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Size Matters!
Posted by: Raymond McDougall on 12.09.2013 | Filed under: Collectors

Cuprite and Malachite

Almost every collector wishes that he or she had thought more about this from the outset. Size does matter – in more ways than you might think. Large crystals and large mineral specimens can be wonderful and impressive. Everyone who has ever been stopped in their tracks by a stunning large specimen in a museum knows this – it’s a given. But how does that relate to personal mineral collecting? If you are building a mineral collection, there are important size matters to think about:

1. Size and Quality Often Don’t Mix

The larger the specimen, the more likely it is that it will be a lesser quality – not always, of course, but often. One factor in this is that the larger the crystal, the more likely it may have quality issues related to its formation: it may be less sharply formed, or even rounded or distorted in shape, or, for example, if it is a mineral that can be transparent or translucent, a larger crystal is far less likely to be clear and far more likely to be cloudy. The other key aspect of this issue is not related to actual formation: the fact is larger mineral specimens are simply far less likely to be extracted from the ground in perfect condition. It is hard to collect larger things without any damage at all. So, most larger mineral specimens are lower quality than smaller comparable ones.

2. Larger Specimens Can Break the Bank

Since excellent quality larger mineral specimens and crystals are harder to come across, they are more valued. Sounds obvious, but larger excellent specimens are more expensive than smaller ones that are comparable – often many times more expensive. This is obviously key in considering the kind of collection you want to build – cost limits most of us from acquiring everything we might otherwise.

3. Larger Specimens Will Take Your Home!

Most mineral collectors don’t take this seriously enough. I know I’ve been guilty of it, and I have actually been quite restrained compared to many others. If a mineral specimen is important enough to you that you want to add it to your collection, it is important enough to display, house and care for. (If you’d like to read more about this, please see Caring for Mineral Specimens.) It takes no time to run out of room for them, and of course that happens a lot faster the larger the specimens you collect. If you live in a small place, this collection that began as something wonderful can become a bit difficult to look after.

Many collectors have wonderful collections, but they store some part (often a large part) tucked away in boxes, out of sight simply because they have no better place for them. I think it is safe to say that this has happened to the great majority of us, for at least some periods of our lives. And it’s completely silly, when you step back from your collecting passion long enough to think about it. We’ve gone out and either worked incredibly hard to collect them personally, and/or, we’ve gone out and spent serious money on them, and yet they are squirrelled away somewhere we can’t enjoy them and actually no one else can either. At best, they may be safely stored in an appropriate environment for preserving them.

Many collectors in this situation have a plan for “some day”, when they will take a room in the house and turn it into a mineral collection room, or build that addition on the house, or move to a larger house that will have space for the collection. And voila: your mineral collection is now telling you where you will live. I’m willing to bet that no one who begins a mineral collection ever thinks that some day the collection will turn to them and tell them to build or move houses.

Mineral collecting does not have to lead to this, of course. And it can happen even if a collector limits the size of specimens in the collection, but usually it’s size that helps the problem snowball. Size matters! A lot!

4. Be Strategic About Size

So how can you keep your mineral collection under control? Be strategic from the outset.

Think about how you plan to enjoy the minerals, and what kind of collection would best support that. How will you view the specimens, when you are looking at them? Will you be viewing this collection in a cabinet from across a large room? Will you enjoy it mostly by admiring a cabinet or set of shelves close-up? Will you be housing the collection mostly in drawer cabinets?

Will you be enjoying the minerals purely with your own eyes, or will you be enjoying them by taking photographs (which demands perfection not common in larger specimens), or with a microscope (which demands that they be small)?

To me, this process of thinking it all through strategically is a bit similar to what they tell you if you are going to design a house. An architect will tell you that you don’t simply build a house that looks the way you think a house should look, with rooms you think a house should have.

Rather you are told to map out your uses and patterns of movement, and then build to suit those uses. Function first, and overall project aesthetics next.

Some collectors actually end up limiting their collections entirely by the “size category” of their specimens (discussed below) – they will literally only acquire specimens in one size category. This can be a good way to go, although it is only one way, and not actually one I’ve ever chosen personally.

A more flexible approach, where the collection may include a variety of sizes and yet the collector is mindful of size, can be a great approach. For example, you may plan to be using a cabinet with drawers and a small display cabinet for the vast majority of the collection, and at the same time have a few larger visually impressive pieces – who doesn’t love an amazing amethyst from Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil or Artigas, Uruguay, or a mind-blowing pyrite from Navajun, Spain?

5. Explanation of Size Categories

Although there are a few consistently used terms for mineral sizes, the exact definition of these terms differs, depending on the source. For example, the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies (the “AFMS”, the rules of which are applied for U.S. mineral show competitions) has a specified set of dimensions applied to certain terms, while mineral dealers and collectors commonly use slight variations. My goal here is not to suggest that you follow only one or another set of terms – just to set out the categories and approximate common meanings for each:

“Thumbnail” – a specimen that will fit inside a cubic box that is no larger than 3.125cm (1.25″) in any dimension (although I note for example that the current AFMS definition is only 2.5cm/1″)

“Miniature” – as specimen larger than a Thumbnail, but not greater than 5cm (2″) in any dimension

“Small Cabinet” – a specimen that is larger than a Miniature, but not greater than 10cm (4″) in any dimension

“Cabinet” a specimen that is over 10cm (4″) in any dimension

“Micro” or “Micromount” is typically taken to mean a specimen of a mineral that requires magnification to visually identify and appreciate the mineral

6. Size and Your Mineral Collection

In my own experience, of all of the factors that go into building the mineral collection that will make you happiest, size is one of the most critical things to think about. Of course, it is only one of the many factors to consider (see Seven Keys to Building a Great Mineral Collection) and you should consider it in relation to all of them and judge how important it is for you personally. But just as larger size can mean “wonderful and impressive”, that can also be a bit illusory and lead to other issues, and that fact is not always something that we think about when we start out. Smaller crystal specimens are often more beautiful and easier to manage and enjoy.