Competing with Thumbnails: Little Crystals, Big Impact

Sep 27, 2022

By David Tibbits

Over the years, many generations of mineral collectors have participated in mineral competitions at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. This year was no exception, as folks of all ages with different experiences in collecting and collecting interests populated the 2022 TGMS with a large section of competition exhibits. To those who spend hours looking over every case exhibited at the convention center, the competition sections offer a look at the highest quality each collector exhibiting has to offer. I have heard all sorts of questions about mineral competition ever since I put in my first competition display: What even is a mineral competition? How do you determine a winner? What makes a mineral ‘competition worthy’? Usually, after hearing the answer to these sorts of questions, the following question I receive is “How can I sign up?” My goal is to help answer some of these questions throughout this article, and hopefully inspire you to consider competing one day. 

Exhibits at the 2022 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show - David Tibbits Photo

At the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, there are various categories for competition, each divided into five skill levels. Just about any classification of collecting imaginable exists as a category for competition. I have personally competed in the thumbnail size class as well as self-collected minerals and single locality minerals. Other categories include things like single crystals, pseudomorphs, single species, mineral families, or mineral groups. For the most part, the only things required to put in a competition display are: the minerals, labels for the minerals, liners for the walls of the wooden cases, and risers to arrange the minerals on top of. Essentially, an exhibitor is assembling a museum quality exhibit with their selected specimens, and will want everything to be perfect. Competitors are judged upon four criteria: quality of specimens, showmanship of their display, accuracy of labeling, and the rarity of the pieces. Assembling high quality labels, liners, and risers is relatively straightforward, however selecting which minerals to compete with is the most difficult and confusing part. After all, how can we expect perfection of minerals, when we ourselves have no role in their creation?

To discuss what aspects of a mineral can make it ‘competition worthy,’ I will be focusing on thumbnail minerals in particular, as that is the category for which I have the most experience, typically interests the most people, and requires the highest number of specimens as a minimum for entry. After all, thumbnail mineral competition has had the longest legacy, with its origin dating back to Arthur Flagg who organized the first thumbnail competition at the Arizona State Fair sometime around the 1940-50s. Of course, the principles of quality in thumbnails scales up to any other size class of mineral. 

David Tibbits' thumbnail exhibit at the 2022 TGMS, 1st Place and Best Advanced Case. David Tibbits Photo

In order to judge a mineral's quality, a team of three judges each assigns every mineral specimen a score from 1-10, and then the average of these scores makes up the points for the quality section overall. For most levels, quality makes up 75 points of the overall score. Take for example, an exhibit scoring an 8.5 average quality amongst its pieces would contribute 63.75 points to the overall score. According to the TGMS Competitive Exhibitor Handbook, the criterion on which mineral quality is judged is:

  1. Judging will be based on the condition of crystals (freedom from bruises and flaws); size of crystals (typical of species); color (typical or exceptional for the species); aesthetics (arrangement of crystals); clarity (freedom from excess foreign material); and the visible amount of identified mineral(s) to be judged.

Summed up, a mineral’s quality is based upon every possible quality that mineral may possess, which unsurprisingly can be quite subjective. Something important to keep in mind is that each piece is judged upon its quality versus all other localities and varieties that do exist. That is to say, all beryls are judged against each other, all wulfenites are judged against each other, and all calcites are judged against each other. In many cases, a particular specimen can be exemplary given the material at its locality, but merely adequate in comparison to another find.

Another important thing to consider is that for a specimen, only one mineral species present can be evaluated. You will need to specify via label which species in a combo you’d like to have judged by putting it in all caps. Ultimately, in order to receive scores of 10s, a specimen needs to be the best of its species. That is, the best that has ever been seen, both in private hands, museums, or universities. Since acquiring pieces that are the best of species can be incredibly hard, you will need to study what the best can be and attempt to emulate those features. 

With all of that being said, there are some general guidelines which can be used to determine if a mineral is competition worthy. The highest quality single crystal thumbnail minerals often reach the 1” maximum size, as anything smaller than 1” can mean that larger pieces exist. However, there are instances where this may not be the case, such as certain species that are not known to achieve this larger size, or when larger specimens negatively impact aesthetics, transparency, color, etc. So, while size is a big factor in selecting competition-grade specimens, it should be considered as part of the whole picture.

Visible damage is inevitably a negative penalty, since that same piece damage free is always better. Sprays and combinations tend to do worse than single crystals, except in the cases where the species only exists as sprays, or alongside other minerals. This means that for your typical mineral species, you will want to look for damage-free large crystals which exhibit nice color, luster, and aesthetic. Many competition thumbnail cases feature vanadinites from Morocco, pyrites from Spain, sulphohalites from California, and fluorites from various localities, as these species/localities yield tons of thumbnails that meet the requirements for good scoring, and don’t break the bank. Over time, as you become more familiar with what exists and what is possible, your eye for quality will improve.

Personally, my highest scoring piece is my bixbyite with topaz from Thomas Range, Utah. It's not hard to see why, as it is enormous for its species, and the tiny topaz on its backside adds a great aesthetic flair. 

Bixbyite with topaz, Thomas Range, Utah. 2.5cm Tall. David Tibbits Specimen and Photo. TGMS 2020 Exhibit.

An example of a great scoring piece that's not in my collection is this danalite from New Hampshire. Danalite is a mineral most people are unfamiliar with, and comparing to other specimens online, particularly on mindat, you can see how this piece stands far apart from the rest of its species. It is incredibly well formed and sharp, combined with characteristic color and a size pushing the boundaries of the thumbnail class. It is no surprise that this piece scored an average of 9.75 when it was in Brandy Naugle’s competition exhibits at both the 2011 and 2013 TGMS.

Alex Venzke Specimen, Matt McGill photo. 2.4 cm tall.

A few great specimens available for sale on iRocks now and previously are:

Andradite Garnet var. Demantoid

This particular demantoid is incredibly competition worthy. At 2.5cm it fills in the 1” requirement, and with a brilliant translucent green color, it stands far above the typical garnet that you would expect. It is worth noting however, that the provenance of the specimen previously being in Dr. Frederico Pezzotta’s collection does not increase its value to competition as the judges would not be aware of this, however it certainly does contribute to the value of the piece.

Pezzottaite

Speaking of Dr. Pezzotta, this pezzottaite approaches perfection for the species. Pezzottaite is one of those rare minerals that does not come from a lot of places, and you don’t see too many examples of on the market. Many pezzottaites are not complete on all 6 sides, or are heavily etched out on their ‘front’ face. This specimen is the ideal when it comes to form and color, and the fact that it is 2.3 cm in width means that the only way to improve the specimen for competition would be to increase its size by 2 millimeters. 

Vesuvianite

Here is an example of a competition worthy thumbnail which ‘exceeds’ the 2.54cm size limit. Standing vertically, this thumbnail is 2.9cm in height, so this crystal of vesuvianite would need to be tipped back in order to fit the required dimensions for a thumbnail on display. Its sharp form and great green color makes it nearly ideal for the species of vesuvianite. It is possible that a judge may find himself partial to the purple vesuvianites available from the Jeffrey Mine in Canada. This might mean that this piece would only be very high scoring instead of approaching a 10. 

It's not hard to see how these could score quite well. There definitely is a common theme that connects them. Exemplary color and form, combined with a large size.

On the other hand, it is often that a piece you absolutely adore scores not quite so perfectly. An example of this, from my experience, is this fluorapatite from Golconda Mine, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Fluorapatite - Golconda Mine, Minas Gerais, Brazil 2.3cm wide. David Tibbits Specimen and Photo.

Although it has great color, aesthetics, clarity, and pushes the limit of size, it struggled to break even the 8 point threshold with this piece. That is because even though the piece is very nice, the individual crystals which make up the specimen are very small for apatite. This stands in contrast to another fluorapatite in my collection, which has a similar color and size, but has much larger crystals. 

Fluorapatite from Panasqueira Mine, Portugal. 2.5cm tall. David Tibbits Photo and Specimen.

In the end, scoring still can be quite subjective. Even on a year to year basis the scores of a single specimen can change, based on judges or the other specimens submitted for judging that year. You might think you have a total 10, until you see another piece in someone else’s display that feels like an 11! 

JUNIOR COMPETITION

Several competitions also have their own separate categories for younger collectors, such as TGMS’s Junior and Junior Master divisions, for 8-18 year olds. Dr. Rob Lavinsky has always been a passionate supporter of young collectors, as he himself was lucky enough to have several notable mentors when he was just in his young teens. Each junior age exhibitor, regardless of which exhibitor class they enter, will receive a $100 check from him, the high point score by a junior-age exhibitor receives $500, and the second-high point score will receive a $300 check, as a way of honoring those who helped him when he was a young collector. 

2022 Junior Master Thumbnail Exhibit (B-11) Max Kaminski. Awarded 1st Place and Best in Show Junior Master.

With a greater perspective of what makes for a competition grade mineral, I highly encourage you to get involved in competition, regardless of whether or not you think you have enough high quality minerals. There is so much to gain, even just from being a part of the process. Competition requires you to become very familiar with the pieces you own, leading you down a path of intense research. You will have no choice but to research the localities of the pieces to ensure their accuracy in labeling. 

Another added benefit is a connection to the community of competitors, which in my experience have always been welcoming and supportive, rather than toxic and cutthroat as other sorts of competition sometimes lend towards. And ultimately, the greatest benefit to competition is that you get an outlet to display your specimens to the public. This builds provenance for your collection as a whole as well as the pieces as individuals, and gives you the opportunity to share the pieces you love with friends and strangers alike. 

If I have convinced you to consider competing with thumbnails, here are some next steps:

Pick a category and read the rules. 

Build the display and create the labels. 

Around fall/winter, signup becomes available on the TGMS website

There are a few clubs which heavily promote competition like the Mineralogical Society of Arizona, or the Flagg Mineral Foundation which you might consider joining, even remotely. 

If you are below the age of 40, I’d recommend joining the Young Mineral Collector’s Facebook group to connect directly with other mineral competitors. 

More info still can be found in this article by Les Presmyk and Marc Countiss, which offers a greater perspective into competition as a whole, as well as includes a ton of great photos, beyond what is featured in this article.

If all of those options for learning more still aren’t enough, you can feel more than welcome to reach out to me, other collectors, or staff members at The Arkenstone, as there’s a wide group of people happy to talk minerals!

We'd like to thank our friend, Young Mineral Collector's member and award-winning competitor David Tibbits for graciously authoring this article.

A New Standard In Thumbnail Storage And Display - Crystal Showcase Boxes

Sep 5, 2022

For many decades, the 'Perky Box' - named for Willard Perkin - has been the go-to standard for thumbnail specimen storage and display. However, with the rise in thumbnail collecting as a primary collection focus and the increasing amount of collectors who choose to proudly display their thumbnails in showcases rather than store in drawers, the demand for a solution that meets the high presentation and aesthetics demands of modern collectors has grown rapidly.

To further assist our customers in enhancing their collections, we're proud to announce our exclusive partnership with OPENALLDAY as the sole North American distributor of their Crystal Showcase™️ boxes!

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CLICK HERE TO ORDER

These boxes offer key features that 'Perky Boxes' do not: The lid is acrylic and completely removable and unhinged, allowing for an easy transition from storage to display without visible hinges; the table insert is plastic instead of styrofoam, which elevates the aesthetics of a display and does not degrade as quickly as the foam inserts; they are slightly larger than 'Perky Boxes' giving plenty of breathing room for safer storage, and some extra room for larger, 'box-buster' specimens that otherwise would not have fit inside a 'Perky Box' easily; and they are 'tried and true' display solutions for show displays and award-winning competition cases - eliminating the need to dismount and remount onto 'competition-worthy' bases!

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David Tibbits' 2022 TGMS Thumbnail Competition display won 1st Place Advanced Thumbnails and Best in Show - Advanced Class.

We are also proud to utilize these boxes in our own personal displays, with members of our own staff utilizing these for their thumbnail displays to elevate their specimens and provide a clean overall look.

We strongly believe that these boxes are the best solution on the market for long-term archival level storage of thumbnail specimens, as well as an elevated display option for thumbnail specimens in showcases and competitive displays!

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Alex Venzke's personal thumbnail collection, featuring specimens mounted in Crystal Showcase boxes. Some specimens shown here with box lids on, for reference.

Why “Collector Gems” are Enchanting

Aug 4, 2022

Jim Houran, Ph.D., Psychologist, Collector, & Author

An intriguing trend has long been apparent to devoted readers of the Mineralogical Record (MR), Lapis, and Rocks & Minerals. Locality articles, like Robinson’s (1990) treatise on diopside from DeKalb, New York, or papers about new species such as Hawthorne et al.’s (2004) description of pezzottaite, frequently include photos of gems cut from the respective minerals. In fact, it is a challenge to read any given issue of these periodicals or any popular mineral book and not find at least one illustration of a polished specimen. The prevalence of these images underscores the universal appeal of gems — even among seasoned mineral collectors who lament the cutting of fine crystals. There is an undeniable thrill in gazing upon important jewels in museums or private collections, but there can be an even greater delight in building your own gem collection.

The collector community’s appreciation for cut stones is not simply due to their inherent beauty but because gems also serve scientific purposes. Smithsonian curator-in-charge Dr. Jeffrey Post (1997) explained the academic value of the National Gem and Mineral Collection this way, “…because gems are cut from the most perfect crystals, they are preferred, and required, samples for certain kinds of scientific studies, for example, spectroscopy and crystallographic measurements” (p. 19). Indeed, many articles appearing in gemology journals like Gems & Gemology, Journal of Gemmology and the Australian Gemmologist are mineralogic or crystallographic investigations based on high-quality gem samples. New mineral species have even been identified from the analysis of gems, the best known instances of which are sinhalite and taaffeite (Arem, 1987).

There is thus much to learn and gain from gem collecting, and the Arkenstone’s current auction highlights some superb examples that can help serious collectors either to venture into this specialized area or to enhance their existing collections. Here we are not talking about low-quality “reference samples” but rather special pieces that should be preserved in the hands of true connoisseurs. Such “collector gems” standout as mineralogical, scientific, and aesthetic oddities. They are fascinating objects in their own right or can be paired with natural mineral specimens for chic “rough-and-cut” sets. No matter how one decides to collect and display these fun and valuable objects, it is important to understand that they are unique collaborations between Mother Nature and skilled gem artists who fashion rare material into important works of art and study.

The Allure and Beauty of Collector Gems

Besides their inherent beauty, gem collections are appealing for their scientific information. Collectors can learn much about a mineral’s chemical composition and geological origins from a gem’s size, color and clarity. Each of the stones in the Arkenstone auction is a true mineralogical wonder—not just in the geological sense but also as a representative of the species itself. In particular, these examples were painstakingly selected over years of diligent searching. They are unusual, even remarkable, for their color, quality or size relative to other cut examples of the same material. Indeed, all mineral collectors (and their spouses!) can appreciate the beauty of stones, as well as the artistry and skill it takes to bring them to life. They do not merely “sparkle” as decoration, they “dazzle” people as objects that possess many attributes that engage and sustain people’s interest. To be sure, the general public often admires and purchases gems that either are, or have been at one time, outside the norm.

For example, Tiffany & Co. was responsible in 1968 for the incredible increase in market demand for blue-purple zoisite from Tanzania by coining a new “exotic” name for gems cut from this material — tanzanite. This once rare gem has since become a standard offering in virtually all jewelry stores. What is not standard are the rarer colors of this same species, with vibrant pink, green, or multi-colored zoisite being connoisseurs’ favorites. Of course, marketers or designer jewelers need not need invent fancy labels to stoke buyer interest, as sometimes the scientific or varietal names for collector gems already sound enticing, e.g., “wulfenite, rhodochrosite, or vesuvianite.”

But aside from glamorous names or localities, it is worth emphasizing how rare gems can command attention with colors that are often in stark contrast to the typical red, green and blue of the well-known ruby, emerald and sapphire. The choices of gems and associated colors that are available to collectors and the lay public nowadays is indeed overwhelming. Industry periodicals like Professional Jeweler and JCK Magazine also note that everyday consumers are gradually, but increasingly, selecting more exotic gems for certain types of jewelry. This trend is exemplified by a clever marketing catchphrase by gem dealer and lapidary John A. Rhoads (D & J Rare Gems, Salida, CO) … “Wear rare!”™

Rhodochrosite (circa 1980) ex Houran Collection from Mineralauctions.com on Vimeo.

A Natural Complement (and Ally) to Mineral Specimens

Dunn and Francis (1990) talked about “specialization” in mineral collecting and noted ten distinct themes around which collections can be built: (1) single-locality, (2) regional, (3) field-collected, (4) comprehensive species, (5) single-species, (6) chemically-specialized, (7) paragenetic, (8) historic, (9) phenomenological, and (10) mineral habit. These themes can equally apply to gem collections, which Dr. Post implicitly described as highly specialized mineral collections. Here I must confess, that display-quality “rough and cut” sets are, for my taste, the ultimate in specialization on both aesthetic and academic levels. They also convey a symbiotic, but under-appreciated, relationship that exists. The beauty, and hence market value, of gems is a significant catalyst for their preservation for future generations. And arguably the aesthetics of gems account for a major part of the motivation for constant mining of existing deposits and the exploration for new sources to satisfy the commercial market for jewelry and gemstones. That the gemstone market, in turn, helps to drive the supply of fine specimens for the mineral market. Gems and minerals are thus allies, not adversaries.

A New Frontier and Challenge for Many Collectors

As long as gems are treated as important commodities and scientific specimens, scientists and collectors alike will continue to study and learn from important examples. Who knows what interesting findings will result from in-depth studies of famous and comprehensive gem arrays, such as the Edward J. Gübelin Gem Collection acquired by the Gemological Institute of America (see: https://www.gia.edu/gia-museum-exhibit-gubelin-gem-collection) or Michael M. Scott’s famed collection (Keller & Scott, 2002). The wonderful thing is that one does not need to be a gemologist or wealthy world traveler to enjoy and become enriched by collector gems, or even to build a rewarding collection.

The Arkenstone is committed to bringing the enchanted world of collector gems to everyone with top-quality specimens to fit their means. Ultimately, collector gems are “books” that tell stories as rich and meaningful as natural mineral specimens. And in these books are different chapters that speak to adventures in history, geography, art and aesthetics, as well as modern fashion and the latest technologies. As a fellow lover and collector, I urge you to build a library of these books and share them with anyone and everyone who is eager to hear a good story.

References

Arem, J. (1987). Color Encyclopedia of Gemstones (2nd ed). Chapman & Hall.

Hawthorne, FC, Cooper, M, Simmons, WB Jr, Laurs, BM, Armbruster, Th, Rossman, GR, Peretti, A, Günter, D, Grobéty, B, & Falster, AU (2004) Pezzottaite Cs(Be2Li)Al2Si6O18: A spectacular new beryl-group mineral from the sakavalana pegmatite, Fianarantsoa Province, Madagascar. Mineralogical Record, 35, 369–378.

Keller, P. C.,  & Scott, M. M. (2002). Light & stone: Highlights from the Scott Gem Collection. Brand: Bowers Museum.

Post, J. E. (1997). The national gem collection. Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers.

Robinson, G. W. (1990). Famous mineral localities: DeKalb, New York. Mineralogical Record, 21, 535–541.

The Art of Collecting

Jul 15, 2022

The team at The Arkenstone has been busy with our recent collaboration with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History on our RARE EARTH installation, bringing together specimens from the museum, Dr. Lavinsky's personal collection, UCSB's Woodhouse collection, and private collectors. With permission from museum president Luke J. Swetland, we're sharing a bit of a recent article he wrote about his father-in-law (and Arkenstone customer) David Byers. For the full article, please visit the museum's blog.


"For many of us, the compulsion to collect starts in childhood as a form of play. But things can get serious fast. My father-in-law David Byers remembers: “As a kid, I used to come home with my pockets full of rocks.” By the time he was 20, he had started collecting for real, informed by an undergraduate education in geology. He didn’t stop until 1,200 specimens later, a number he assures me isn’t actually that large by private mineral collection standards!

We asked David about motivating criteria. “Perfection” was paramount; he wanted undamaged and uncut natural crystals. He became a regular at the world’s largest and most prestigious gem and mineral show: during 45 years, he missed the mineral-lover’s annual pilgrimage to Tucson only three times."

- Luke J. Swetland

Fluorite with Calcite from the Yaogangxian mine, Hunan, China. Robert Lavinsky Collection. Joe Budd Photo.

Photo Atlas of Mineral Pseudomorphism

Jun 17, 2022

We just received notice that Photo Atlas of Mineral Pseudomorphism will be pulled from the Elsevier publication list due to plagiarism in the main introduction of the text.

Intellectual scholarship demands integrity, both of which I hold in the utmost respect.

I assisted with photos for the books, and related captions for those photos, and in appreciation of this assistance, I was listed as one of the authors on the publication for this narrow scope of contribution. The portions of the text under scrutiny for plagiarism are from the main text of the book, which were outside the scope of my contribution. I’m very disappointed to hear that sections of the book failed to uphold moral standards of scholarly and literary works.

Rare Earth: Santa Barbara

Apr 23, 2022

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
2559 Puesta del Sol 

Learn More: https://www.sbnature.org/visit/exhibitions/84/rare-earth

JUNE 11 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 5, 2022

Fluorite with Calcite from the Yaogangxian mine, Hunan, China. Robert Lavinsky Collection. Joe Budd Photo.

Far more than a dazzling display of gems and minerals, Rare Earth tells the story of how we can value the natural world in a new light.  Copper may be worth a few dollars per pound, but a beautiful piece in its (remarkable) natural form is worth far more than that.  The question is why? We humans inherently assign value to beautiful things above and beyond their utility. It’s why we value impressive minerals like these higher than their price as a mere commodity. Whether it’s a mineral, a tree, or an ecosystem, viewing nature purely in terms of “price per pound” undervalues the resource and deep down, we know it. The minerals and crystals you see here are treasures in their own right, worthy of being displayed (and valued) like any other fine art. 

As these remarkable specimens draw you in, you may wonder, “did they really come out of the ground looking like this?” The answer is a resounding yes. It is their raw natural form and geometry that resonates, calls to us, and sets them apart. Beyond their beauty, the minerals in this exhibit convey stories that tie them to the rise and fall of modern civilizations, and the evolution of art and culture throughout human history.  

Valuable beyond utility, beautiful to observe, and essential for life as we know it, minerals shape our lives in ways most of us have never imagined. Until now.   

Frank Hein

Director of Exhibits 

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Rare Earth: The Art and Science of Chinese Stones

Mar 28, 2022

Exhibition open from Saturday, Mar 26 2022 to Sunday, Feb 26 2023
Crow Collection of Asian Art
2010 Flora St, Dallas, TX 75201
https://crowcollection.org/

Collecting rocks and stone carvings has been popular in China for thousands of years. This tradition is rooted in the philosophical and spiritual inspiration drawn from the artistic beauty of natural stones, such as jade. Unusually-shaped stones called “Scholars rocks” or “Philosopher’s Stones” carved by natural processes have also been long valued in China. Seen as embodiments of the dynamic transformational processes of nature, these stones were also admired for their resemblance to mountains or caves, particularly the magical peaks and subterranean paradises believed to be inhabited by immortal beings.


Mineral collecting, based on the aesthetic appreciation or the scientific characteristics of the naturally symmetric and patterned crystals and minerals that make up rocks, has a long history in the United States and in Europe, but was not commonly practiced in China.  The country’s abundant mineral resources were historically used as raw material for both art and industrial purposes only. In the mid-1980s, this changed when remarkable Chinese specimens entered the Western market and not only amazed collectors worldwide but also stimulated a rising interest within China to collect fine minerals.

This exhibition explores the different ways that Chinese and Western cultures have celebrated the beauty found in, and created from, natural stones. Reflecting the educational mission of The University of Texas at Dallas to unite scientific and artistic thinking, this exhibition pairs works of Chinese art from the Crow Museum’s permanent collection with connoisseur-level samples of raw minerals from China. It uniquely displays these natural and reshaped minerals in contexts that invite multiple, interrelated responses: to appreciate their beauty, ponder their cultural significance, and be inspired to understand the natural forces that created them. As science can enhance our appreciation of beauty, perhaps beauty can lead us to study the wonders beneath the earth as well as in the heavens.

This exhibition is co-organized by the Crow Museum of Asian Art of The University of Texas at Dallas and the Center for Asian Studies of The University of Texas at Dallas, in partnership with the UT Dallas Department of Geosciences and the Dr. Robert Lavinsky Mineral Collection.

Tiny spessartine garnets formed around these deeply-colored smoky quartz crystals. From the Dr. Lavinsky Collection of Chinese Minerals.

Legal Nuggets: Fragile Minerals and the TSA

Jan 24, 2022

Adapted with permission from the Mineralogical Record, Vol. 39, No. 2  March - April 2008, for publication on iRocks.com.

Francis M. Allegra

Judge, United States Court of Federal Claims

Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center

Seven essays were published in the Mineralogical Record magazine by the late Judge Francis Allegra on legal matters of interest to mineral collectors between 2008 and 2012. This is the first in his series. © 2008 The Mineralogical Record, Inc.

Crocoite, scolecite, mesolite, cerussite—such specimens and other fragile delicacies are highly desired by avid mineral collectors. Yet, they strike fear in the hearts of the stoutest among us when we contemplate how to get them home intact. We have all come across a superb specimen, attractively priced, but have nonetheless refrained because there was no easy way to get it home damage-free. 

What if, however, you do decide to take that specimen home with you on a plane? And what if you carefully wrap it and loosely seal it in a box, with the intent of treating it as carry-on luggage? Of course, from the moment you embark on this course, your mind is dwelling on one thought, and one thought alone—those folks you will encounter at the airport with the badges and patches that say “Transportation Security Administration” or “TSA.” And, in your darkest moments, perhaps you wonder what would happen if those friendly TSA folks accidentally gouged a hole smack in the middle of your prized crocoite. It has happened to people before, and it can happen again.

Rhodochrosite - Sweet Home Mine, Colorado, USA - 13cm - Ex. Fran Allegra Collection

Of course, in the law, as in other walks of life, avoidance of a problem is often the best course. In this regard, the TSA website (www.tsa.gov) provides some helpful advice. It states that “[i]f you are carrying valuable items . . . we recommend that you ask Security Officers to screen you and your carry-on luggage in private,” adding that this process may be initiated by contacting the TSA screening supervisor. Using this procedure also probably lessens the likelihood that a TSA security officer will view your specimen as a dangerous “projectile” that cannot be taken on the plane. By the way, the TSA website also contains a detailed list of prohibited carry-on items.

Perish the thought, but what if your specimen, in fact, is damaged during the inspection process? At this point, you will discover that pursuing a monetary claim against the United States Government is not quite like pursuing one against the corner grocer. The reason is that the United States is protected from lawsuits except to the extent that Congress consents for it to be sued. That doctrine, known in the law as “sovereign immunity,” dates back to the English monarchy. Yet, despite its monarchial roots, the doctrine was viewed as so well-established by the Founding Fathers as not to be debated, even for a moment, at the Constitutional Convention.

But, all is not lost. There is, in fact, a statute that potentially waives the sovereign immunity of the United States in a case involving your negligently damaged mineral specimen. It is the Federal Torts Claims Act (found in various provisions of Title 28 of the U.S. Code), a law with an interesting history. This statute was passed in 1946, approximately a year after a B-25 “Mitchell” bomber—the type of twin-engine plane used for the Doolittle raid on Tokyo—got lost in a blinding fog and crashed into the Empire State Building, 915 feet above street level, killing and injuring a number of individuals. Responding to this disaster, Congress passed a statute generally making the United States liable “for injury or loss of property” that is “caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government,” where “the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.”

So, what does this law mean? Under the statute, the United States is generally liable for the negligent acts of its employees to the same extent that a private person would be liable for those same acts under the law of the State in which the negligence occurred. So, if you are in the airport in Tucson, it is Arizona law that will preliminarily control whether the government is liable for negligence in gouging your crocoite.

Of course, nothing in the law, particularly when you are dealing with the United States, is that simple. For one thing, to recover under this statute, you have to file a written claim with the TSA, stating the circumstances of your loss and the exact amount you are claiming. And you must file this claim within two years of the incident. A copy of the claim form is available on the TSA website. Pay careful attention to the filing instructions, particularly the requirement that you claim a sum certain—that is, a specific dollar amount. With very limited exceptions, the figure you list on the form represents the maximum amount you can recover under the law, even if you are forced to pursue the matter in litigation. For this and other reasons, if your claim is going to be substantial, you may want to consult an attorney well-versed in the Federal Tort Claims Act to make sure that your claim is filed correctly. Mess up this preliminary step and you may later find, to your horror and chagrin, that you cannot recover at all.

The TSA has a Claims Management Office that processes these claims. The hope (and the reason why Congress established the claim procedure) is that this agency will either grant your claim or negotiate a reasonable settlement. If, however, TSA denies your claim or does not decide your claim within six months, then you have the right to file suit against the United States in the U.S. District Court for the district in which you live. If you get to this point, you should definitely consider hiring an attorney, as the United States will be defended in that lawsuit by attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice that specialize in handling tort cases.

Case of Fran Allegra's minerals

There are a variety of other statutory twists and turns that might affect your ability to recover here. For one thing, it is possible that the Justice Department will argue that the TSA’s actions are covered by a statutory exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act, perhaps the one that exempts from coverage claims arising from the detention of goods by a law-enforcement officer. However, a “Dear Traveler” message posted on the TSA website from the Director of the TSA’s Claims Management Office appears to admit that the agency is responsible if loss or damage to your property is directly caused by the negligence of a TSA employee. (The lawyers among you might want to read Kosak v. United States, 465 U.S. 848 (1984), in which the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Customs Service could be liable for damaging artworks.) Remember also that your recovery may be affected by nuances in the law of the state in which the negligence occurred (in our example above, Arizona). Finally, recognize that the Federal Tort Claims Act does not allow for the recovery of certain types of damages, among them punitive damages and pre-judgment interest on the amount of your loss. So do not expect a bonanza at the government’s expense.

The bottom line is that Congress has created a potential legal path for you to recover damages against the United States if, despite your best efforts to avoid the problem, the TSA folks convert your cabinet specimen into hundreds of micromounts. Happy flying.

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NOTE: This column is for educational purposes only and is not legal advice, or a substitute for such advice. Readers who have questions on this topic should consult with a qualified lawyer.

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View other Legal Nuggets articles by Fran Allegra

New Year, New Website Update!

Jan 9, 2022

We are excited to start off 2022 with the launch of our new and improved website experience, with many changes to freshen up the overall experience for our customers!

While at its core, the website remains mostly the same, we’ve reorganized by condensing menus to make navigation easier as well as adding a few new and exciting features to make our website more user friendly for exploring our thousands of listings.

Learn more about our updates and changes below!

NAVIGATION CHANGES:

We’ve condensed our navigation menus into a single row of options to make things easy:

The LEARN menu contains pages where you can discover more about The Arkenstone and its staff, as well as a host of links and other resources to learn more about minerals and the mineral collecting hobby.

The SHOP menu contains all of our various gallery pages, plus a BRAND NEW general browse page. There is also a direct link to an advanced search for customers who know exactly what they are looking for. You can also find information on our custom base services, as well as important ordering information.

HOMEPAGE CHANGES:

We’ve given our homepage a facelift, condensing it down to focus on handpicked featured specimens and galleries as well as a BRAND NEW section featuring all three of our instagram accounts for easy reference. 

Also, the blog excerpts have been redesigned, and our blog page now has a viewable archive so you can easily access older posts quickly.

SPECIMEN PAGES:

Lookout for the ‘payment plan available’ text on specimens that qualify for our payment plan program. Where available, you can click on the text to view the terms before reaching out! We are excited to be able to offer this service more widely to our customers to allow for some room to ‘stretch’ for your next great specimen. (Info also available here!)

WHAT HASN’T CHANGED:

As always, you can still create an account via the login button in the top right of the page. This will allow you to save specimens to your own wishlist for future reference (via the heart on each specimen page found on the top left of the specimen photo). 

Our purchase process still remains the same. We maintain a large physical gallery with thousands of specimens available for sale on display, many of which are also listed online. We want to ensure the specimen you would like to purchase is still available before invoicing, so please allow 1-2 business days for us to confirm. We are closed on weekends and will typically follow up on any inquiries from the weekend on Monday.

We will continue updating our website regularly with exciting new updates from special collections, new finds, and general inventory. Our team is working tirelessly to bring a host of new material to the website in 2022 and beyond, so we strongly recommend signing up for our newsletter to receive email notifications when we release new material for sale. A link to sign up is available toward the footer site-wide.

We hope we worked out any issues, but if you find a bug or have any feedback, we'd love to hear from you at admin@iRocks.com.

Getting to know the mind behind The Arkenstone - Dr. Rob Lavinsky

Jan 8, 2022

There are numerous illustrations of the 17th-century phrase, “One good turn deserves another.” By most accounts, it appears Dr. Rob Lavinsky’s life is one such example.

The “one good turn” that inspired Lavinsky, owner and founder of The Arkenstone Gallery of Fine Minerals, to take the path he has and mindfully do countless “good turns” in response, took place in Ohio during the mid-1980s. “I was introduced to minerals at the age of 12 through the Columbus, Ohio, Rock & Mineral Society (www.columbusrockandmineralsociety.org/), and was fortunate to have many generous mentors there,” said Lavinsky. “The club adopted me, taught me, let me into the library they shared. It was immersion immediately! Without such mentors, I would never have entered the hobby.” 

Rob mining pyrite in Spain

It’s safe to assume, more than a few people with a keen interest in rocks, gemstones, minerals, and fossils are also grateful to the members of the Columbus mineral club for introducing Lavinsky to these remarkable fields of natural science. The influence, education, and encouragement of Columbus mineral club members Carlton Davis and John Medici inspired and equipped Lavinsky to become a part-time mineral dealer by the time he was 14. The learning also included working with and for seasoned field collectors Neal and Chris Pfaff throughout his junior high and high school years. The after-school and summer job allowed  Lavinsky to amass a personal collection and develop an inventory to sell. 

While he was in college studying for a career in genetic engineering, he formed what would become his career purpose,  The Arkenstone. Initially, as Lavinsky explained, he saw it as a way to do something he enjoyed and pay his way through college while studying for a career in medical research. Just as he had in his youth, Lavinsky forged ahead, taking “the road less traveled” by incorporating email swap/sell lists, as early as 1991. Ultimately, he created one of the largest and earliest (1996) websites featuring an inventory of gem, mineral, and fossil specimens. During this time, he continued to buy and sell at mineral shows, including the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show®, where he became a “Main Show” dealer, a position he continues to enjoy 30-plus years later.

teal and purple fluorite from China
Specimen of fluorite with calcite, from a single pocket at the Yaogangxian mine,
Chenzhou district, Hunan Province, China, known to have produced just three such
specimens, and one of Dr. Rob’s favorite Chinese mineral specimen. 17.5cm, Joe Budd Photo.

Lavinsky, balancing business, and graduate studies, successfully earned a Ph. D. in Molecular Genetics. Upon completing his studies — while awaiting the birth of his first child — he debated pursuing a career in biotechnology or becoming a full-time mineral dealer. As Lavinsky explained, either path would have been fulfilling and, in the ensuing years, have both significantly contributed to his life.

“I could have gone into science and enjoyed it. But, playing with nature’s beauty always warred with a real job choice, and won out in the end,” said the life-long collector. Interestingly, it’s Lavinsky’s fascination with fossils that serves as a point of connection with opals. As he explained, when opal replaces a mineral or fossil, which illustrates a combining of the gem world with that of natural history, the synergy of the two is most amazing.

He went on to say, “I do not regret being a scientist or the years of training to think a certain way. I believe it helps me appreciate nature more and be better at what I do (more organized, and more disciplined on the business side.)”

Lavinsky’s analytical mindset, preparedness, and profoundly inquisitive personality is at the core of his business operations, which is a significant benefit during uncertain and unusual times, such as 2020.

“My business was vertical, not just high or low-price range, and so I am luckily prepared for these strange times,” commented Lavinsky, who employs a team of 14 people, including staff in China responsible for sourcing, and actively buying specimens daily. “I have five years of inventory amassed, a great team here in Dallas, and a large customer base to show good things to.”

He went on to say, “After Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2008-2009 crashes, minerals and the mineral collecting game exploded on the other side within two years. I expect it will do so again with the organic growth of new collectors and customers, which is great news for all of us!”

In addition to remaining optimistic, flexible, and proactive, and engaged with clients and the mineral collecting community at large, Lavinsky and his team pay close attention to what can be learned during these times. Among the most important aspects of the business that The Arkenstone team keeps top of mind are the clients.

“The collector comes first. Build and help build collections the way we would want to, as collectors ourselves – my core team is ONLY made up of people who are collectors or from collecting families. We are drinking the same juice,” Lavinsky explained. “I want to build collections over decades – we are best with the serious collectors who want long-term relationships, not the fly-by-night folks who just want to buy pretty rocks out of a rock shop.”

Whether he’s traveling to China, working with employees on various projects, buying, selling, exhibiting and speaking at shows, or serving as sponsor and host of the Dallas Mineral Collecting Symposium (an event he co-founded with Gene Meieran in 2011), Lavinsky strives to give back to the mineral community that did so much for him, and continually do “one good turn.”

graphic headline 5 facts about Dr. Rob Lavinsky

1. He is a workaholic, which is why he was able to build his company website in the early years of available technology and expand on it over the years

2. He actually LIKES all of the travel he does to China, and he now speaks Chinese. He also says it’s common to feel relaxed as soon as he gets on a plane.

3. He loves the Arkenstone staff like brothers and sisters, and with that, he does take orders from them, routinely enough for it to be weird, he says.

4. His collecting passion started with fossils and then drifted into minerals when he was 12 years old.

5. While he did indeed earn his Ph.D. in genetic engineering before becoming a full-time mineral dealer, some people in his life thought that might not be the case, as evidenced by the apparent betting pool against his completing his degree before following his passion for minerals.

Originally published in Rocks & Gems Magazine, Illustrious Opal Issue