Building a great collection of fine minerals involves a few fundamentals. Excellent articles have been written on the subject of what makes a connoisseur, what connoisseurs consider, what makes mineral specimens desirable, and what it takes to build a world-class collection of minerals. I list selected ones at the end of this post and I highly recommend every one. These authors are connoisseurs with decades of experience, and it’s our privilege to be able to learn from them.
My own perspective here is just a little different. It is of paramount importance to know what is involved in connoisseurship, and in fact many of us happily strive until we get there – it’s a great challenge. However, for me, the fun and the amazing experience is in the journey itself. Enjoying mineral collecting doesn’t require anyone to start with world-class specimens, or even have a world-class collection or specimen, although we may all aim for that and we may be lucky enough to arrive there some day. You can be anywhere along the road and enjoying the experience, having a great mineral collection that makes you happy every day, and you have a significant role in refining what “great mineral collection” means for you personally.
So here are what I think of as seven keys to building a great mineral collection – master these, and you will be there.
1. First, Think Through What You Really Want
Most of us only really think of this much later on, once we’re way into it, even if in hindsight it would have been so great to have started here. Of all of the fundamentals, this one is probably the hardest to get a handle on, in part because real experience helps you answer it for yourself (and so to start with it can be a bit of a chicken and egg problem, but anyway…). I would strongly encourage you to think about this early, and often, as you invest years and a lot of money in a collection. It is something you will keep thinking about as you progress.
What do you want from mineral collecting and your mineral collection? You might consider this by referring to the points I set out in Mineral Collecting: Is it For Me? where I describe the things I personally get out of mineral collecting. I would also recommend Rock Currier’s writings in this context (see reference below). Which ones are important for you? If mineral collecting for you is more about personal connection to nature, for example, than other factors, you will build a different collection than you would if significance and competition was most important to you.
Regardless of how you answer this question, mineral collecting is for your enjoyment, and the best part of this gig is that you get to set many of your own rules, so set yourself up to enjoy it and succeed by understanding from the outset what you will enjoy, and what you will define success to be. Define what a great mineral collection means to you, so that you can achieve it!
It’s really worth thinking this through. Once you have some concrete ideas about it, I would even suggest writing notes in your smartphone (or somewhere) so you can remind yourself at important moments – for example, when you are at a mineral show or a great website and want to buy everything in sight because they are all just so cool – it’s really good to be able to remember your own goals.
It would be really easy to say “my goal is to have the best” – and that’s a critically important thought every collector should include in a particular way, so I’ll come back to it under Key #6 below. But if you set out with nothing more in your mind about your collection than simply that you want really only “the best” – by which I mean a collection of mineral specimens that are truly world-class by the standards of the mineral collecting elite – you are setting yourself up for some really hard moments unless you have unlimited funds, unlimited time, unlimited space and resources, and are uncommonly able to be in the right place at the right time. You may well have world-class specimens in your collection, now or in future, but if the only thing you have in mind is “the best”, you’ll miss out on a lot of amazing things in the world of minerals!
Once you’ve thought about this a bit, just take the bull by the horns. (You can refine and change later – most of us do, in some way.) What kind of collection do you think you’d like to build? What drives you? What fascinates you? And what practical considerations like financial and space resources come into the equation? Do you want a wide-open, no-limits kind of collection? Would you prefer a collection that has focus? Would you limit yourself to higher-end specimens only? Does the challenge of collecting as many species as possible beckon to you?
If you are not new to mineral collecting, you will know about ther kinds of collections people build, and you may already have a focus or a specialty (or none at all). But in case this is a new topic for you, there are various ways to approach this and here are some examples:
Wide Open – No Limits
You can choose to be unlimited in what you collect. I personally chose this route. The great part about it is that you can add anything you like to your collection.
Ultimate freedom to love the mineral specimens that grab you. Nothing suggesting what you “should” add to your collection. The challenge is endless. And it’s a great way to go. You do need thorough knowledge of the factors that are considered to characterize fine mineral specimens and connoisseurship, and after that, it’s all open. But this does have some potential drawbacks for some people, so you might want to think about whether these matter to you personally: it is hard to achieve significance (if having a collect that stands out in comparison to others matters to you), it is hard to become a true expert, it could easily be more expensive than any of us can afford or reasonably justify spending on minerals and so it (if this last one doesn’t apply to you, that’s awesome), it can take more space than you have, and your collection will likely always be very “incomplete”. I personally had no problem facing up to any of those – in fact, for example, I always loved it that the collection could never be called “complete”. If your collection is very far from “complete”, that means a new challenge is always out there – who the heck cares if you’re missing representatives of key minerals? You can always see those in other ways. You have mineral specimens you enjoy, and a challenge that never runs out, and so what could be better? However that was just my choice. Many people specialize – in part, because they can achieve greater significance with their collection, in less time, and in part because it may seem like it will allow them to get closer to “the best”, although… turns out it’s not that simple…
Specialization by Mineral Type or Geography
The great thing about specializing is that you can scale your mineral collection to suit you. You can choose a single mineral species, or a group of species. You can choose geography or locality – a very common way to specialize – and your choice can be something broad like the minerals of the United States or the minerals of Canada, something more limited like the minerals of a particular region, province or state, or you can even specialize in a single locality. The advantages are obvious – you can collect a mineral specimens within a much more limited scope, you can become an expert, and you can stand out from many others. You can also devote your time and money within one specific field and so you may develop a higher calibre collection (taken as a whole, if that matters to you) than you might have done otherwise. But of course nothing in life is perfect, and there is a disadvantage, which you may or may not care about and may or may not be relevant to the specialization you choose: depending on what you choose, you may well not be the only one with that specialty, and in fact there may be many people with that specialty, so there can be serious competition for specimens within a specialty. It’s no issue at all if you don’t care about such things, or if an area of specialization is any of a large number of broader ones, but it does mean that it can be just as hard, or sometimes harder, to be as close to the level of “the best” or “complete” as you might like.
In contrast to the ultimate freedom of the wide open collection, having a specialty will drive your collection in a particular direction. For example, if you specialize in one mineral, and there is a significant new find of that mineral, you should add a specimen from that find. Or if your geographic region produces something new of significance, you will feel that you should add it. The good news is, obviously, if you’ve chosen your area of specialization well, you’d be naturally inclined to add those specimens anyway even if you had not chosen an area of specialization!
There are of course many other ways to specialize. Explore whatever inspires you. For example, it could be something like “gem minerals”, or minerals from a particular type of deposit (such as pegmatite minerals or ore minerals), or maybe fluorescent minerals. Or it could be a specialization related to the kind of specimen – a collection of single crystals, for example (crystals with no matrix).
Limiting your Collection by Size
For so many reasons, size is an important thing to think about, regardless of whether you use it to limit your collection. In fact, I feel so strongly about this one that I have written a separate post about it – Size Matters!. I favour at least a little bit of flexibility when it comes to size – personally I think of size considerations more as guidelines than actual rules – (Captain Barbossa’s view of the Pirate’s Code… but I digress…). Some collectors are very strict about this, and impose size restrictions to dictate the development of their collection, which can be as good a way as any to define your collection. And certainly if formal competition matters to you, size specifications are often strict. Size restriction does relate to other aspects of what you appreciate about minerals – the smaller you are willing to go, the more likely you are to achieve incredibly high quality, and of course many of the mineral species simply don’t occur in larger sizes, so if you are interested in a large number of species, small specimens will work well anyway.
2. Quality, Quality, Quality
“There are three things that matter in property: location, location, location.” Often attributed to British real estate tycoon Lord Harold Samuel, this has become a timeless statement of a principle in the real estate industry. Of course there are more things that matter in real estate, but we get the idea. When it comes to collecting fine minerals, the three things that matter are quality, quality, quality.
Like real estate, sure, this is a major over-simplification of a complex subject. There are many factors to consider and you will want to know them all cold, and you should have your own view on every one of them. They are discussed more in Key # 3, next.
But to me, quality rules the day.
Of course, insisting on “perfect” quality can also be taken to extremes and will leave you in an absolutely impossible place – if you inspect perfect-looking cabinet or even miniature specimens with magnification, you will almost always find a nick or a chip not immediately visible to the eye, particularly once you get to magnification. True perfection is most often unattainable (micros excepted). At some point, an insistence on high quality can verge on obsessive and unhelpful, and yes, I have been there. If you insist on complete true perfection, you could find yourself unable to enjoy the vast majority of mineral specimens, even fine ones. Some level of damage (hopefully nominal, often only visible with magnification, or peripheral) is going to be part of virtually all mineral collections – it’s a matter of what level you choose is acceptable for you. Some minerals, particularly the very rare, are not even available in undamaged specimens – or if it is possible to obtain one, the price may be beyond the reach of any mere mortal. And some specimens you field collected may have perfection in many regards, like a perfect crystal or more, but may not be perfect all the way around – you’ll still treasure the specimens you collect yourself.
So what level is “right”, or acceptable? It’s personal, but within some guidelines. There should be no visual distraction from damage. Of course that’s a subjective statement – what distracts one person may not distract the next – but if you are looking at a specimen, think about whether a reasonable knowledgeable collector would say that there is damage which is visually distracting.
My best advice is set the bar as high as you can, particularly when buying minerals. This will enable you to have a top quality collection and enjoy the minerals all along the way. My own personal level of acceptable damage is none evident visually, or extremely low and not visually distracting from the main viewing angle, and I hope that’s obvious from this website.
I insist upon excellent quality from the front, main, optimal viewing angle. I do not typically insist upon 360 degree freedom from damage, and certainly not 360 degrees in all dimensions – because it’s almost impossible and I’d be able to enjoy few minerals if I did that. Almost all specimens have points where they were originally attached to the host rock and had to be removed, so there will be points of attachment or rough broken rock evidencing that removal. (On this subject, it is possible to find “floaters” – specimens of crystals that are complete all around and formed suspended in a liquid with no points of attachment – but floaters are relatively limited in occurrence.) There are collectors who do expect every specimen in their collection to have only a point of attachment at the bottom of the specimen, and for the specimen to be otherwise damage and contact-free in 360 degrees. Exclusive club.
Before I move on from this subject, just a note about the terms “damage” and “contacts”. Usually the term damage is used to denote damage caused by human activity, although it can also apply to naturally broken crystals. There is another concept which affects many mineral specimens and that is the notion of a “contact” or that a specimen is “contacted”. A “contact” on a mineral specimen is an area of the specimen where the crystals naturally grew up against something else – sometimes it was another crystal, and others it will simply have been the other side of the vein or pocket, where the crystal cavity did not leave enough space for proper crystal growth. Contacts are obviously viewed as a detraction from specimen perfection, but are not considered to be the same kind of issue for a specimen as damage. Contacts may or may not be visually distracting, which again is a personal consideration. But usually contacts don’t cause the same kind of grief for people that damage does – they are a natural aspect of the mineral specimen’s history and are judged on the basis of how distracting they are. Many specimens cannot be extracted without some kind of contact at least around the periphery.
I’ve written about quality and damage elsewhere on our site too, including in Guidelines for Buying Our Minerals.
Finally I feel I should note that when it comes to some mineral specimens – pieces that are so significant as to stand out among all minerals for what they are – quality becomes only one of many considerations. Maybe it’s like real estate where a unique historic castle on a nondescript out-of-the-way hill will not be considered on a location basis the way a normal house on the same hill would, but in mineral collecting, a world-class specimen for the ages may have been damaged and repaired and/or restored and that fact seems to be overshadowed by the significance of the specimen. If you’d like to read more about mineral specimen treatments and alterations, see Beware the Hand of Man: Fakes, Treatments, Repairs and Other Alterations.
3. Become Super Knowledgeable! Part 1 – Essential Criteria for Fine Mineral Specimens
I could have started with knowledge as Key #1 , as your own knowledge is what will make the difference as to the mineral collection you are able to build.
If you’ve already read the articles I cite at the end of this post, you’ll know that each of them contains a full discussion of various criteria and factors that should be considered by all collectors of fine minerals when buying minerals for a collection, and in particular a display collection. If you haven’t read the articles, they are thoughts from some of the top people in mineral collecting, so it’s really worth tracking them down! Since they already more than do the topic justice, I’m not going to write about the different criteria at any length.
However, in case you have yet to read any of them, here is a list of some essential criteria that everyone in mineral collecting would agree are important in determining the desirability of a mineral specimen, to at least some degree (and depending on the context of a particular specimen) and they will typically impact a specimen’s price:
– overall aesthetics (yes, this is both objective and highly subjective at times)
– excellent crystal development
– physical attributes including colour, transparency and lustre
– provenance (history as to the find and former collections in which the specimen has been included) and
– balanced proportion (size of crystal(s) on matrix).
Very few mineral specimens hit on all of these – they are just each factors to consider. Many will not apply to a given specimen – for example, if a mineral is black, colour won’t matter, but crystal form will, likely; some minerals from a find never have matrix; many specimens have no important provenance, and so on (and we could discuss provenance as a factor some other time… some people rank it highly and others do not). My purpose here is simply to highlight that these are fundamentals, and they are discussed in good thought-provoking writings. Whether or not you ultimately agree with the points made in these writings (you will at least rank the criteria in your own order and may discard a few of them as less important to you), they would be considered generally to be the most commonly applied criteria in discerning differences among – and pricing of – fine mineral specimens.
Once you’ve spent time thinking about these essentials and applying them to the specimens you see (in your collection, online, at shows, in museums and collections) you will have developed this body of knowledge and will be able to refine your thoughts.
4. Become Super Knowledgeable! Part 2 – Minerals and Localities
Part 1 was the easier one. If you’re going to build a great collection, it’s all in the facts you know about minerals and localities. The more you know, the better your acquisition decisions will be. Many people in Mineral Word love sharing and helping others to add to their knowledge – I know I do, and hope that will be obvious from the website.
No matter what help you obtain, the challenge offered by this Key #4 will take you the rest of your life and you still won’t know them all – there is always more we can learn (I love that!). Don’t be daunted – just absorb as you go and you’ll pick things up quickly.
Knowledge of minerals can include: for a mineral, its attributes, how it occurs, what other minerals are often associated with it, how common or rare have fine specimens been over the long term, how many fine specimens have been found, how frequently are specimens available on the market, what are the best specimens that have ever been found and which are the finest in collections.
Knowledge of localities can include all of the factual details (location, history, production), and specifically how many fine mineral specimens has the locality produced, and of what minerals; how often has the locality produced; is the locality still producing fine mineral specimens; how likely is it that the locality will continue to produce specimens, or, if not producing, produce specimens again in the future…
The good news is we really do live in a Golden Age when it comes to fine mineral publications and information (I know I’ve said this in other posts too – it’s true though – this is an amazing time for excellent publications!). There are many high quality enjoyable sources of information on minerals and localities in print and online.
5. Understand Pricing
Mineral specimen pricing can be all over the map, and if you are going to build a great collection it is essential that you develop a feel for how minerals are priced, how different dealers price minerals, and ultimately a good sense about good mineral prices. I feel strongly enough about this issue that I have written a separate post on it – Wild West Economics? Mineral Buying and Mineral Pricing.
6. Golden Rule: Buy the Best You Can Afford
A golden rule of mineral buying, we’ve all learned this one along the way. Buy the best mineral specimen you can afford at the time. When you are building a mineral collection, there is always the temptation to buy many specimens of all sorts of different minerals – they are all so cool – can’t resist! Just one more small one! Be as disciplined as you can. Life is long: you will have lots of time to buy more, and lots of time to rue truly lesser purchases. Buy the highest quality, finest specimens you can. (Of course if we took this one to the extreme we’d all just save indefinitely and never purchase specimens for our collections, so obviously there is moderation and balance required in applying this!)
7. Don’t Let Anyone Shake Your Confidence
Depending on where you are in your mineral collecting, it may be some time before you have developed enough knowledge to have confidence, but if you haven’t, you will. Of course it’s always key to keep your mind open to learning new things, no matter how much you’ve read and experienced, since one of the great things about mineral collecting is that you simply can’t learn it all – there is always more we can learn. But once you have confidence in your knowledge, this last key will become relevant. As with many other things in life, you will likely come across people out there who will voice their opinions about your specimens or your collection. There will be other collectors with their own views, and you may well come across dealers who try to steer you in particular directions. If you’ve read and absorbed what the top writers and collectors in specimen mineralogy have written, and you’ve learned well from trusted dealers, you know your stuff. Once you know the essentials, the mineral collection you build will reflect you personally – your taste, and your own understanding of why you collect minerals. Listen politely and then stay the course, building the great collection you have happily chosen to build.
Articles – Recommended Reading:
Currier, Rock H. About Mineral Collecting (2009) Series of essays by the author published in The Mineralogical Record, compiled into a single inexpensive soft-cover publication. Impossible not to become engaged by the writing style. I think this is one of the best reads ever put together for mineral collectors! (I can’t recommend this highly enough.)
Halpern, Jack. “Criteria for Selecting Crystallized Mineral Specimens for a Display Collection” published in the March-April 2005 issue of The Mineralogical Record. Perhaps my favourite article on the criteria that make a fine mineral specimen.
Smale, Steve. The Smale Collection: Beauty in Natural Crystals. In the “Introduction”, the author describes his perspectives on the criteria that make a great mineral specimen. (Edited by Gloria Staebler and Gunther Neumeier, Published by Lithographie LLC). Beautiful Jeff Scovil photographs of a remarkable collection, and in particular the author’s insight into the concept of “horizons” in viewing mineral specimens is great.
Thompson, Wayne A. Ikons: Classics and Contemporary Masterpieces (2007) Supplement to The Mineralogical Record. In particular, the chapter entitled “Desirability Factors in Mineral Specimens.” Amazing publication with many insights and lots of photographs of world-class mineral specimens.
Wilson, Wendell E. “The Discerning Eye”, an essay published in Bartsch, Joel A. and Wilson, Wendell E., Masterpieces of the Mineral World – Treasures from the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences (2004) (Published by The Houston Museum of Natural Sciences and The Mineralogical Record.) Remarkable publication with photographs of wonderful specimens from the museum’s collection.
Wilson, Wendell E. “Connoisseurship in Mineral Collecting”, an essay in the January-February 1990 issue of The Mineralogical Record. A great early article on the issue, which preceded many subsequent writings by others in the field.