franklinite in Willemite, Franklin New Jersey, no. 854***
Friedelite, Harstig mine, Pajsberg, Sweden, no. 857
Garnet, Chaffee Co., Colorado, no. 891
Garnet and Diopside, Ala, Piedmont, Italy, no. 899
Garnet and Anglesite, Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia, no. 919
Gold and Quartz, California, no. 953
Goethite, Crystal Peak, Teller Co. Colorado, no. 976
Goethite, Best mine, Cornwall, England, no. 977
Guarinite on ryacolite, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, no. 993
Hancockite and Axinite, Franklin, New Jersey, no. 1008
Helvite, quartz and pink dolomite, Kapnik, Hungary, no. 1026
Hematite and ferruginous Quartz, Cumberland, England, no. 1041
Hematite, France, no. 1043
Hematite, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, no. 1058
Heulandite, Jones Falls, Maryland, no. 1072
Holdenite, Franklin, New Jersey, (Palache, type), no. 1086
Humite, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, no. 1093
Hyalite, Queretaro, Mexico, no. 1096
Johannite, Joachimisthal, Bohemia, no. 1139
Lanarkite and Leadhillite, Leadhills, Scotland, no. 1162
Lanthanite [Ueberroth mine, Friedensville], Saucon Valley, Pennsylvania,
  no. 1166
Laurionite and Phosgenite, Laurium, Greece, no. 1173
Leadhillite, Leadhills, Scotland, no. 1179
Libethenite, Cornwall, England, no. 1192
Linnaeite, Musen near Siegen, Prussia, no. 1209
Liroconite and Pharmacosiderite, Cornwall, England, no. 1210***
Liroconite, Cornwall, England, no. 1213 (John B.Brinton mount)
Lorandite and Realgar, Alchar, Macedonia, Greece, no. 1216
Magnetite and Biotite, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, no. 1234
Malachite, Mojave Co. California, no. 1239
Meionite, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, no. 1284
Melanophlogite (twin) on celestine, Sicily, Italy, no. 1285
Melanotekite, Hillsboro, Sierra Co. New Mexico, no. 1287
Meneghinite, Bottino, Tuscany, Italy, no. 1291
Mimetite and Carminite, Centennial mine, Eureka, Utah, no. 1331
Natrochalcite, Chuquicamata, Chile, no. 1361
Niccolite, Eisleben, Saxony, Germany, no. 1380
Parisite, Quincy, Massachusetts, no. 1451
Petzite and Gold, Sonora, California, no. 1463
Pharmacosiderite, Tintic, Utah, no. 1470
Phillipsite, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, no. 1485
Phillipsite and Calcite, Richmond, Victoria, Australia, no. 1487
Phosgenite, Laurium, Greece, no. 1490***
Plumbogummite and Mimetite, Drygill, Cumberland, England, no. 1506
Proustite, O'Brien mine, Cobalt, Ontario, Canada, no. 1527
Pucherite, Pucher mine, Schneeberg, Saxony, Germany, no. 1541
Pyrite on Quartz, Middletown, Connecticut, no. 1560
Pyromorphite, Cornwall, England, no. 1614
Pyroxene and Biotite, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, no. 1636
Quartz, Amelia Co. Virginia, no. 1654
Quartz and Copper, Lake Superior [Upper Michigan], no. 1662
Rubies (artificial) Professor Fremy, Paris, France, no. 1710
Rutile on Corundum, Franklin, New Jersey, no. 1713
Rutile, Alexander Co., North Carolina, no. 1720
Schneebergite, Schneeberg, Saxony, Germany, no. 1759
Schwarzenbergite, Chile, no. 1760
Scorodite, Tintic mine, Eureka, Utah, no. 1764
Sideronatrite on Krohnkite, Chuquicamata, Chile, no. 1796
Sphalerite, Binnenthal, Switzerland, no. 1859
Sphalerite, Musen, Prussia, Germany, no. 1866***
Spinel, Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, no. 1882
Stephanite, Xanthoconite and Proustite, Cobalt, Ontario, Canada, no.
  1895
Sternbergite, Joachimsthal, Bohemia, no. 1902
Stolzite and Embolite, Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia, no. 1927
Sulfur and Cinnabar, Lake Co. California, no. 1939
Sulfur, Artifical, (Palache), no. 1946
Svabite, Harstig mine, Pajsberg, Sweden, no. 1954
Synadelphite and Allactite, Nordmark, Sweden, no. 1963
Tennantite, Cornwall, England, no. 1978
Tephroite, Franklin, New Jersey, no. 1984
Terlinguaite/Montroydite etc Terlingua, Texas, no. 1985, 1986
Titanite (twin), Binnental, Switzerland, no. 2019
Torbernite (Metatorbernite), Cornwall, England, no. 2036
Walpurgite, Neustadtal, Saxony, Germany, no. 2120***
Wavellite, Chester Co. Pennsylvania, no. 2132
Willemite and Franklinite, Franklin, New Jersey, no. 2142
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Date:Mar 1, 2008
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