By Dave Waisman
Collecting Minerals: The Hobby of Kings and Common Folk
Minerals are ubiquitous in the modern world as we know it. They are our houses and our cars. Minerals are the copper wire for electricity, gypsum our walls, and quartz our windows. Minerals are in our medicines and even in our computers. That is to say minerals are common. But they also are rare. And they are fine, like art.
Those collected by kings throughout recent history are not common. These are the specimens seen in museums and are the uncommon analogues of the common grade minerals that make up our “things” of daily life. They may have mineral names such as calcite, garnet, fluorite or rhodochrosite. They form in the same manner and the same geological processes that form the common varieties, but these uncommon, aesthetically “higher grade” specimens form in extraordinary and indeed rarer geological environments These minerals have unique crystals of striking size, color, symmetric form and beauty. They are inert, inorganic, solid precipitates of Earth’s waters and gases. These are Earth’s “art”, created by a brew of chemicals encountering just the right environment in Earth’s subsurface and hidden from view to be found years after formation. And they are very collectible.
Nature’s mineral art of this rare, inorganic kind only comes in few species compared to the abundance of living art as insects or plants. Known species of insects number near one million. The number of butterfly species on Earth alone is over 20 thousand! Yet, the number of known mineral species is only over 4000 and of these only 100 species or so are the ones prized by collectors.
Unlike insects or plants, these mineral prizes never die, don’t wilt or easily decay. Most crystals have hidden in veins, cracks or watercourses in rocks of the crust much longer than any living thing on Earth. In fact, not just millions of years, but tens and even hundreds of millions of years may have passed before those specimens see the light of day and find their way to a display case shelf.
Why collect minerals? Collecting minerals for scientific purposes, as a researcher, or to acquire systematically each attainable species, as the bird watcher marks down his or her sightings, is what motivates some collectors. Purchasing minerals as an investment should never be your main focus unless you become an expert. That is not to say that collectible mineral pieces are not valuable -- they are. Specimens that sold for $100 ten years ago might sell for $1000 or more today. Exceptional pieces that sold for tens of thousands of dollars twenty years ago, may very well sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s market. Quality, of course, counts – sharp, large, brightly-colored crystals with no damage and a contrasting matrix hold their value. On the other hand, something that looks like it belongs on your driveway usually ends up there.
Why do I collect minerals? Although collecting purely for aesthetics, overlooking rarity, provenance or other virtues, is often frowned upon by some collectors, seeing the beauty of minerals as “Nature’s art” is a much more accepted manner of collecting minerals today and clearly one of the reasons I collect minerals. Nature can indeed make an “artistic” expression. Furthermore, this inorganic art is inert and if cared for will last much more than a single human lifetime.
Art by Nature is unique. As a young boy collecting coins, pennies actually, I always wanted the 1909-S VDB in uncirculated condition. If I found one and my friend down the street also had one, I knew they would be identical in every way. After all, the government minted them each the same. But, as a mineral collector, if I have a beautiful dioptase from Namibia and so does my friend, there is no way that Nature made them identical.
I collect minerals because I am in awe of what Nature creates. These are naturally occurring, precipitated mineral crystals as unique forms of Nature. These colorful sculptures have been hidden in rock cavities in far off places, or just around the corner, just waiting for someone to find them and make them available.
They are very beautiful, and adding to their mystique, they often look as though they were formed by man, not Nature. I often show my collection to someone who has never seen such things made by Nature and the question is “How did you make that?” I kindly note that Nature did it without my help.
That something so beautiful, so complex and so symmetrically shaped can be found in the Earth is a wonderful discovery indeed. That Nature made all of these incredible crystals that I can possess, and display, and appreciate is what makes mineral collecting so wonderful.
I must have more.
Dave Waisman (email@example.com) organizes the Westward Look Mineral Show, and in 2008, organized a show in Dallas.