In Memoriam: Mark Neil Feinglos (1948–2020)

Sep 4, 2020

Adapted with permission from Rocks & Minerals, volume 95, September/October 2020 for publication on

Mark Feinglos and Susan Feinglos
Mark with his wife, Susan Totten Feinglos.

Mark Neil Feinglos, MD, CM, passed away unexpectedly on 14 March 2020 (at age seventy-two). He died in the home he loved in Durham, North Carolina, where he had lived for more than forty years. Mark Feinglos was born on 23 February 1948, in Syracuse, New York, the only child of Bertha and Clarence Feinglos. When Mark decided to attend medical school at McGill University in Montreal, his mother proudly began referring to him as “My son, the doctor,” and she would only ask for him that way on the phone ever again: “Is my son, the doctor, there?” Ever a man of many interests, Mark had one, central lifelong passion as he went through school and career: mineral collecting. In fact, most people in the mineral community were not familiar with Mark’s lifelong work in medicine and probably assumed the “Dr.” in his title was actually a doctorate in geology.

Mark began collecting minerals at the age of five when his aunt bought him a boxed set of minerals as a gift. This quickly became his favorite toy, and his mother supported his budding passion, patiently taking him to mineral stores and shows in nearby cities throughout his early years. Mark’s passion for mineralogy grew over the course of his life and saw him building one of the most scientifically important private mineral collections in the world. His undergraduate degree, also from McGill, was in geology.

At McGill, Mark met his first wife and ultimately the mother of his two children, Sue Goldman Feinglos. Mark and Sue moved to Durham in 1972 when Mark began his residency at Duke University Medical Center. He never left Durham or Duke after that— something highly atypical for a physician. He rose to become Chief of Duke’s Division of Endocrinology for more than a decade, carefully balancing immense responsibility to the hospital and devotion to his family.

Mark was an incredibly committed husband and father, taking on the role of two parents to his young children when Sue was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1994. Sue had become the highly regarded Director of the Duke Medical Center Library after a long career there. She fought the effects of cancer valiantly for eight years, but she could not have done so without her husband’s love, support, and coordination of her care across years of tests and bad news—which he always met with dedication and hope. From Sue’s diagnosis to her passing in 2002, Mark was there for her. In his eulogy for his wife, Mark stood with his children at his side and said that instead of ever suggesting that their mother had lost her battle with cancer, to remember instead that she “retired undefeated.” Mark also persisted through these incredibly challenging times, and he was there for his children every step of the way. He never missed a parent-teacher conference, a school play, or a competition. The family ate dinner together around the kitchen table every night, with Mark’s delicious cooking sustaining everyone with love and support. Mark was an amazing father, always generous with his time and a word of advice, always stepping out of meetings to take a call from either of his children, and always bursting with pride to share his children’s accomplishments with anyone who would listen.

Mark liked to say that he was very lucky to fall in love twice when some people don’t even get lucky once, and that he, apparently, only married “Susans.” He first met Susan Totten at Duke Hospital in 2007 when she was working there as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in endocrinology. They enjoyed ten years of marriage together. In 2008, Mark and Susan published an editorial together on diabetes research in the Archives of Internal Medicine. It is safe to say that Mark’s contributions to the field of endocrinology have enabled people with diabetes to live better lives all over the world.

Mark Feinglos with his children, Daniel and Rebecca.
Mark with son, Daniel Feinglos, and daughter, Rebecca Feinglos Planchard.

Mark was not yet ready to retire and remained diligent in his robust career, pursuing many dozens of grants and studies, writing publications and articles, and giving talks—all far too many to recount here.

But Mark would often say that his research in the medical field would not be remembered fifty years from now— the science evolves so quickly that today’s discoveries will be supplanted by tomorrow’s innovations. Instead, Mark said he would be remembered for his contributions to the field of mineralogy.

Over the years, Mark became an expert across all aspects of minerals, eventually focusing on building his own collection as a repository of diverse and historical mineralogy. He loved German minerals, complex chemistry, and Tsumeb. He loved bornites (nobody understood why) and hated borates. He loved historic labels for the stories they told of mineralogy over time, not just to track ownership of a specimen. Mark’s collection has been a teaching tool for many people through the years, and his family is sure that it will continue to be long after he is gone.

Chalcophyllite, Wheal Gorland, Cornwall, England. 4.2 cm.
Ex. Dr. Mark Feinglos Collection

At first look, his collection might seem random, but it was not. Instead, it was more than twelve thousand specimens—groups of minerals that, when arranged together, could illuminate and educate. To visit Mark, see his collection, and talk about it with him was literally to receive an education. In fact, Mark had a long-running dialogue with the late Kay Robertson in which they helped each other complete and build their German suites. He liked to joke that the only time somebody had bested him on a trade was when Kay came to visit and traded him out of the best twinned copper from Germany, a little jewel he never forgot. (When Kay sold her collection thirty years later, the specimen came back to him, and she commented that Mark was her only worthy trading adversary in the United States.)

Mark also assembled a robust suite of type minerals, arranged in a single wooden cabinet to the side of the others for protection and safekeeping. In building this suite, he had a friendly competition with his best friend, the late Bill Pinch, to acquire rare study pieces. But often they’d end up trimming the pieces in half to share with the other. These are probably the largest collections of type specimens in private hands, and the two of them engaged in amiable competition for decades, hoping the collections would both end up together in the same museum someday.

In the 1990s Mark was the mentor to a group of young dealers in the early world of internet mineral dealing. By the late 1990s he was basically “godfather” to a small group of dealers selling rare species online, which he actively encouraged to broaden interest in the wider world of minerals and collecting. Some of those early internet dealers included Rob Lavinsky of Arkenstone, Jordi Fabre of Fabre Minerals, Jasun McAvoy of Mineralman, and the late John Veevaert of Trinity Minerals, all of whom visited frequently to look and learn in person. Mark was absolutely open with his knowledge and his heart, sharing minerals and his collection with anybody who enjoyed them regardless of stature and age. He served as an online referee for all kinds of species and research questions in the era before Mindat really became established.

Mark was absolutely open with his knowledge and his heart, sharing minerals and his collection with anybody who enjoyed them.

Mark identified many new minerals, as he was often sent specimens that could not be identified. He and Bill Pinch would surely have been named the world champions of sight-identification of minerals. Working within Duke’s mineral collection (they lacked a curator, and this crazy doctor from the Medical Center was willing to step in and curate, organize, and catalog in his spare time), Mark discovered something that looked like a new mineral. He worked to name it dukeite in honor of the university and the Duke family. It was the first U.S. university to have a mineral named for it. In 1997, Mark was honored to have the mineral feinglosite named for him after he was the first to notice the unfamiliar specimen in the Natural History Museum, London.

Feinglosite, Tsumeb, Namibia. 2.0 cm.

Mark spent his life continuing in the historic tradition of mineralogy, discovering for the sake of discovery, and living out his passion for science. He was honored to be an active contributor of the RRUFF Project at the University of Arizona. Mark won the William Pinch Medal in 2003, its second recipient after its namesake, Bill Pinch. The Pinch Medal is awarded every other year to recognize major and sustained contributions to the advancement of mineralogy.

Mark Feinglos lived a full life with people he loved and people who loved him. He was a true intellectual, kindhearted, a collector, and quick with a keen sense of humor. He will be missed every day. Mark is survived by his wife, Susan Totten; his children, Daniel Feinglos and Rebecca Feinglos Planchard; his son-in-law, Sean Planchard; his sister- in-law, Laverne Vance; his brotherin- law, Jeff Vance; his nephew, Stephen Vance; and his mothers-in-law, Beryl Goldman and Lorine Totten.

Rebecca Feinglos Planchard
Rebecca Feinglos Planchard is the daughter of Mark Feinglos.

Robert Lavinsky
Dr. Robert Lavinsky, a lifelong mineral collector, is the owner of The Arkenstone.

Why Competition? Two Perspectives

Aug 16, 2020

Desautels, Bideaux, Romero TGMS Trophies
Desautels, Bideaux, Romero Trophies

Adapted with permission from the Mineralogical Record, volume 51, July–August, 2020, for publication on

Les Presmyk
610 South Bay Drive
Gilbert, Arizona 85233

Marc Countiss
1427 Fall Wood Drive
Sugar Land, Texas 77479

The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show is a hotbed of mineral-related activity, camaraderie, wheeling, and dealing, discussions, arguments, and general wonderment. One of the most exciting aspects is the competitive displays. Any collector can enter minerals in competition and doing so will provide a whole new and gratifying show experience—win or lose! The authors present here some thoughts, observations, background, and experiences designed to encourage more competition at shows.

Perhaps a better question is why not? Competition is something we live with every day in school, in our jobs, our sports, and our elections. Almost everything we do or are involved with includes some form of competition. So why should our mineral hobby be any different? Some collectors want to have the best thumbnail or miniature collection or find the best pocket of some mineral—or at least the best pocket they ever found through self-collecting.

Competitive mineral exhibits have been a part of mineral shows since their very beginnings. When the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show® began in 1954, the founders encouraged competitive as well as non-competitive displays. Today those displays are more fascinating and interesting than ever.


The very first time I exhibited, at the age of 11, it was to compete at the Arizona 4-H Fair with a wooden box containing 24 thumbnails. Then it was on to the Arizona State Fair, which at the time represented the largest and best mineral competition in Arizona. There was actual prize money, and other young exhibitors like Wayne Thompson, as well as numerous adult collectors including Bob Jones, Harry Roberson, Tom McKee, and Edna Andregg, just to name a few, enjoyed competing for trophies and award money. I attended my first AFMS national show when I was 17 and was fortunate enough to win the Junior Trophy. For me, competing has become second nature. It has always been about seeing how an exhibit was improving, how the judging was being done at other shows, and, of course, it was about winning if possible.

Back when minerals were not as valuable in dollar terms as they are today, people seemed more willing to compete. There is always a risk in packing and transporting specimens; when specimens did not carry high values, collectors were more willing to travel to shows and display their collections. Today, if an elite collector is putting in a case of 25 minerals, some with a price range of $25,000 to $250,000, this is a significant amount of money to place at risk. But the enjoyment of showing their collection to thousands of show-goers and friends, comparing their minerals with those of other collectors, and receiving authoritative feedback from a team of highly knowledgeable judges, makes it all worthwhile.

Desautels, Lidstrom, Bideaux, and Romero Trophies along with various ribbon awards for TGMS
Awards given out by the Tucson Show.

There are two basic types of competition, the American Federation of Mineral Societies (one national show per year and seven regional federation shows) and the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show®. The AFMS Competitive Exhibitor’s Handbook contains hundreds of categories including lapidary and jewelry, fossils, minerals, micromounts, and educational. It used to be that all miniature size cases competed against one another for a single national trophy, so a display of specialized miniatures had to score more points than a case of worldwide miniatures of 25 different species for the same trophy. It could be rather discouraging to put in a fantastic case of calcites, for example, when you knew you could be competing against azurites, golds, and 23 or so other varied species from localities worldwide. Now, there are trophies available in many different categories, and in the case of minerals, there are general classes, like worldwide miniatures or thumbnails, and trophies for the restricted classes for various sizes.

In order to compete for a national trophy, an exhibitor must first receive at least 90 points out of 100 at a regional show to qualify for national competition. This could include a first-place ribbon and maybe even a regional trophy but not necessarily. I have seen thumbnail competitions where the fourth-place exhibit still received 91 points so all four became qualified to enter the national trophy competition.

At the Tucson Show®, we allow exhibitors to compete in any of the myriad of categories listed within the AFMS exhibitor’s handbook, but the 15 or so categories in the Tucson Show® handbook have generally met the needs of Tucson competitors. At Tucson, there are two levels for Junior exhibitors and three levels for adult competition. For Juniors, there is the regular Junior level which is the entry-level. Once a Junior exhibitor has either won two blue ribbons in a category or taken the Best Junior trophy, they must thereafter enter in a different category or move up to the Junior- Master level. This was instituted to allow the Junior-age exhibitors to continue competing against other Juniors rather than being required to compete in the adult categories. As an adult (18 years or older) a person can start in the Novice division and move up to Advanced and finally to Master level. However, there are no restrictions about entering directly in Masters if that is your quality and comfort level.

Competition at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show stresses several aspects: showmanship, accuracy of labeling and rarity are all important, but the quality of the specimens is paramount. The goal is to make the judging as fair and unbiased as possible. The Tucson Show® is very interested in educating exhibitors about what is good in their exhibit and what steps they can take to improve their display. All judging teams are encouraged to provide feedback to each exhibitor regarding labels, showmanship, and especially the quality of their specimens.

The real difference between AFMS and the Tucson Show® is in the judging. The AFMS uses qualified judges who work in teams of two, evaluating the entire case including labels, showmanship, rarity and quality. They judge during the open hours of the show. So, while the judges stand (or sit) in front of a case, they know they cannot speak too loudly for fear of someone hearing their comments, nor do they have permission to ask another judge or judging team about a particular specimen, especially in thumbnail cases.

At Tucson, judging teams are used but in a very different way. There is one team judging rarity in all of the cases, one team for showmanship, and one team for labels. This provides consistency across all of the exhibits, regardless of exhibitor level. Then there are three teams, each consisting of a judge and a clerk, who independently judge the quality of every specimen. The judging takes place after the show is closed so conversations can take place freely regarding any questions the judges may have. The quality of each specimen is judged using a scale of 1 to 10. The clerk (who is either a quality judge-in-training or a quality judge) records the score so the quality judge does not see how the other judge or judges have scored the specimens. However, and especially with thumbnails, there are sometimes species not every judge may know. If the quality team cannot figure out how good something is, they are encouraged to ask the other quality judges or the judging chairman.

When it comes to the Best of Species competition and the other special trophies like the Bideaux (best Arizona specimen), the Lidstrom (best single specimen in a competitive exhibit) and the Desautels (best case entered for this trophy, recognizing “the best case of rocks in the show”), it is the three quality judges who join together to form the team who determines those winners. No scores are given, and any previous scoring of a case entered in competition for a special trophy is not known or used. This team now examines each specimen and each case to determine the winners. The Denver Show, on the other hand, awards several special trophies and under their system all of their judges award scores for all of the entries. Both systems work well because when it comes down to it, the goal is to provide as fair and unbiased/impartial judging as possible.

TGMS First Place Thumbnails in the Junior Division for 2019: Wyatt Busby
First Place Thumbnails in the Junior Division, 2019; Wyatt Busby. Christi Cramer photo.

Now let’s talk about the human factor in all of this. Like it or not, judges aren’t perfect; they are just human beings. For the Tucson Show, I always do my best to select knowledgeable mineral collectors, which have included dealers and museum curators, as judges. I also try to select judges who have competed in the past. Although dealers are many times the most knowledgeable about the availability of specimens, being a judge can put them in the awkward position of having to judge other dealers’ minerals (owned by the collectors they have sold to). And yet we still occasionally have dealers who are willing to share their expertise as judges. All potential quality judges spend at least their first year as a clerk. Each quality judge knows they are also training future judges. In addition, I provide each judging team with written guidelines about judging and a quality scale to help provide as much consistency as possible.

For the exhibitor, sometimes, it’s just bad luck. For example, a number of years ago a thumbnail collector brought an exhibit that included a large but somewhat etched cumengeite. For a thumbnail it was not the best one I had seen but it was at least a 9.5. However, the judges gave it around a 9 or 9.25 for two reasons. One was because of the pitting and the other was because the Sorbonne had brought all three of their fabulous cumengeites to exhibit. Now, all of them were small to medium size miniatures but the museum specimens stole the thunder from the smaller specimen in the competitive thumbnail case.

Another fault of human nature appears the first time a judge sees a great specimen; the initial shock value may generate a 9.75 or 10-point score. The next year the same exhibit shows up, even though this is still the best specimen anyone has seen (and not because they just found a quarry full of them in India) the piece may score only 9.5. And the third year it may drop even further. This depreciation of impact value is not mere conjecture; a top thumbnail collector and competitor kept track every year for the three years he competed with his thumbnail exhibit at Tucson and documented the declining scores.

There are two ways we try to minimize this effect. One is to rotate the quality judges so that every year there is at least one judge who did not judge the previous year. And, the fact that there are three quality judging teams is paramount. No matter how much the three judges may differ on a particular specimen, the total quality scores on any particular case are nearly always within just a couple of percentage points of each other.

The second mitigating factor we use is the point at which the first, second and third-place ribbons are awarded. In AFMS competition you must achieve at least 90 points to win a first-place ribbon. At Tucson, in the Masters class, the threshold is 85 points, Advanced is 75 points and it drops as low as 60 points for a Junior exhibitor. Not that the standards are lower in Tucson; just the opposite. In fact, one collector noted that the scores he was awarded by AFMS were often 10 points higher than he received from TGMS judges. In Tucson we place greater emphasis on specimen quality. Another example is labeling. In AFMS, labeling is worth 10 points and you lose 2 points for every labeling error; at Tucson it is 1⁄2 point. In the Masters class, there are only 6 points for labeling and in all of the other exhibitor categories it is 10 points. While accuracy in labeling is certainly important, it should never overshadow the quality of the specimens.

There is no question that the willingness to compete at all levels has diminished in recent times. Thirty-five years ago, at the Tucson Show® there were around 40 competitive exhibits, but for the past 15 or 20 years, that average has been closer to 20. Denver and Federation competition has seen the same declining trend. Certainly, the value of specimens may be a deterrent. As mentioned above, we all know that when you handle, pack and transport your specimens there is a risk of breaking something. In 2017, we (Les) moved 660 specimens from Gilbert, Arizona to Springfield, Massachusetts to fill 52 display cases at the East Coast Gem & Mineral Show. Not a single specimen was harmed. However, during the process of moving specimens around at home while preparing the cases, three specimens were slightly damaged.

Year after year, collectors are more than willing to put in non-competitive displays at the Tucson Show® but have no desire to compete. And considering that 1001 displays are brought to the Tucson Show® each year, of which around 20 are competitive displays, it is clear that many collectors are still willing to display their collections. So why should a person compete?

TGMS Desautels and Lidstrom Award winner for 2019: Irv Brown
Desautels and Lidstrom Award winner for 2019; Irv Brown. Christi Cramer photo.

The level of competition and the judges at the Tucson Show® are the best in the country. As has been described by more than one collector, the Tucson Show® is an ever-changing, temporary four-day world mineral museum exhibit. There are exhibitors who compete at Tucson who do not compete anywhere else because of the prestige of the show and the level of competition. There is a large pool of knowledgeable and willing mineral collectors to do the judging. So, it is like the World Championships every year, with the expectation that one or more of the top collectors will bring an exhibit to vie for the Best of Show in Masters as well as for the special trophies in the Desautels, the Lidstrom, the Bideaux and Best of Theme categories. Over the history of the Tucson competition and its special trophies, most of the winners of these awards have gone to everyday collectors who bring their best specimens or have a really great theme specimen or Arizona piece that takes home a trophy. Like the Lottery, you can’t win if you don’t enter.

I have been the Competitive Exhibits and Judging chairman at the Tucson Show® for the past 34 years and started judging in 1979. During that time, there have been three generations of Junior exhibitors I have helped mentor until they graduated from high school and went off to college. They came back every year, with better specimens and better showmanship while certainly correcting their labeling mistakes, to win the blue ribbon and ultimately a trophy. One of the other incentives has been provided through the generous assistance of Dr. Rob Lavinsky of The Arkenstone. He has given $100 to each Junior exhibitor just for exhibiting and then another $200 for the second-highest score and another $400 for the highest scoring junior age exhibitor for the past 10 years. After competing for over a decade, one of these young exhibitors, Lauren Megaw, won the Desautels at the age of 19! The Flagg Mineral Foundation and the Mineralogical Society of Arizona have supported the Phoenix area Junior collectors as well and encouraged them to compete in Tucson.

Competitive exhibiting is something every collector can do, regardless of their budget. Gretchen Luepke-Bynum, who exhibited competitively for decades, was such a collector. She had a limited budget coupled with a boundless enthusiasm for exhibiting and competing. She collected (1) world-wide thumbnails, (2) miniatures and (3) small cabinet-size specimens. So, every third year she would enter one of the three size categories, each time showing some improvement in her displays. She started as a college student in the Novice category and worked her way up with each of her collections. When she finally won her first Novice trophy it was a very proud moment for her. And it was another great moment when she won the Advanced level trophy. She was a fixture in the competition and the only show she missed was when she was recovering from knee or hip replacement surgery. She had far more white and red ribbons than blue ones, but I always admired her willingness to put her collection and herself out there.


Best of Species/Theme

The original idea for this competition came from an editorial written by John White in his early days as editor of the Mineralogical Record. The premise was to select a particular species that would be featured at various shows throughout the country and then bring the winners from each show to one show and have a run-off competition for the ultimate winners. The Tucson Show® Committee adopted this idea almost immediately, initially choosing minerals well represented in Arizona. The first competition was in 1972, the mineral selected was wulfenite, and this was before show posters and show themes were instituted. The next few years the favored topics included azurite, malachite, pyrite, and barite. The first deviation came when rhodochrosite was selected, a mineral that has few localities in Arizona, none of which are noteworthy. In addition to selecting a single species for competition, the Tucson Show® Committee has also selected significant locality areas such as Western Europe, Mexico, Australia, and even specific states like Arizona and California, to name just a few.

The Denver Gem & Mineral Show initiated its Best of Species/ Theme competition in 1992. As far as I know, these are the only two shows that have adopted this concept. Once posters began to be produced by the two shows, the poster mineral has coincided with the best of species/theme.

TGMS Desautels Award winner for 2018: Jeff Kremer
Desautels Award winner for 2018; Jeff Kremer. Wendell Wilson photo.

McDole/Desautels Trophy

The McDole Trophy was initiated in 1975 by John Patrick and Al McGuinness to honor the memory of Ed McDole, a hardrock miner turned mineral collector, who collected a number of fine pockets throughout the West and was a fixture at the Tucson Show®. The only criterion for judging was that “the best case of rocks” would be selected, no points given for labeling, and no consideration of showmanship—just the minerals themselves.

Every year, the judging team consisted of John Patrick, Al McGuinness and one of the quality judges from the Tucson Show’s competition judging team. Then the trophy was presented by John and Al during the Saturday night program. This was accompanied by the requirement that the winner knock back a shot of Old Bounders rum from a bottle supposedly owned by Ed McDole himself (although Ed McDole did not drink). After Al passed away in 1995 the McDole trophy was retired at John Patrick’s request and the Show Committee initiated the Desautels Trophy in its place, honoring former Smithsonian curator and mineral connoisseur Paul E. Desautels, who had died in 1991. The award still recognizes the best case of minerals in the show entered in this competition.

Lidstrom Trophy

Walt Lidstrom was a dealer in the show who started out as an agate collector and dealer. He quickly became one of the premier mineral dealers at the Tucson Show® and was always generous with his encouragement of young collectors, including me.

With his passing, his family funded a trophy to be awarded to the best single specimen, selected for consideration by an exhibitor, contained within a competitive exhibit. The specimen being selected by the exhibitor has always been the most interesting part of this competition. There are numerous examples of the exhibitor (including me) selecting the wrong specimen, or at least not the specimen the judges would have awarded the trophy to had the collector chosen that piece.

Bideaux Trophy

Richard A. Bideaux was a lifetime Arizona mineral collector and mineralogist who was also a computer expert. Upon his passing in 2004, The Tucson Show® committee decided to honor his memory with a competition and trophy for the best Arizona specimen entered for consideration.


I (Marc) have collected minerals for 40 years but consider myself to have been a serious collector since 2001. My wife Janis joined me in the hobby after the specimens that I brought home finally infected her with the collecting bug. The best way to define “serious” for us is being willing to spend an amount which causes some very careful internal debate before buying. Not surprisingly, this amount has increased over time as our tastes have evolved and mineral prices have risen. But it also means buying pieces that would, in the opinion of most experienced collectors, rank high for overall quality and appeal. Once we became serious, we continued to view it as a hobby and not as an investment, even though it captured a considerable portion of our discretionary funds. But we strove to acquire the very finest that we could afford. The thought was that someday we would divest the collection and we wanted to have a chance of recouping at least some of the cost. This is a pretty common theme among devoted collectors.

TGMS Desautels Award winner for 2017: Gary and Rosemary White
Desautels Award winner for 2017; Gary and Rosemary White. Wendell Wilson photo.

We followed the traditional path of going to Tucson and Denver regularly, as well as various other shows. Early on in the Tucson adventure, I and my collector friends would sift through every room, tent and parking lot we could find. There was far more trash than treasure to be seen, but it was exciting nonetheless, and educational. Janis and I also went to museums and saw as many private collections as possible. This gave us a very good sense of what constituted an exceptional specimen in most collectors’ minds and helped us focus on what appealed to us.

The Houston Area Mineral Society (HAMS) was inaugurated in 2004 to foster a growing group of like-minded collectors in our area. This group also accelerated our education regarding fine minerals and facilitated the exchange of ideas and information on collecting.

Mineral collecting has been a captivating and exciting adventure for us. We are always eager to see what new things the dealer community has brought to each show. We enjoy visiting with the many friends we have made over the years and hearing about the new treasures they have found. Minerals hold a fascination that is difficult to express, but Rock Currier did a fine job describing it in his series of Mineralogical Record essays entitled “About Mineral Collecting.” In his treatise he referred to one’s mineral collection as their “precious children.” This seems to effectively convey the passion serious collectors have about their specimens. So how did this lead to competing?

Tucson hosts what is widely regarded as the largest and most influential conglomeration of mineral shows on the planet—dubbed by the City Fathers as the “Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase.” The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show (TGMS), also called just the “Tucson Show” or the “Main Show,” is an entity separate from, but related to, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society (also called the TGMS) that originated it, and now has its own board of directors. The Main Show is the culmination of this multi-week, multi-show extravaganza each year. The TGMS mineral competition is also seen as the most prestigious event of its kind. Past winners comprise a Who’s Who of modern mineral collecting history. The names are known throughout the hobby, and to be listed among that group is a high honor indeed.

Over time we began to wonder how our collection would rank with the best. How would we fare against Gail and Jim Spann, Barry Kitt, Gene and Roz Meieran or any of the long list of notables who have competed and won? For us to end up on top when compared to those collections seemed unlikely. Nonetheless, we began to believe that we could be competitive at a high level and we became curious about how we would fare in an exclusive contest.

HAMS member Brent Lockhart suggested several years ago that we consider competing at the TGMS Main Show in Tucson. At first, we disregarded his suggestion because we did not think our collection was ready for competition, but he thought we had a chance. Brent won the Lidstrom trophy the first year he competed in 2014, for his wonderful Elura mine mimetite. He persevered to win the Desautels Award in 2016. Brent’s experience gave us confidence that his opinion should be trusted, and that encouragement would ultimately convince us that we should give it a try.

We finally decided to put our collection in competition for the first time in 2017. The trail had been blazed by Brent, along with other HAMS members, all of whom had some level of success in the TGMS competition. Mineral collecting has been such an integral part of our lives over the last 18 years that it felt like competing would be the next logical step. Collecting has been the focus of much of our travels and social events. So many friends have been made through our connection with this hobby. So much of our time and interest has been tied to minerals. It was not so much about winning an award as it was about all of those things. But win or not, we wanted to have the experience of competing in the mineralogical Mecca of Tucson, to complete our collecting legacy.

Deciding to compete is a major step forward, but then what? For most people the next step is a bit unclear. How do you enter? What are the various competitive categories? What exactly are the rules and where can they be found? Which of our pieces should be included in an exhibit? Most collectors are aware of the TGMS competition but largely unacquainted with the details. There is a set of Uniform Rules of Competition published by the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies (AFMS) that govern min- eral competitions at Federation shows. It is a hefty volume but the basic rules and definitions are covered in the first 12 pages. After that, the remaining 70 or so pages are devoted to specifics of the different divisions of competition (minerals, lapidary, fossils etc.). There is a class for everything “mineral” in this set of competition rules.

TGMS Desautels and Lidstrom Award winner for 2015: Pinnacle Collection.
Desautels and Lidstrom Award winner for 2015; Pinnacle Collection. Christi Cramer photo.

But TGMS has a unique set of rules described in its Competitive Exhibitor Handbook governing the TGMS competition in Tucson. The handbook describes the various exhibitor groups, competitive divisions and assorted awards. It also discusses classes for mineral exhibits and the criteria used in judging and scoring. Within the regular exhibitor groups (Junior through Master), TGMS rules allow for a minimum of 20 specimens of the mixed size and type division. This is one of the most common divisions of competition in Tucson. Competition is also common in the categories for miniature-size and toenail-size specimens (the “toenail” size category was initiated at the Tucson Show® as the intermediate size between thumbnails and miniatures), also with a minimum of 20 specimens required. The thumbnail class calls for at least 30 specimens for qualification. The special trophies (Desautels, Lidstrom etc.) each have their own separate set of requirements. A copy of the handbook can be requested from TGMS for further details.

Soliciting opinions from other collectors who have competed in Tucson is advisable, as there are some considerations that may not be apparent to the uninitiated. The general tendency for a collector is to select specimens for competition based on value rather than quality. Not that high-value pieces won’t score well, but in the regular exhibitor groups, quality is 75% of the score (85% at the Master or highest level) and dollar value is not necessarily a consideration. We have received very high scores on pieces that were not expensive. “Trophy rocks” can certainly provide an edge in the special award categories such as the Desautels or the Lidstrom where so-called “killer rocks” can move the needle. But to win in the regular competition divisions, all of the well-known quality criteria of form, color, luster, lack of damage etc. are most important. These are what the Tucson quality judges are looking for.

The regular competition groups are determined by a composite point score while the Desautels, Lidstrom and Bideaux Memorial Trophies are based on the majority opinion of the judges. So, it is not uncommon for a competitor to win Best of Show (the highest award at the Masters level of regular competition) but still fail to win the Desautels Trophy. Sometimes this is due to a competitor only entering for the Desautels and Lidstrom awards while not entering the regular competition.

Looking at our collection with a very critical eye, we immediately see all the imperfections. We are inclined to compare our pieces to things we have seen in the most elite museums and private collections in existence and feel inadequate. Competing against that level of quality may bring disappointment. But the reality is that museums do not compete, and the most elite collectors do not compete very often, if ever. However, Tucson annually attracts a group of fine collections for display so it benefits you to bring your best. It is typical to select personal favorites, but getting outside opinions on what pieces to include in a competitive exhibit can help to be objective. Ask four or five collector friends whose knowledge and judgment are trusted to help select a group of specimens that are the top tier.

Once the decision is made on the pieces to be included, the next step is to consider how to display them. Building a set of risers and case liners to make the exhibit look professional and appealing is worth the effort. Having been co-architect of past HAMS exhibits at the Tucson Show has helped me to prepare the proper display components. TGMS supplies very accurate dimensions of their exhibit cases, so a set of risers and liners can be constructed that will simply slide right into the case. Be mindful that a portion of the score is dependent upon showmanship and labeling accuracy as well as points for rarity.

Set up day can be stressful, and we have witnessed multiple competitors attempting to decide on the arrangement of the specimens in their exhibits under the duress of a bustling show floor. One recommendation is to stage the exhibit in a trial run before arriving in Tucson. This will allow time to experiment at leisure and achieve the most complimentary arrangement possible under calm conditions. Once the final display arrangement has been determined, photograph it to assist with the actual deployment.

TGMS Desautels and Lidstrom Award winner for 2013: Wendell Wilson
Desautels and Lidstrom Award winner for 2013; Wendell Wilson collection and photo.

TGMS Desautels Award winner for 2010: Alex Schauss
Desautels Award winner for 2010; Alex Schauss. Mark Mauthner photo.

We felt some anxiety prior to our first competition because of uncertainty about how our exhibit would be received by the judges. The results did yield some surprises, mainly related to how our specimens were ranked, but that should be expected. Judging a fine mineral competition is a subjective task and is predictably influenced by each judge’s knowledge, experience and personal preferences. If a judge seems critical, remember that all competitors are evaluated by the same panel. They genuinely want to make fair decisions based on the judging guidelines and can take advantage of a wealth of mineralogical knowledge on the floor during judging. The judges are collectors and former competitors and thereby appreciate the ability to make good selections as well as the effort required to field an exhibit.

Our personal experience with competition has been very rewarding. It has been an affirming experience invigorating our love for the hobby. We were delighted to share the joy of collecting with the community of collectors in a more direct way. As much as winning awards, the supportive comments from observers and comradery with other competitors during the show have been very gratifying. Janis and I entered for the Master level regular competition as well as the special categories of Paul Desautels and Walt Lidstrom Memorial Trophies in 2017. We were honored to be awarded the Lidstrom trophy that year. In 2018 we entered the same competitions and were awarded Masters Best of Show along with the Lidstrom for a second time. In 2019 we won Masters Best of Show once again. The Desautels Award has thus far proven to be very elusive.

One important realization we came away with is that we believe we could conceivably win the Desautels Award in any given year, depending upon who chooses to compete against us that year. That knowledge is good enough for us. We also recognize that there are collectors out there who could most likely win an award if they chose to enter. Many great collections exist that are not widely known. These collectors may have decided that competition is not why they are involved in this hobby. It is a personal decision. We also know that winning an award does not constitute owning the best collection in the hobby. To us it simply means that you possess a high-level collection that is worthy of recognition.

For anyone considering entering the competition, we would strongly suggest that you take some time while at the “Main Show” in Tucson to visit the competitive exhibits aisle. See first-hand what specimens competitors have entered and how they have displayed them. The awards are typically announced before the show opens on Saturday morning. If you are there early, you can see the winning exhibits and probably speak personally with the winners. They are usually available to share their excitement with anyone who is interested.

TGMS Desautels Award winner for 2014: Gail and Jim Spann
Desautels Award winner for 2014; Gail and Jim Spann. Wendell Wilson photo.


Whether you want to show off your specimens at the Tucson Show® or take it one step further and compete, the Show Committee heartily encourages you to bring your display. If in the process you can get your case evaluated in detail by highly knowledgeable and experienced collectors, does that not provide you with one more reason to display competitively? And what about the possibility of going home with a trophy and possibly one of the most prestigious trophies in the hobby, with either the Desautels or the Lidstrom (not taking anything away from the Denver Show because I (Les) am just as proud of our Pearl Trophies and their best-of-theme awards as our various Tucson Show® trophies)?

All of the information for competing at the Tucson Show® is available on the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show website. If there are any questions, feel free to contact Les Presmyk. See you at the next Tucson Show®!


TGMS 2014 Lidstrom Award winner: Brent Lockhart
2014 Lidstrom Award winner; Brent Lockhart. Joe Budd Photo.

2015 TGMS Best of Show Masters winner: James & Charelle Webb
2015 Best of Show Masters winner; James & Charelle Webb. Bruce Friedman Photo.

2015 TGMS Lidstrom Award winner: Pinnacle Collection
2015 Lidstrom Award winner; Pinnacle Collection. Bruce Friedman Photo.

2016 TGMS Best of Show Masters winner: Gary & Rosemary White
2016 Best of Show Masters winner; Gary & Rosemary White. David Bristol Photo.

2016 TGMS Desautels Award winner: Brent Lockhart
2016 Desautels Award winner; Brent Lockhart. David Bristol Photo.

2016 TGMS Lidstrom Award winner; Jim Poteete
2016 Lidstrom Award winner; Jim Poteete. Gary White Photo.

2017 TGMS Lidstrom Award winner: Marc & Janis Countiss
2017 Lidstrom Award winner; Marc & Janis Countiss. Marc Countiss Photo.

2018 TGMS Best of Show Masters winner: Marc & Janis Countiss
2018 Best of Show Masters winner; Marc & Janis Countiss. Marc Countiss Photo.

2018 TGMS Desautels Award entries: Cases
2018 Desautels Award entries. Marc Countiss Photo.

2018 TGMS Lidstrom Award winner: Marc & Janis Countiss
2018 Lidstrom Award winner; Marc & Janis Countiss. Marc Countiss Photo.

2019 TGMS 2nd Place Novice winner
2019 2nd Place Novice winner. Marc Countiss Photo.

2019 TGMS Best Miniature - Best of Theme - Species winner; Irv Brown
2019 Best Miniature - Best of Theme - Species winner; Irv Brown. Marc Countiss Photo.

2019 TGMS Best of Show winner: Marc & Janis Countiss
2019 Best of Show winner; Marc & Janis Countiss. Marc Countiss Photo.

2019 TGMS Desautels Award entries
2019 Desautels Award entries. Marc Countiss Photo.

2019 TGMS Lidstrom Award winner: Irv Brown
2019 Lidstrom Award winner; Irv Brown. Marc Countiss.

2020 TGMS 1st Place Junior winner: Colton Kalina
2020 1st Place Junior winner; Colton Kalina. Marc Countiss Photo.

2020 TGMS Best Novice winner: David Tibbitts
2020 Best Novice winner; David Tibbitts. Marc Countiss Photo.

2020 TGMS Desautels & Lidstrom Award winner: Alyssa Donovan
2020 Desautels & Lidstrom Award winner; Carabas Collection. Marc Countiss Photo.

2020 TGMS Lidstrom Award winner: Alyssa Donovan
2020 Lidstrom Award winner; Carabas Collection. Marc Countiss Photo.

Competition Exhibits Viewers at the 2018 TGMS Show
Competition Exhibits Viewers at the 2018 Show. Marc Countiss Photo.

TGMS Paul Desautels Trophy
Paul Desautels Trophy. Marc Countiss Photo.

History of Specimen Mining at Hardangervidda, Norway

Apr 28, 2020


Anatase was named in 1801 and is one of five naturally occurring forms of titanium dioxide. It is found all over the world, on all continents, (even Antarctica!), but Norway hadn’t been known as a producer of showy, display specimens. That all changed in the 1970s when quartz crystals sprinkled with large (5-10mm) anatase crystals from “Hardangervidda, Norway” hit the European market, and specimens soon started reaching North American markets as well. This was the first major “alpine-type” deposit found in Norway and was of great interest to geologists as well as mineral collectors. The story about the discovery and the manner in which the locality was exploited raised a number of interesting points about Norwegian law concerning mineral collecting during that time. Today, the deposit is essentially exhausted and the locality is a national park.

Anatase with Quartz from Hardangervidda, 6.0cm specimen. Watercolor artwork by mineral artist Leah Luten. Alex Venzke Specimen.

Location and Discovery

Hardangervidda is a mountain plateau in central southern Norway, covering parts of the counties of Buskerud, Hordaland and Telemark. It is the largest plateau of its kind in Europe, with a cold year-round alpine climate, and one of Norway's largest glaciers, Hardangerjøkulen, is situated here. Much of the plateau is protected as part of Hardangervidda National Park. Much of the Hardangervidda's geology is extremely ancient. The rolling hills of the Hardangervidda are the remnants of mountains that were worn down by the action of glaciers during the Ice Ages. The bedrock is mainly of Precambrian and Cambro-Silurian origin.

Hardangervidda, in the southern part of Norway

Hardangervidda, especially the western part, also called Hardangervidda West in recent mineralogical literature, which belongs to the Hordaland County, is famous for producing great specimens of anatase and quartz. The localities that have produced most specimens are Matskorhæ (now protected) and Dyrfonni. Clusters of transparent quartz crystals dusted with blue-black bipyramidal, sharp 5-10 mm large anatase crystals were typical specimens found at this site, especially in the 1970s. The locality is today considered exploited. It is located near Mt. Matskorhæ, east of the Ringedalsvatnet Lake, outside the border of the Hardangervidda National Park. It is also located within the Ullensvang Statsalmenning (statsalmenning = a government forest and mountain common land with certain laws and rules for the use of the land). The area covered by the Ullensvang statsalmenning is divided by both Ullensvang and Odda municipalities, and Matskorhæ is located within the Odda municipality. It was nicknamed "Grisebingen" (the pig pen) by Norwegian collectors, due to the dirty working conditions at the locality. The deposit is located 1300 meters high in elevation on the western side of Hardangervidda and is inaccessible for 10-11 months of the year due to deep snow.

Before development, the surface expression of the deposit was a large cavity (~1 cubic meter) filled with quartz crystals, up to 10 cm long, with scattered anatase crystals above a large talus slope littered with quartz crystals. The cavity had been exposed 6000-8000 years ago during the last retreat of the glaciers. An old reindeer-hunting lookout was found on a cliff above the deposit so this site was likely known from antiquity; reindeer are still found here to this day! Quartz crystals from here may well have been used as tools by Stone Age hunters.

In modern times, the locality was first visited by collectors in 1966, when the Tyssefallene A/S power company began building dams in the area and several workers learned about the hole from local residents and started removing minerals to decorate their homes with. Norwegian concession laws require that any mineral finds on a concession property must be reported to state authorities, such as the Geological Survey or the Museum. A person falsely presenting themselves as a professional geologist from a Norwegian university visited the dam site and asked if any minerals had been found, was led by the company to the locality, due to Norwegian concession laws. This “professional geologist” and his associates began mining operations in 1969 under the false pretense of “scientific investigation” of the Hardangervidda deposit. From 1969 to 1974, the construction workers and the “geologist” and associates extracted large quantities of material. There was a market for single quartz crystals and small clusters with anatase so, unfortunately, little or no attempt was made to remove large, complete clusters. The majority of work done over this 5 year period was done with an L-shaped steel bar, with which crystals were broken from the matrix and dragged out of the hole.

Anatase on Quartz, Mount Storenut, near Hardangervidda, Hordaland, Norway. Ex Martin Lewadny collection. 3.5cm.

In 1974, a group of amateur mineralogists visited the deposit and succeeded in taking out several remarkable clusters. They reported the deposit to the Mineralogisk-Geologisk Museum, donated their finds, and suggested the deposit be put under special protection to stop the vandalism being done by the commercial operators. The Museum contacted the power company, the State Forestry Authority, and the police to protect the area. In the end, the power company property line was posted, the company warden and local sheriff were empowered to turn away unauthorized people, and the cable lift, which had provided easy access to the deposit, was dismantled since construction on the dam had been completed earlier. There were expeditions by the Museum and amateur mineralogists in 1975 and 1976, which were focused on mapping, sampling, and exploratory digging. They concluded that very little significant material could be removed from the deposit without extensive extraction work but the deposit and dump are geologically interesting and would remain under legal protection.


 The deposit occurs in the phyllites of the Holmasjø Formation. The phyllites are part of a sheet that was thrust over the Precambrian granite basement during the Caledonian orogenic event. On top of the phyllites lies another thrust sheet of Precambrian granites and gneisses. Foliation is dipped at a low angle and is cut with subhorizantal thrust zones parallel to the major thrust faults. Some minor faults are filled with finely crushed rock but others are brecciated with large blocks of phyllite. The breccia zones are filled with milky quartz lenses and full of druzy cavities. After the thrusting, the phyllites were weakly folded and created NE-trending en échelon gash veins, which were filled with druzy quartz. In those veins, the quartz was typically rutilated and anatase was often found where open space had formed. The original deposit occurred at the end of one such vein that was filling a minor thrust plane. Minor fault movement provided access to large open areas where mineralized solutions were able to deposit quartz and TiO2 minerals. The movement continued after crystallization of quartz and anatase; many anatase covered quartz were broken off and regrown so doubly terminated “floaters” are common.

The weak breccia zone where anatase was concentrated was easily excavated with hand tools. The tunnel follows the edge of the quartz lens and the greatest concentration of anatase was found in a zone where the gash veins were visible in the roof and floor of the tunnel; the abundance and quality of the anatase quickly and sharply dropped off in all directions from that zone. The quartz crystals come off the phyllite matrix easily but great care was needed to extract large groups. That is why many of the anatase on quartz crystals you see today are single points or smaller clusters. Very few large clusters were unearthed intact from Hardangervidda.

[1] Griffin, W.L., Garmo, T., Løvenskiold, H., Palmstrøm, A. (1977) Anatase from Norway. Mineralogical Record, 8, 266-271.
[2] Matskorhæ (Matskorhae), Hardangervidda West, Odda, Hordaland, Norway (
[3] Robert B. Cook (2002) Connoisseur's Choice: Anatase, Hardangervidda, Ullensvang, Norway, Rocks & Minerals, 77:6, 400-403, DOI: 10.1080/00357529.2002.9924892

We'd like to extend a special thanks to friend Alex Venzke for authoring this article.

Little Wonders: Connoisseur Thumbnails in the Contemporary Collector Market

Apr 7, 2020

Written by Dr. Jim Houran, Jim Bleess, and Dr. Alex Schauss. Adapted with permission for publication on

Thumbnail fine mineral specimens from China Selection of Thumbnail mineral specimens at the 2013 exhibit of China Crystalline Treasures, highlighting specimens from Dr. Robert Lavinsky's private collection of Chinese minerals, with additions from 20 other collectors, at the University of Arizona's Flandrau Science Center


Mineral collectors generally differentiate six specimen sizes, starting with the smallest, termed micromounts, followed by thumbnails, toenails, miniatures, small cabinet and ending with large cabinet or museum-size pieces. In some cultures massive size is equated to quality, but collectors past and present have more often observed that bigger is not always better. Rather, the opposite is usually the reality with minerals. Large, perfect crystals are uncommon for several reasons. Most notably, bigger crystals require more space to grow, which often is unavailable. Even with open space, the diffusion rates are typically such that it is ‘easier’ to nucleate a new crystal than for ions to migrate to the surface of an already growing crystal, encouraging the growth of more crystals rather than larger ones. Large, pristine crystals form only in environments allowing both ample space and high diffusion rates, such as pegmatites. Therefore, smaller crystals offer the highest degree of perfection and for this reason they have historically been very collectible.

In particular, Wendell Wilson and James Houran (2012) documented the long but somewhat quiet history and development of thumbnail collecting as a specialization. Thumbnails are specimens that can be oriented to fit within an imaginary 2.5 cm (1-inch) cube. In formal exhibit competition the unspoken amendment to this rule is that specimens should be oriented aesthetically within this space. Thumbnail specimens – for private collection or public competition – typically measure over ½ × ½ inch but generally not much larger than 1 × 1 inches and are considered to be the smallest size that can be appreciated without optical magnification.

This makes thumbnails ideal for collecting, study and display. Prominent USA dealers and collectors such as Jim and Dawn Minette, Willard "Perky" Perkin (1907-1991), after whom the standard Perky Box is named, and others advanced the collecting of specific suites of minerals deemed "competitive thumbnails sizes, by the 1970s. Although it seems that "collector-dealers" started the trend to competitive thumbnail collecting, it was not long before "collector-collectors" got in on it as well. A well known example from the East Coast circuit is the collection of Jennie Areson of New York

Areson's mineral collection was highly appreciated by the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show Early scorecard from the Long Island Gem and Mineral Festival judging Areson's competition case, back in 1971!

An aside on Perky, courtesy of (Wendell Wilson's) biography archive on the Mineralogical Record Site "Perkin was one of the first dealers to specialize in thumbnail-size specimens, and he had a talent for aesthetically trimming and mounting them. He built a fine personal mineral collection of high-quality cabinet-size and smaller specimens which he placed in drawers and on glass shelves in big glass-fronted display cases lining the walls of a small garage in his Burbank home. He also developed a strong interest in micromounting." In the early 1956-1959 he worked for three years for mineral dealer George Burnham ("Burminco") (q.v.) in Monrovia, California. While working in Burnham's shop, Perkin was shown a small, cubical, black plastic box by a traveling salesman. It inspired the invention of what became known as the "perky" box, a 1.25-inch box for thumbnail specimens, which Perkin had manufactured and which he began selling to other collectors. When the number of orders coming in became overwhelming he sold the box business to someone else, but the name "perky box" stuck. In 1971 tragedy struck in the form of the Sylmar earthquake, which shattered the glass cases and shelves in his garage; the beautiful specimens crashed to the bottom of the cases together and out onto the concrete floor amid piles of broken glass. Perkin appeared to take the loss with good grace, but much of his enthusiasm for collecting minerals had died. Soon he began selling off the surviving specimens from the drawers, retaining only his thumbnails and micromounts."

Although traditionally most popular in the United States, thumbnail collecting is an important and quickly growing segment of the mineral hobby due to several factors working in tandem, for instance, generally lower prices than popular hand-size specimens, easier handling and storage requirements and of course, the higher tendency for crystal perfection. Numerous mineral species also are known only in smaller sizes, meaning that some unique thumbnails may even qualify for a coveted "world's best" designation. Top pieces exemplify the quality and importance small specimens can achieve when there is a balance of aesthetics, scientific relevance and historical importance. This is why many major collections have included thumbnails even though it may not have been a deliberate intention. Or, collectors who amassed large collections in the 1960s-1980s later separated out thumbnails into discrete suites once they went down that road by love of the minerals anyhow. A prime example is John Barlow, who had 5000 larger pieces and loved all sizes, yet eventually had separated out his thumbnails into a separate display collection with separate numbering. He later sold them to Rob Lavinsky apart from the sale of the main part of the Barlow Collection in 1998, and they remain in circulation today, recognizable by his own custom special display bases that fit his custom cabinets for thumbnails designed to make them "show off" amongst larger pieces.

Neptunite with Benitoite - This is an exquisite miniature highlighted by a very lustrous, black crystal of neptunite, measuring 2.7 cm in length and elegantly nestled in a vug of natrolite. On either side of the neptunite crystal is a lustrous blue benitoite crystal, each measuring 9 mm in length. Ex. John Barlow collection. Note that this is still attached to his display competition base which he would have used when exhibiting his core thumbnail collection in Tucson in the 1990s!

Thumbnail collecting is a flexible and egalitarian specialty, open to beginning and advanced collectors who want inexpensive yet highly diverse specimens that require minimal storage space. That said, top-quality thumbnails have received a resurgence of interest and market value. This article reviews a confluence of three forces that have arguably helped to produce this heightened interest in fine thumbnails or what Thomas Moore, Mineralogical Record editor, aptly termed “connoisseur thumbnails” (Mineralogical Record, 33, p. 183).

The Rise of ‘Connoisseur’ Collecting

Interest in connoisseur thumbnails has been in step with an increased interest in fine specimens in general. To be sure, mineral collecting as a scientific, social and aesthetic endeavor as it is understood now is a relatively recent development that has been inextricably linked with the notion of connoisseurship (Cooper, 2010; Wilson, 1994). As Cooper (2010) noted, “With the rise, during the 17th century, of a scientific elite and a corresponding development of science as a gentlemanly pursuit, mineral specimens, along with all other productions of the natural world, came to be esteemed not only as tools with which to grasp the fundamental truths of nature, or as guides to hidden, exploitable wealth, but, increasingly, as objects desirable in their own right…’” (emphasis added, p. 5).

However, this holistic perspective has become increasingly diluted in modern times. Looking honestly at the collecting community today many hobbyists insist on differentiating two types of collectors, put simply as ‘purists’ and ‘elitists.’ These categories have been framed and discussed in different ways – for example, those who field-collect versus purchase (‘silver pick’) specimens, those who seek representative examples versus ‘trophy’ (elite quality) specimens, and those who advocate mineral science versus mineral art. In other words, purists equate connoisseurship with knowledge of the scientific aspects of specimens, whereas elitists are assumed to regard connoisseurship as rooted in understanding the aesthetic aspects of specimens. A cursory review of various online discussion boards like and the Friends of Mineralogy Forum (FMF) at Fabre Minerals reveals these perceptions to be quite strong and sometimes downright contentious when it comes to ‘purists’ commenting on connoisseur or ‘elite’ collecting, and sometimes vice versa.

Assemblage of fine minerals and crystals - thumbnail sized minerals Assembling little treasures of fine minerals can be a cost-effective and rewarding pursuit.

The perceived distinction perhaps boils down to competing definitions of specimen significance, and by extension, a philosophy about the ‘correct’ approach to mineral collecting. Most collectors publicly agree that there is no singular, proper way to collect, except perhaps encouraging individuals to “collect what you like.” Yet in the same breath most will also concur with the seemingly contradictory but well-cited piece of advice to “buy the best you can afford.” In one scenario specimen quality is not a prerequisite, but in the other it is. Connoisseur collecting takes the latter advice one step further by motivating individuals to “buy the best there is.” This stringent focus on quality (significance combined with aesthetics) is actually nothing new. Charles Henry Pennypacker (1845-1911), collector, part-time dealer and frequent contributor to The Mineral Collector, levied harsh criticism at the hobby even in its early days. He asserted that a mineral collection is a representation of the collector, and as such, inexpensive specimens and bragging about “good deals you got on your specimens” rather than striving for the best, means that both you and your collection were an embarrassment (Lininger, 1993, p. 9). Of course, the collecting is personal and this is a spectrum, that also depends on the desire (and financing) of the collector. Luckily, Thumbnails in particular among other mineral classes, lend themselves to appealing to players of all means.

Of course, price is neither a synonym nor guarantee of quality. The same is true for the marketing claims of mineral dealers. Jolyon Ralph (2013) of Mindat argued that, “Phrases such as ‘world-class’, ‘museum quality,’ ‘exceptional,’ ‘unique’ or ‘ikon’ are meaningless marketing adjectives. Just ignore them, and I wouldn't do them any service by promoting the use of them in a club magazine.” There is some truth to this observation; published authorities have rightfully cautioned that a mineral evaluation is only as meaningful as the knowledge and experience of the person making it. But the basic assertion that such descriptors per se are meaningless hyperbole is not shared by connoisseur-level collectors, since quality is not a purely subjective concept.

Many knowledgeable collectors, dealers and journal editors alike have outlined a generally agreed upon set of core attributes of connoisseur specimens (e.g., Bancroft, 1984; Wilson, 1990; Wilson, Bartsch & Mauthner, 2004; Smale, 2006; Halpern, 2005; Thompson, 2007; Currier, 2009; Wilson & Houran, 2012; Houran, 2013; Lavinsky & Moore, 2013). These sources effectively explain specimen aesthetics, i.e., the visual, sculptural qualities that are most desirable to Western collectors. Plus, the ongoing record of mineral finds in the academic literature regularly informs collectors about what constitutes the highest development of a species to date in terms of color, form and condition, i.e., specimen significance. Contrary to the apparent prevalence of ‘purist’ attitudes in its membership, Mindat also implicitly incorporates an ‘elitist’ perspective with its ongoing “Best Minerals” project. This initiative aims to document significant specimens by species and locality. There is therefore unquestionably a hierarchy of quality, with aesthetics and significance defining the level synonymous with ‘exceptional,’ ‘world-class’ or ‘connoisseur’ specimens.

The connoisseur philosophy is visible in the hobby in many other ways. One of the most obvious, pervasive and influential examples is the multitude of well-produced periodicals and books that outline the criteria for specimen quality, discuss the major localities where the best examples are found and present illustrative specimens. Thompson (2007) and Currier (2008) identified the best classic and current texts on minerals that serve as excellent primers. Plus, the many outstanding Mineralogical Record supplements, extraLapis issues and the monographs from Lithographie all tend to show the finest specimens from top collectors. This literature suggests that the number of connoisseur collectors is healthy, even though they may not constitute the majority in the mineral hobby.

The editorial priority in illustrating only the best specimens in periodicals has detractors who complain the practice is elitist rather than scientific. Speaking to this issue, Mineralogical Record editor-in-chief Wendell Wilson countered that the practice was unquestionably educational for readers (Praszkier, 2012, p. 16; cf. Wilson, 2013). He reasoned that the best specimens show the fullest development of the various features and qualities of a species, which collectors can then extrapolate downward to lesser specimens. On the other hand, no one can look at lesser specimens and know what the best will look like. Wilson’s point is well taken and as long been adopted elsewhere. For example, an early edition of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals (Chesterman, 1978) stated that minerals should be illustrated that “...are of finer quality than the amateur is likely to find; this is necessary to show clearly the distinctive qualities of color, crystal form, and habit” (p. 40).

Connoisseur specimens transcend aesthetics and the investment potential of minerals as commodities. The trend in some circles therefore to characterize connoisseurs as ‘aesthetically’ rather than ‘scientifically’ minded collectors altogether misses the point. Connoisseur thumbnail collectors, at the very least, tend to appreciate and recognize both perspectives as two sides of the same proverbial coin (Wilson & Houran, 2012). There is a clear understanding that specimens with both significance and aesthetics are rare scientific objects that represent the coming together of ideal physical conditions. Connoisseur specimens are beautiful and easily studied geological marvels that represent the highest level of development of a species. Collectors appreciate that the aesthetics exist precisely because of the scientific forces that were at play in the first place. 

Availability of Connoisseur Thumbnail Specimens

Improved mining operations and a deliberate focus on careful specimen retrieval and preparation have produced an influx of interest and availability of connoisseur minerals of all sizes. Complementing new sources of specimens are frequent offerings from old collections. This has been especially good for thumbnail collectors. In fact, the past decade or so has seen a rise in the number of connoisseur thumbnails come to market from de-accessioned private collections. One could even argue that there has been an unprecedented flood of fine material from notable private collectors over this time span. Sometimes institutions also deaccession specimens, such as was the case with the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences (Wilson, 2006). Some of these collections were exclusively thumbnails but most were not – a fact that underscores how general collectors include smaller specimens when they are the best available of a species.

Sales of legacy collections like the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, Herb Obodda (White, 2008) and James and Dawn Minette (Staebler, 2010) collections are always exciting events for collectors. There is also a considerable element of psychology at work that lends credibility and desirability to specimens from such famous collections. This is discussed in more detail below, but the notion of “social proof” is relevant here. Social proof is about conformity, and when many seasoned buyers flock around a recently released collection, less informed buyers will assume that they should participate as well. The tactic has notable benefits. For example, serious-minded newcomers to the hobby can efficiently enhance their collections by culling specimens from previous collections that were built on connoisseurship. The difficult work has been done in this scenario, i.e., selecting the best available specimens of given species. This can come at high financial costs; however, since connoisseur specimens are rarely low-priced and overlooked ‘sleepers.’ That said, significant collections, such as that of Salim Edde founder of the MIM Museum in Beirut (Wilson, 2014, 2015) or the Perkins Sams collection now with the Houston Museum of Science, have been built in good part by capitalizing on the previous connoisseurship efforts of others (and by the way, they will include thumbnails as well in their collections if they believe they are best of species or intellectually interesting, despite their reputations for having minerals of larger sizes).

Perhaps more than ever collectors have the largest and most diverse selection of connoisseur-level material. Still, the concomitant increase in prices has meant that it often takes significant financial resources to obtain the best pieces. The demand in the current market for connoisseur specimens, even thumbnail sized, suggests that the connoisseur community has healthy numbers and competition for the finest specimens will remain fierce. Many contemporary collectors, to be sure, have gained great reputations in the hobby by-passing larger-scale specimens in favor of connoisseur thumbnails.

This latter fact often puzzles those in the hobby who proclaim, “I collect minerals, not sizes” – a phrase attributed to collector Neal Yedlin (Wilson, 1990). True enough, to our knowledge American collectors are the only ones who consistently make size a rigid collecting requirement. The obvious and practical reason for focusing on size is overcoming restricted storage and display space. But the deeper and simpler truth is that thumbnail aficionados are under a friendly spell. Thumbnails are visually rewarding in large part because smallness defines their charm. In turn, this charm eclipses the mental demand for specimen size. The attribute of charm carries a dimensional quality as substantial as length or height.

Wendell WIlson thumbnail collection on display Wendell Wilson has assembled a fantastic, award-winning collection of thumbnails.

Collecting small specimens is not new – the novelty comes from the recent development of assembling an entire collection of strictly (and mostly uniformly) small specimens. There are many ways to structure mineral collections, and thumbnails should be as valid as the other forms of specialization discussed by Dunn and Francis (1990) – after all, no one ever seems to say, “I collect minerals, not localities, crystal classes, mineral classes, etc. Rather than a focus on size per se, it has been suggested that thumbnails are ultimately about collecting uniformly charming specimens that represent the highest level of development; these just naturally tend to be thumbnail size (Houran, 2014). Indeed, a well-chosen assembly of 1-inch specimens, mounted and lighted, is stunning. The visual appeal alone should guarantee that thumbnails will remain a center event in the hobby for many years to come.

Prevalence of Thumbnail Resources and Exhibits

Mineral shows understandably promote larger, spectacular specimens for public exhibits like the famous ‘Aztec Sun’ legrandite or the ‘Rose of Itatiaia’ elbaite. These are extreme mineral collecting, the stratosphere of mineral experience. This attention to ‘big and beautiful’ pieces at mineral shows; however, is typically balanced with smaller specimens like thumbnail displays of an educational or competitive sort. This exposes more people to the thumbnail niche, as well as helps to educate viewers on the current benchmarks as to what constitutes aesthetics and significance for given species or varieties, as well as for examples from specific localities.

Many recent exhibits and competitive cases have consequently built on the first two market forces (rise of connoisseur collecting and availability of thumbnails) such that the quality of the thumbnails shown typically serves as an extremely strong complement to – if not matches or exceeds in quality and diversity – the larger specimens on exhibit.

The single most active exhibitor popularizing this model in recent times, has to be Herb and Monika Obodda. A dealer since his childhood days, Herb traveled to Kabul in the late 1960's and literally opened up the country for mineral collectors. Over the decades between then and the sale of his collection (to Rob Lavinsky at Arkenstone) in 2008, Herb collected for himself, and particularly kept many fine thumbnails and miniatures. As he says in an interview "Well, almost nobody would pay for good small things at the time I started this, so why sell them? I like rocks , too. I figured I'd keep some things"....and this led to what was surely the finest overall locality-constrained collection of Afghani and Pakistani thumbnails. After he (semi-)retired, he began exhibiting his personal collection at Munich, Springfield, and in a special exhibition in Tucson in 2007. Now dispersed into major collections all over the world, you can see in the photos below how the Obodda's experimented with different display formats to show their thumbnails in the presence of, and synergistic with, larger specimens as part of a larger exhibition of the collection.


Thumbnail fine minerals; Obodda exhibit at University of Arizona Thumbnail display from Dangerous Beauty: Minerals of the Hindu Kush at the University of Arizona's Flandrau Science Center. R. Lavinsky photo


Thumbnail specimens from the Herb and Monika Obodda collection, on display at the Springfield Mineral Show in 2008. Featured here are specimens from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obodda photo.


Obodda thumbnail exhibit at the 2007 Munich Show. R. Lavinsky photo.


Some of the most prominent displays of connoisseur thumbnails in recent years include the following:

Denver Gem and Mineral Show

In addition to the formal competitions, major collectors routinely contribute top-quality thumbnail exhibits for educational purposes and general enjoyment. Typically these arrays do not focus on a given species but rather showcase a wonderful diversity of material and even collectors. These displays also serve as instructive glimpses into the personalities, styles and knowledge levels of the individual contributors, which can be educational and insightful for any collector. For example, the 2016 Denver Show featured a major thumbnail display by Ralph Clark that was specifically noted in the Mineralogical Record’s show report with a photo that took up nearly half a page (Moore, 2017, p. 138). In describing the impact of Clark’s case, Tom Moore wrote, “This was…a downright intoxicating array of best-of-all-possible thumbnails and “toenails,” and great was the wonder…of serious collectors (not only thumbnailers), who crowded this case all through the show” (p. 138).

Selection of thumbnails from Ralph Clarks mineral collection At the 2017 Denver Mineral Show, Ralph Clark exhibited a MAJOR display of his thumbnail collection!

Tucson Gem and Mineral Show (TGMS – Main Show)

This legendary event has traditionally set the standard for both competitive and educational displays. Many thumbnail displays have won competitions over the years, but most recently there has been a dedicated focus on making thumbnails featured educational exhibits. This trend began in 2008 with the American Mineral Treasures (AMT) project. The Crater of Diamonds, Pike Co., Arkansas locality (Howard & Houran, 2008) was represented by 16 famous diamonds finds, including the extraordinary 17-carat canary-yellow crystal from the Roebling Collection at the Smithsonian Institution (cf. Wilson, 2008). This case had the distinction of being the only thumbnail display among the AMT exhibits. Two years later, the authors coordinated a community exhibit titled “Connoisseur Thumbnails” – an unprecedented effort that was highlighted in the MR show report (Moore, 2010). The display brought together 92 specimens from 19 collectors. This successful format was repeated again in 2013 as illustrated in Wilson and Houran’s (2012) article, “The Elegant World of Thumbnail Minerals” (Moore, 2013b). It is also worth noting that in this same year mineral dealer and collector Diana Weinrich showed exceptional pieces from her private thumbnail collection.

Thumnbnails, Allan Young exhibit, 2005 TGMS Mineral Show Allan Young swept up awards at the 2005 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, including the Desautels, Lidstrom, and Best in Show!


Tucson Gem and Mineral Show exhibit winning case - Dr. Alex Schauss In 2010, Dr. Alex Schauss was awarded the Desautels and Lidstrom prizes for his exhibit of thumbnail specimens; Tucson Gem and Mineral Show

Mineralientage München

Although many dealers at all price points have offered thumbnails throughout the 50-year history of this important show, the 2012 event was landmark. The show theme was “African Secrets” and for the first time in its history an exhibit composed exclusively of thumbnails was invited and featured. Titled “African Thumbnail Treasures,” this display brought together 182 specimens from 18 collectors representing four continents. An entire wall of the “African Secrets” exhibit area was cordoned off for four differently themed cases: Tsumeb, Classsics, Esoteric (rare or unusual species) and Gemstones (see Moore, 2013a). A fifth ‘potpourri’ case of miscellaneous African thumbnails was even added during final set up due to popular demand of the show organizers, who were pleasantly surprised that this array more than held its own compared to the myriad of larger and highly important African specimens displayed in the same area.

University of Arizona (UA)

In 2013, the Flandreau Science Center and Museum at UA (Tucson, Arizona) launched a year-long exhibit called “Crystalline Treasures: The Mineral Heritage of China.” The exhibit predominantly featured the important Chinese collection of Dr. Robert Lavinsky (Moore, 2013b; Liu et al., 2013). To complement the wide assortment of miniature and cabinet sized specimens, Dr. Lavinsky and the other exhibit organizers invited a special case devoted to top Chinese thumbnails and toenail size specimens (65 in total, representing 16 collectors). This mini-display within the larger exhibit was presented via a round pedestal case in the middle of the exhibit hall allowing a full 360-degree view of all pieces. It proved to be one of the most popular aspects of the exhibit.

Chinese thumbnail specimens Head on view of thumbnails at the China Crystalline treasures exhibit, Tucson Flandreau Museum, 2013, including specimens from 20 collectors. This was a first, in exhibiting in the round, so people could move around the case and look more intimately at the specimens on exhibit. This will surely set a future trend for museums for thumbnail displays! Bryan Swoboda Photo

Commercial Media

There have been two especially noteworthy efforts highlighting connoisseur thumbnails. First, the Lithographie publishing firm released its highly anticipated book, The Jim & Dawn Minette Collection (Staebler, 2010). Secondly, Bryan Swoboda of Blue Cap Productions launched the new DVD series “Mineral Perspectives” in 2010, with an inaugural three-volume set devoted to connoisseur thumbnails (to date only the first two volumes have been released). This series utilized new photographic techniques developed by Swoboda and Jeff Scovil to present specimens in extremely high resolution, and almost 3D-like quality, while in 360-degree rotation. This approach allows viewers to study the specimens in supreme detail and under ideal lighting conditions.


Although we have not heard this discussed before, another consideration is that thumbnail displays like those mentioned above lend themselves well to psychological principles that help to entice viewers. To illustrate, photographs accompanying this article show various exhibits in recent years that have attempted to leverage such principles. It is interesting to explore their particulars.

The Hope Diamond is one of the most recognizable gems in the world. The Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian, one of the world's most famous gems. By David Bjorgen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

First, most of the thumbnail exhibits have been community (or multi-contributor) exhibits that showcase famous specimens from respected contributors. Some collectors emphatically state that specimen provenance carries no weight with them, but many more collectors openly or privately acknowledge that it matters. Wendell Wilson and Wayne Thompson, for example, explain the attraction to provenance as a reflection of historical stewardship (Thompson, 2007; Praszier, 2012). More to the point, there is scientific evidence that contextual information like this biases our evaluations. Indeed, the perception of aesthetic objects is not rational but instead often is linked to accompanying information. For instance, Huang et al. (2011) compared how people’s brains reacted to paintings assumed to be authentic with their responses to paintings represented as fakes. They found that the responses to viewing an ‘authentic’ artwork were deeply pleasurable, likened to tasting good food or winning a bet. Yet, this aesthetic pleasure was replaced with brain activity associated with strategy and planning when people were told the artwork was ‘fake.’ Beauty is apparently not just in the eye of the holder; it is in part based on suggestion and expectation effects. Consider the Hope Diamond (Smithsonian Institution) or Mona Lisa (the Louvre). There are many other larger attractions in these museums, but these two famous artifacts are among the most popular and sought out of all the holdings. Clearly, the cognitive-emotional process that produces the experience of aesthetics and interest is not determined solely by the size of a target or focal point. The point is simply that larger specimens do not automatically command more attention. Mystique of an object is perhaps the most influential factor.

Second, there is the concept of visual balance and flow. Robinson (1999) presented an excellent overview of exhibit layout and design fundamentals, and additional guidance on effective displays was given more recently by Starkey (2012). Due to the smaller specimen size, viewers must take time to study thumbnail exhibits more so than cases containing larger specimens that can be easily and quickly ‘sized up’ from a distance. All things equal, mineral exhibitors arguably have a better opportunity to leverage the psychological principles of balance and flow in thumbnail arrays. More specimens on display provide viewers a greater diversity of colors, textures and shapes than in competing exhibits. This diversity alone often promotes sustained interest.

But we suspect that additional psychological factors explain why thumbnail exhibits engross onlookers so effectively. Vogt and Magnussen (2007) found that artists and laypeople visually evaluate pictures differently. Whereas trained artists are able to evaluate entire details of a broad scene, untrained laypeople tend to focus only on a select number of elements that are immediately most salient to the perceptual system. There is much to take in with a thumbnail exhibit, and in the absence of clear focal points, for example viewers’ eyes being drawn automatically to larger, dramatic looking specimens, people must take time to absorb all the content. This process of visual absorption is expected to inherently sustain interest because of a mixture of predictable and unpredictable elements. Think about it, viewers are experiencing a set of similarly-sized objects which is very predictable and, in the minds of many people, psychologically satisfying (harmonious or symmetrical) and visually cute. But the variety and diversity of species, colors, shapes, luster, etc in a well-designed exhibit simultaneously introduce an element of unpredictability.

Our sense is that the cognitive processing of this mixture of predictable and unpredictable elements creates an aesthetic experience akin to “pink noise” (cf. Voss & Clark, 1978). By way of explanation, there are three main categories of sound based on their mathematical elements: white noise, brown noise, and pink noise. White noise is random noise. A graph of white noise shows no specific organization, and the sound of white noise is often perceived as irritating and disturbing. Brown noise is very structured and organized. People usually perceive brown noise as mechanical and rigid. Pink noise is more structured than white noise but not as rigid as brown noise. This noise is called ‘1/f,’ meaning that it falls between the two extremes.

Pink noise is the mathematical nature of nearly all human-composed music, and this 1/f structure has been found in the mathematical elements of many social (behavioral) and physical phenomena as well (see e.g., Guastello et al., 2011). In short, well-composed thumbnail (and up to small miniature) exhibits may well elicit a viewer experience that is fundamentally the visual and cognitive equivalent of listening to an appealing musical score (cf. Houran & Bleess, 2014).


Thumbnails are charming little wonders that have been prominently on the mineral scene for about 60 years now. It may be tempting to regard them merely as American curiosities, but fine specimens are regularly found within the world’s top collections. European collectors also certainly recognize great thumbnails when they see them. Knowledgeable senior collectors gave one of us (JB) a valuable hint early on – when looking through museum drawers, look for thumbnails. European collections have always held small specimens of superior quality. There may not be many, but they are there. Long before the term ‘thumbnail’ came into use, the great collections across Europe and elsewhere held small specimens whose charm alone, regardless of size, caused them to be curated, if not displayed.

thumbnail exhibit at the tucson gem and mineral show The “Connoisseur Thumbnails” community exhibit at the 2013 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The Mineralogical Record show report called it as one of the finest displays of the show. Wendell Wilson photo.

The market forces discussed here have elevated thumbnails across the worldwide collecting community. With this in mind, thumbnail cases that win competitions remain controversial. Many contend that smaller and larger sized specimens should be relegated to different competition classes, since it is considerably more difficult to find larger specimens with the same level of perfection and aesthetics as many thumbnails. Thompson (2007) similarly noted that “Most mineral pockets will produce numerous smaller pieces for every larger piece. This rule applies to the ratio of good thumbnails to miniatures; miniatures to cabinets; and cabinets to museum-size specimens” (p. 22). There is no disputing this sentiment, but it would be misguided to assume therefore that connoisseur thumbnails are abundant in nature or on the market.

Case in point – not many years ago to show thumbnails in formal competition a display was required to hold fifty specimens and mostly of different species. Duplication was allowed so long as the specimens were of different locality or crystal habit. For the most part a collector kept to fifty different species, and this number certainly forced matters toward rarity, more so than the current thirty-two pieces now required. Frankly fifty was a high number, and very few exhibitors could hold quality throughout the display. A collection had a few ‘good ones’ but quality drifted downward fairly abruptly after about twenty-five specimens. This is still often true, but with the required thirty-two pieces in today’s competition a display has less far to drift. Quality points at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show (TGMS) competitions are simply not easy to accumulate.

About twenty years ago the required 90-points to earn a blue ribbon in Masters Competition was lowered to 85. To state it bluntly, no one could keep the quality curve sufficiently flat throughout the range of thirty-two specimens; forget fifty, thirty-two specimens was a rigid test few exhibitors could pass. Speaking even more bluntly, not many can earn 85-points either. A person competing for a ribbon at the TGMS cannot risk losing any rarity points (5) or showmanship points (10) if planning to win a blue ribbon in Masters Competition at the TGMS, which is a major accomplishment. Connoisseur-level material in larger sizes is indeed comparatively rarer than thumbnails, but building a connoisseur thumbnail collection remains a considerable challenge. On the other hand, the challenge of the hunt is a large part of the appeal and satisfaction (Wilson & Houran, 2012).

The term thumbnail may not be eloquent, but it does serve to identify exactly what we are talking about. Crystalline excellence and specimen cuteness are the driving forces for connoisseur thumbnail collectors. For sure, specimens typically have razor keenness, and, in gemstones, near optical transparency. These added qualities characterize the extreme fineness that is widely appealing for those in the hobby. Regardless of whether one delves in this specialty, many collectors find viewing these little wonders as richly satisfying as viewing any other specimen sizes. This is especially so given that thumbnails often have attributes unavailable in larger pieces.

Serandite is prized from Mont St. Hilaire, and this is a fantastic example of a thumbnail. Serandite with Analcime, Mont St Hilaire, Canada, Jim Houran collection, Joe Budd Photo

For example, consider sérandite from Canada. These crystals are fairly common in poorer qualities, but patient collectors can eventually find more desirable examples with well-formed crystals, good luster and a saturated color. Yet more can be expected from Mother Nature to yield a really superb example of the species defined by a 2.5-cm size – an association that rivals the dramatic color contrast of popular combinations like black neptunite on white natrolite or bluish-green microline (amazonite) and smoky quartz. Imagine translucent, sculptural peach sérandite crystals juxtaposed with large black spears of aegerine! Such a specimen goes beyond the moniker of ‘thumbnail’ to become extreme nature you can hold in your hand. Here are aesthetics and significance that, generally speaking, do not exist in larger specimens.

Many species and associations likewise offer equally artistic form in small size, and the many other pragmatic advantages to thumbnails are truly compelling. Some might even argue that thumbnail collecting has more to offer than any other niche in the hobby. Great things do come in small packages – and for that reason connoisseur thumbnails have had and will undoubtedly continue to enjoy an important and endearing place in the collector market.


An earlier version of this article appeared in Lapis (Houran & Bleess, 2014), and we thank Dr. Stefan Weiß Tobias Weise and the entire Lapis editorial board for their permission to reproduce material. Appreciation also goes to Wendell Wilson, the Mineralogical Record and the many collectors who kindly contributed photographs or allowed specimens to be photographed by Joe Budd.


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The Jack Halpern Collection

Feb 11, 2020

We're honored to have been entrusted with the deaccession of a selection of Jack Halpern's famed collection of fine minerals, some of which we brought to market this 2020 Tucson Show, and others will be appearing online. Friend and mineral collector Lauren Megaw shared some thoughts, history, and personal interactions from her interview with Jack, below.


By Dr. Robert Lavinsky

Growing up, I knew Jack was a force of the growing trend of aesthetic collecting and I respected him from a distance but did not know him well until I started visiting his home around the late 1990’s. I mostly just knew him as a kind older gentleman from the show scene. Then one year during the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, Jack struck up a conversation with me about the qualities of a truly great collection. He believed that truly great collections were those selected for the sole purpose of being visually delightful to the collector’s eye. In the truly great collections, Halpern feels there is a sense of that particular person. He said, “I saw your case, and I must tell you, I could tell it was your case.” We can all keep in mind Jack’s idea of the mark of a great collection as being personal to the owner. At the time, I was a very low level dealer who had started coming up on the internet, though I had already been “dealing” to build my own collection since the age of 12 in Ohio. I was the literally last and least noticeable room at the very end of the old Executive Inn hotel, on the upper floor with the least traffic. “Gentleman Jack” never cared about somebody’s status in the field. He has always been the most approachable and friendly of Top Collectors, to everybody. . He treated me - and anybody else - as a collector and co-adventurer, no matter your level of minerals or your age. It always felt like an honor to make the pilgrimage to San Francisco and see his beautiful collection in the home, something I referred to as entering a “surround-sound studio” of minerals and beauty. He has been almost uniquely gracious with showing his collection to guests and newbies to mineral collecting, to help inspire them, throughout the decades. Jack remains today, as much as ever, a force in this hobby!

By Lauren Megaw, with assistance from Jack's family and friends.

Definition of “Gentleman” in the Oxford dictionary:


/ˈjen(t)lmən/ : a chivalrous, courteous, or honorable man

Real-life Definition: Jack Halpern

Jack Halpern Photo, mineral collection Jack Halpern in front of minerals, at age 90. Photo from the Mineralogical Record Label Archive page.

Jack is the type of person who likes to revel in the joys of life, and it's absolutely contagious. When you recognize Jack strolling down the aisles of a mineral show, you smile. It’s an automatic response, and it's probably because you associate the wiry frame and hallmark bolo-tie with a man who is genuinely interested in the world. He believes that appreciating beauty is one of the greatest joys in life, and says so frequently as he pushed 100 years old this year.

Jack Halpern was born in Brooklyn to a couple of Jewish European immigrants who sold office supplies, which is fitting considering Jack spent his later years selling paper goods, though on a larger scale. As part of the Greatest Generation, the upheaval of his youth transformed and shaped Halpern’s life. After joining the Navy during the onset of World War II, he was shipped off to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay to learn how to use RADAR (at the time still a US military secret!). Halpern entered the Navy after graduating Summa Cum Laude from NYU; he left the Navy 13 years later as a Lt. Commander.

Rob told me a story about a shocking dinner he once had with Jack, back in the 1990's, when they were talking about his career and Jack brought those years up. It turns out that Jack, because he had no specific expertise on the Navy ship at the time, was designated to the brand-new "RADAR detail" to be trained by the scientists who developed the technique. Jack did not just USE radar in the US Navy...he was literally on one of the first teams trained to use it, and he then trained others throughout his career there. He retired with honor after a successful career. Yes, he was one of the first people to use radar. Crazy!

On his first leave in San Francisco fate took him to the USO, and her name was Leslie Baer. They fell in love, married in 1943 and had a pair of daughters, Jean and Lynn. They also shared a love of collecting; Jack with his minerals and flowers, and Leslie with her antique knife rests. Sadly, Leslie passed away in 1995, though Jack still speaks of her fondly.

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We obtained a large group of diverse beautiful specimens from the Jack Halpern Collection, built over decades by our friend in San Francisco. To spread them out more widely, we decided to let some of these, where he purchased them long ago at old prices, fly at auctions! Bid on them now at! Other specimens will soon appear in a special update on For a new article on Jack, please visit our updated blog post:

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Like so many collectors, Halpern’s first significant interaction with minerals was a life-changing event. He often even goes so far as to say he was given "a new lease on life” in 1962 when he first toured the California Academy of Sciences mineral collection in San Francisco. Something about the form, geometry and color captivated him. According to legend of the story, which he told many times, he thought they were too beautiful to be real; however, after being persuaded of their authenticity he was hooked! (Though there were always a couple of giant synthetic alum crystals in the cases, because they were fun looking and he collects for beauty foremost, he says).

Jack's daughter, Jean, shared this moment with us: "Jack was looking at the mineral display case of colorful crystals at the San Francisco Academy of Science, loving their geometry and color. He'd never seen or heard of mineral crystals before. He said to the man standing next to him that the Academy must have hired a skilled craftsman in order to have the facets of each mineral specimen cut in such precise and beautiful ways. The man he was addressing said, "Well, if these minerals were cut by anyone, they were cut by the Man Upstairs." My dad couldn't believe that these perfect facets were natural, but his companion reassured him, saying, "I'm the curator of this collection for this collection for the Academy, and I really do know what I'm telling you." The curator took my dad behind the scenes at the Academy, showed him more mineral crystals and taught my dad a little about them. The curator also recommended that my dad talk to another mineral crystal expert, Bill Sanborn, who became my dad's best friend and mineral mentor."

Jack already was a rising star in collecting orchids and flowers, eventually serving in the presidency of both the San Francisco Rose Society and the San Francisco Orchid Society, even before his "collecting bug" grew to include minerals.

A wide assortment of specimens in the Jack Halpern Collection

Halpern believes in the power of relationships. Relationships with fellow collectors and dealers, both. After all, a good dealer is worth their weight in gold. In the early years, Halpern bought nearly exclusively from Walt Lidstrom - which made his wins in 99’ with his twinned Cubanite (only recently deaccessed) and again in 2007 with his Zoisite var. Tanzanite even more special. While I wasn’t born yet, the stories abound of the magnificence of Jack’s collection prior to the Loma Prieta earthquake. Jack’s house was a short distance from Candlestick Park where the quake was felt strongly and after peeking into his basement, he didn’t go back down for months. However, the damage was actually minimal. This did not turn him away from collecting, as it was a part of him, and his collecting was soon reinvigorated. He filled all the wall-to-wall shelves in his basement, this time anchoring every single one of the thousands of specimens with both mineral putty and plastic bases when needed - and adding on insurance.

By 2003, Jack’s home and garden teemed with over 400 orchids and roses, and the basement contained dozens of display cases filled with nearly 3,200 specimens! Yet each and every one of them were there because their aesthetics Sparked Joy[1] for the vivacious gentleman. Jack was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle and loved showing his collection to friends, fellow collectors, and several school groups. Many in the hobby do believe that his was the most-seen private collection in the country, for this reason. Rob told me that on many visits in the 1990s, he'd have to wait upstairs until after school field trip hours for Jack to finish escorting a group of 20-30 schoolkids through the collection, and Jack often urged the elderly in their retirement homes to make bus trips to his basement (which was conveniently accessible by a sloping driveway, even for wheelchairs).

Jack Halpern with children in his mineral displays Jack Halpern tours children around his mineral displays. © Rob Lavinsky

"...I admire their beauty. And I admit: I'm addicted to them."
- Jack Halpern during a 2003 interview with the SFGate about his mineral exhibition at Pacific Orchid Exposition at Fort Mason.

While looks and form were a must for Halpern, strategic and disciplined acquisition was required to put together a singularly exquisite collection. He did this by seeing as many examples as he could by going to shows and museums, visiting friends’ collections, and reading his favorite mineral magazines. He wanted to buy one of everything, and size and price did not matter. He was just as happy with a $100 specimen as with a $10,000 specimen. Essentially, Halpern was building a visual database and if his collection is anything to go by, he did a marvelous job!

In Halpern’s 2005 for the Mineralogical Record, Criteria for Selecting Crystallized Minerals for a Display Collection”, he laid out a fantastically articulated breakdown of the identification and acquisition of visually delightful specimens. Honestly, it is probably one of the most important reads for new and upcoming fine mineral collectors. Picking specimens a multivariable problem that Jack, giving you the benefit of his years of collecting, makes approachable and understandable. He’ll even make you feel better about buying something expensive - so long as it's an excellent piece! Perhaps that is a lesson to learn from a man who ended up having 2 species of orchids named after him: mediocre will always be mediocre, but quality has the chance to become something important. You finish the article feeling empowered to go forth and assemble the collection of your dreams!

Jack believed that collections were also for sharing with others - whether that was his mineral friends or a group of children who visited his home. Maybe one of them would also have a moment of awakening! He likes to say that through each visit, each interaction, each memory, our fondness for the minerals grow. Perhaps this is the reason some collectors get so emotionally attached to their specimens. They are an extension of us, our friendships, and our experiences. And perhaps if your heart is as big as Jack’s, you need the extra room.

Emerald Specimen - Pre-trim (markings for where to trim)

Emerald from Colombia Emerald specimen before trimming from the Jack Halpern Collection. © BVA for The Arkenstone

Emerald Specimen - After Trimming

Emerald specimen from Jack Halpern's collection Emerald after trimming, from Jack Halpern's Collection. © BVA for The Arkenstone

I remember in all my interactions with him that Jack was an absolute, old-school gentleman. He wrote to his friends, dealers, and dealer-friends, long letters in beautiful cursive where he expounded on his enjoyment of time spent with friends and minerals. He wrote an entire letter to Rob saying how much he appreciated his chocolate Birthday cake! At the Arkenstone, I saw a stack of letter after beautiful letter about visits, and about their mineral dealings and trades, and there is something so personal about an old fashioned letter. Though perhaps his most touching letter, was about how he missed a particular Rhodochrosite he’d just exchanged to Rob about ten years ago. It wasn’t the lament of someone having sold an object, but rather of a parent letting their child go off into the world. That’s the kind of person Halpern is : the kind who seeks beauty in the world and makes friends with rocks.


Interviews with Peter Megaw and Rob Lavinsky, and assistance from Jack's daughter, Jean Sward

LARSON, W. F. (2005) A lucky man: Jack Halpern and his colorful collection. Mineralogical Record, 36, 189-194.

WILSON, Wendell E. (2020), Mineralogical Record Biographical Archive, at

[1] Yes, this is a Marie Kondo reference

F. John Barlow Collection: A Modern Mineral Connoisseur

Jan 27, 2020

Within the mineral collecting world, there are collectors who have left their indelible mark upon the community. John Barlow was one of those collectors. This article does not aim to give you a chronological take on his life here. Others have done that. Instead, this article examines how Barlow was a trailblazer of modern mineral connoisseurship and what we can learn from that. He is an example of the many collectors who assembled a significant collection and then took the time and effort to share (through his book in 1998; as well as many exhibitions). Primarily this seeks to examine his collecting philosophy and how it helped him to gather his Great collection.

There is something poetic in the parallels seen in his life and his mineral collecting.

Barlow was born at the beginning of the 20th century and passed away at the beginning of the 21st century (1914-2004). During his 90 years, he witnessed dramatic shifts in American life. Barlow witnessed dramatic shifts in the American social, political, and physical landscape. His endless curiosity, hard-working ethic, seemingly boundless energy, and entrepreneurial spirit made it possible for Barlow to succeed in business and then he applied the same energy to "hunting" minerals, as he called it. He always talked about mineral collecting as a sport, not a hobby, and felt that showed more energy and passion.

From an early age, Barlow was a businessman. At age 12 he established the “Sunset Stamp Company”: first collecting stamps, then selling stamps, then buying stamps to sell stamps. A tactic he would use again in the future. His instinct for business would serve him well over his lifetime. It aided him in his pursuit of his Mechanical Engineering major and Business minor stress the University of Washington during the Great Depression, or transitioning from an engineer to becoming the #3 man at Western Condensing Company during World War II. Later he founded AZCO, A-Z Engineering Corporation. Starting with $5,000 in seed money, he would become one of the largest mechanical contractors in the US and some people say he built half of Wisconsin and a number of airports. However, Earth Resources - his mineral, gems, and jewelry company- was always one of his favorite projects.

Barlow began collecting at the beginning of the 1970s. His voracious curiosity was peaked by an Amethyst geode from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco given to him by his daughter Grace. This piece began a 30+ year love of mineral collecting. When Barlow did something, he DID something. In a similar fashion to how he picked up flying, then proceeded to use it as a regular mode of transportation (this man would fly a plane across the country to see a rock back when others waited until the next show!). He went “all in” with mineral collecting.

Truly fabulous collections are a reflection of their collectors. A collector’s “eye,” what attracts a collector to particular aspects of a mineral, results in a distinct aesthetic...Something that brings the ensemble together. Barlow was fascinated by collecting philosophy; he even had Bob Jones write a chapter on the “collector’s instinct” in The F. John Barlow Mineral Collection. Collectors are “hunters"; always looking for the next deal, the next great piece, the next elusive specimen...

Barlow was a collector’s collector.

He pursued specimens of all types: the rarities, the scientifically interesting, the beautiful, the elusive, the entire pocket, and the pieces he just liked gosh darn it. Barlows collection encompassed over 6,000+ specimens (not counting many duplicates and the rares and systematics - so perhaps the true total was double that). His collection was “deep,” and he was not satisfied with acquiring the minerals... he studied them. And then he went out and shared what he learned, which makes sense coming from a former Sunday School teacher! He participated in exhibitions at museums, schools, and mineral shows. Because he collected across the spectrum of size and price and rarity, he literally could patronize any dealer and talk with any collector as a peer.

He was also incredibly competitive, whether marbles as a child, football in high school and college, or as a businessman. Early on, he entered a competitive mineral display case. He lost. Being Barlow, he then directed his considerable energy and resources into acquiring the Best available AND making custom plastic stands with engraved labels at a time when nobody did so. He went on to win the Ed McDole Memorial Trophy in 1975 and again in 1978. In 1993 he returned to win the Paul Desautels Trophy (which replaced the McDole). That same year his Sperrylite won the Walt Lidstrom Memorial Award. His highest honor, the Carnegie Mineralogical Award, was awarded in 2000.

Barlow was not content to be told what was “good." Instead, he did his research — contacting museums, other collectors, and even dealers to find out how good a particular find got. For example, after encountering small Red Beryl crystals from the Wah Wah Mountains of Utah, Barlow contacted the Smithsonian. They had a 1.6 x 1.1 cm example, which was considered the best at the time. So he felt satisfied acquiring #2 but always kept his eyes peeled for better. According to mineral collecting lore, he got his chance during the Tucson Show, back in the day where circuit breakers regularly overloaded from all the display lights in dealer's rooms. So while the lights were flickering on and off, he was shown a flat of material from the Harris Mine. Barlow believed that he was looking at the best Red Beryls to ever come out, despite the atrocious lighting. And he was right! He bought them all and assembled the best known suite ever of red beryl.

Red Beryl (Bixbite) Crystal from Utah Red Beryl; Harris Claim, Wah Wah Mountains, Utah. This specimen is one of the pieces Barlow acquired that night. It is a truly stunning example of the material and arguably the best. Barlow had a soft spot for this material; he even went there collecting himself! This particular was one of his favorites! 6cm. Joe Budd Photo

One remarkable aspect of Barlow’s collection were the suites. Where most collectors of his caliber focus solely on the exceptional, Barlow wanted his Collection to be outstanding as a whole group of "Suites of Suites"! His Mexican suite is an excellent example. While flying down to Mexico for fishing trips, Barlow began collecting minerals from south of the border. There were some great pieces, namely some fantastic Silver sulfide minerals, which were also a part of one of his other suites (silver species, which was near completion). Barlow had 468 Mexican minerals in his Collection. Remarkably, 266 of these were mini-suites of single species from single localities. He had 11 Rhodochrosites from Santa Eulalia, 21 Ludlamites also from Santa Eulalia, 25 Legrandites from Ojuela, 46 Adamites from Ojuela, 50 Boleites from Boleo (some of which he self-collected, and 77 Purple Creedites from Santa Eulalia! Barlow accumulated these by buying entire lots representing a particular find or, in some cases, entire pockets! Barlow’s habit of doing this resulted in a comprehensive representation of the many different habits, associations, and styles from a similar or shared genetic source. So this suite was both aesthetically important, but also scientifically as well.

Vivianite Crystal - ex. F John Barlow Vivianite from the 13th level, San Antonio Mine, East Camp, Santa Eulalia District, Chihuahua, Mexico. Formerly in the John Barlow Collection (illustrated in his book from 1998, on page 340), it was sold off in 1998 along with the rest of the collection and quickly nabbed by Arizona/Mexico collector Evan Jones. Evan sold the Mexico suite to concentrate on Arizona, and at that time I purchased this piece for the Stoudt collection. Joe Budd photos.

While Barlow primarily collected with a silver-pick, he also took the opportunity to use a rock pick. He collected personally in Boleo, the Wah Wahs, and even in the Queen and Himalaya Mines in San Diego. During his underground excursion at the Tourmaline Queen, he realized that it would be incredible to share what a pocket looked like with those who didn’t have an opportunity like this. So after collecting a couple of crystals himself, Barlow had the entire pocket, feldspars, quartz, essentially the pocket wall, quartz extracted and later reassembled.

Creedite Crystals from Chihuahua, Mexico Ex Barlow This pair of Creedites are both from the Pinata Orebody, West Camp, Santa Eulalia, Chihuahua, Mexico. Barlow systemically bought a considerable percentage of the specimens that came out from 1982-1984, exemplifying how this collecting style captured the breadth of styles coming from this zone.

Barlow’s life’s story really comes together when we look at a specimen known as the Postage Stamp, his pride and joy and the cover image of his Book. Afterall, Barlow had his start in business selling stamps, and this Tourmaline Queen Elbaite with Quartz became one of his dearest pieces. The piece was one of four specimens featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 1974. After a long chase, Barlow finally acquired the specimen in 1983. It was the specimen that he selected as the cover of his book, and the inner cover is decorated with images of the first issue of the stamp.

Cover of F John Barlow Mineral Collection BookOne of Barlow’s most significant achievements was The F. John Barlow Mineral Collection book. The book mirrors the man’s magnificent collection and educates and inspires through the sheer breadth of it. It is still relevant today, over 20 years later... dive into the combination of collecting philosophy, history, photos of his fantastic examples from different finds, researched provenance explained through easily accessible stories. The book stands as one of the best books to read at the beginning of one’s collecting career.

He was an engineer. An intrepid adventurer. A family man. A lifelong student. A meticulous researcher. In general, an energetic and curious man, who in many ways does an incredible job of encapsulating the characteristics of a “true” collector.

The Arkenstone bought Barlow’s thumbnail collection and a large part of his rare species suite in 1998 -99. The majority of his collection was sold to a consortium representing the Houston Museum, which got many of the best pieces and consigned the rest out through a prominent dealer. Thousands of pieces found new homes, and they occasionally turn up again today. It is always fun to go look in his book and see if any of the illustrated pieces are on the market again. Several from the collection are now available, on our website as well!


Barlow, F. John, et al. The F. John Barlow Mineral Collection. Sanco Pub., 1996.

Gene L. Laberge (2004) In Memoriam: F. John Barlow: (1914–2004), Rocks & Minerals, 79:6, 420-421, DOI: 10.1080/00357529.2004.9925751

“Greater Detroit Gem and Mineral Show, 1976.” Larry Maltby - Greater Detroit Gem and Mineral Show, 1976,

WILSON, Wendell E. (2020) Mineralogical Record Biographical Archive, at

WILSON, W. E. (2004) Obituary--F. John Barlow. Mineralogical Record, 35, 362-363.

The Miguel Romero Collection of Mexican Minerals

Oct 12, 2019
18.7 cm, from the San Juan Poniente stope, Level 5, of the Ojuela mine, Mapimí, Durango, Mexico. “The Aztec Sun,” Jeff Scovil photo.

In 2008, Rob purchased the collection of Dr. Miguel Romero, who assembled a particularly significant and outstanding Mexican mineral collection. To memorialize the collection, we worked with the Mineralogical Record to publish supplementary volume highlighting Dr. Romero, his contributions to preserving the mineral heritage of Mexico, and his collection.

The book is available for free here, but the introduction, by Dr. Eugene Meieran, gives interesting insight into what happens when a collection is sold and thoughts about its dispersion.

If you're interested in purchasing a copy, check to see if the Mineralogical Record still has them available for sale in their bookstore.


Introduction to The Miguel Romero Collection of Mexican Minerals

By Dr. Eugene Meieran

Originally published in 2008

I doubt that any serious collector of anything can pursue a collecting career without becoming aware of the amazing historical collections displayed in museums and other institutions. The mere names of these great collections conjure up strong emotions—of awe at the beauty and perfection of their specimens, and, yes, of an envious desire to own those specimens. As mineral collectors, we can all name the great institutions that have amassed fine mineral collections: the Sorbonne, Harvard, Yale, the Houston Museum, the British Museum, the American Museum, the Smithsonian, the Philadelphia Academy, the Los Angeles County Museum, etc. And we can often name individual collections within each of these institutions: the Roebling Collection, the Kunz Collection, the Vaux collection, and more. These historical collections were put together over time by dedicated private collectors, and eventually made their way into the museums of the world. We all have stood before such displays and thought, “Gee, I wish I owned that specimen!” Such envy is a characteristic (or a malady) of serious collectors!

One such impressive private accumulation was the Romero collection, which most recently resided in the Flandreau Science Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. This particularly outstanding collection of Mexican minerals was put together over the years by Dr. Miguel Romero, and includes several of the most wonderful Mexican mineral specimens ever dug out of the ground, some of which indeed are widely recognized as the best mineral specimens from anywhere (so-called “mineral ikons,” using the term recently proposed by Wayne Thompson). In fact, the Romero collection of what might be called “Mexican Mineral Treasures” could be viewed as an analog of the spectacular “American Mineral Treasures” exhibits assembled for the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in February 2008.

Miguel Romero in 1992, at his home in Tehuacan, showing the “Aztec Sun” legrandite, his most famous specimen, to Texas collector Imelda Klein in 1992.

As is the case with many fine private collections, the Romero collection was not seen by very many other mineral collectors for many years. It was originally kept in an office in Tehuacan, Puebla, Mexico, where it was seen only by the occasional serious collector who happened by—and by hoards of local school children who were regularly admitted for tours. I was fortunate to visit the Romero collection in the early 1980s, when I passed through the city during an unsuccessful trip to acquire some Las Vigas amethyst. So in 1997 I was thrilled to see the best of the collection come to Arizona and be put on display at the Flandreau museum! Along with the fine Arizona mineral collection and the displays of world-wide minerals in the museum, the Romero collection stood out as a peerless assemblage of great Mexican minerals. During the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, thousands of visitors had the privilege and pleasure of seeing the best of the Romero collection on public display (thereby making it one of the most widely viewed mineral collections in the world).

Of course, while we as collectors privately covet museum specimens, we are always grateful that public museums acquire and display great pieces for us all to see. Museums preserve valuable natural and cultural artifacts and objects for posterity. So, as I said at the beginning, we mineral collectors look at public displays of private collections with mixed feelings: appreciation that great specimens are indeed preserved and displayed for public enjoyment, and jealousy that we do not own these wonderful objects ourselves!

The Romero mineral collection clearly represents the best that Mexico has to offer to the mineral connoisseur. It was put together by a person who knew, understood and loved mineral specimens and the mineral heritage of Mexico. And since Mexico is so well endowed with great minerals, the Romero collection stands out even among other great world-wide collections. And speaking personally, I really wanted some of those world-class specimens for myself, but I was equally appreciative of the fact that the collection was on public display for me and my fellow collectors to enjoy. Of course, I never thought that the best of the Romero collection would be sold to a private collector.

There are times when a great private collection or set of collections goes on display in a museum, and then later some or all of the specimens are sold or traded to the public, usually for one of three reasons. First, the museum may have so many equivalent specimens that it makes no sense to keep more of the same; the museum collection is enhanced by exchange of specimens with other institutions or collectors or dealers, and these transactions enrich both the private and public collections. Second, the museum may need funds for other exhibits or programs and, perhaps too often, minerals are the first to go because there is such a strong market for museum-quality specimens. And third, the collection may simply be on loan to the museum and is only on temporary display under its stewardship. It can be removed at any time at the discretion of the collection’s owner.

Batopilas Since their discovery by the Spanish in 1632, the vein deposits of Batopilas have yielded seven times the total amount of silver produced at Kongsberg, Norway. Most of the silver found there in recent years is in the form of herringbone crystals from the New Nevada mine, but in earlier times some of the 300 different mines in the district produced wire silver as well. In the 1980s thousands of good specimens reached the market after having been etched out of white calcite, but large specimens were rare. For more information see Wilson and Panczner (1986) “Famous mineral localities: The Batopilas district, Chihuahua, Mexico,” Mineralogical Record, vol. 17, no. 1. 5-cm view, from the Nevada mine, Batopilas, Chihuahua, Mexico. Ex. Romero collection. Joe Budd photo.

This third scenario was the case with the Romero collection: the Romero family had retained ownership while the collection was on public display in Arizona, and they ultimately decided to put it up for sale. We are naturally saddened by the fact that the entire collection is no longer on exhibit. However, the situation is not as bad as it might seem. We can be heartened by the fact that suites of Mexican locality specimens will be retained permanently by the University of Arizona, through the efforts of Rob Lavinsky, the dealer who transacted the sale. The Arizona specimens have gone to the leading private collector of Arizona minerals, where they will surely be well cared for, and although some of the Mexican specimens have been dispersed, Rob has arranged for the core of the Mexican collection to remain intact with a private collector who is planning eventually to open a mineral museum overseas. So, although the unity of the Romero collection is lost, some of it will remain available for study by the public at the Flandreau Science Center in Arizona and the most of the major Mexican specimens may someday be on exhibit together once again in a public museum.

Since the vast majority of private collections are ultimately broken up and their cohesiveness totally lost, it is gratifying to me as a collector to see the best of the Romero collection documented in this book, and to know that most of the collection will be preserved in major segments. In addition, 1,200 specimens still in the Romero Mineralogical Museum in Tehuacan will remain there, and a systematic collection consisting of 5,500 specimens is being donated by the Romero family to the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. I look forward to seeing portions of the Romero collection once again, albeit in different museums. Given that the Romero family has found the sale necessary, this is indeed the best possible outcome.


Love Mexican minerals?
Shop our fine minerals for sale from Mexico, including hyalite opal, smithsonite, quartz, adamite, and legrandite!


Read the Mineralogical Record supplement featuring Dr. Miguel Romero's collection online!

Free E-book Available Here


Emeralds: History’s Favorite Stone?

Sep 26, 2019

Emeralds: History’s Favorite Stone

The history behind Emeralds is filled with royalty who’ve sought the precious gemstone for its rarity and eloquent beauty. Emeralds come from the beryl mineral family and are renowned for their deep green to greenish-blue color. In fact, many modern gem collectors regard Emeralds as the top of the “big three” of colored stones, including Rubies and Sapphires.

Throughout the history of civilization, Emeralds have held their status as one of the most valuable colored gemstones. From Asia to Africa, and uniquely South America, the Emerald has inspired impressive statues and jewelry pieces worn by some of history’s most prominent figures and powers.

colombia emerald matrix specimen beryl Phenomenal Colombian emerald in matrix.

A History of Royalty

The Emerald is one of the world’s earliest mined precious stones with many references found throughout history. The oldest known book in the world, The Papyrus Prisse, at over 4,500 years old mentions Emeralds in a passage about pursuing wisdom. Saying, “But good words are more difficult to find than the emerald, for it is by slaves that it is discovered among the rocks of pegmatite.”[1]

Some scholars believe this passage is in reference to the emerald mines of the Ptolemaic Egyptians. In fact, the oldest known mines in the world served Pharaoh Cleopatra, dating back to at least 300 BC.[2]

Emeralds were the preferred gemstones for crowns, amulets, and staffs in many of the world’s great civilizations. One record by Rome’s Pliny the Elder tells the story of Nero, the last emperor of Rome, using a monocle with an Emerald lens to watch the gladiator games.[3] The emperor was known for having poor vision, and the soft green colors of the emerald relieved the weariness in his vision.

The fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan also used over 250 pounds of Emeralds to decorate the white marble walls and peacock statues of the Taj Mahal.[4] The Emeralds used in the Taj Mahal were inscribed with sacred texts, titles and names of the Mughal rulers.[5] Yet, the distinction of “the most treasured jewel in Indian history” goes to the Taj Mahal Emerald, an emerald weighing 141.13 carats and engraved with lotus and poppy flowers.[6]

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Emerald - Muzo Mine, Boyaca Dept., Colombia • item GEM19-20 • We just posted dozens of new pieces for sale on! Visit the link in our bio to shop this piece and other little treasures. While emeralds are found in several localities around the world, Colombians are still held to a higher prestige. This emerald specimen exhibits an intense, neon-green color saturation. The color is literally shocking and can be seen from across a room. The larger crystal, measuring 2.5 cm in length, is translucent throughout and capped by a 2 mm thick, clearer area at the termination. The mass is 19 grams. The coloring on this just doesn't quite come out right on video... check the photos on for color-corrected images. Click the link in our bio to view pricing, photos, and more details!

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The Surprise of Emeralds in The Americas

The love for Emeralds wasn’t unique to Europe, Africa, and Asia. When the Spanish conquistadors invaded what is modern-day Colombia, they were surprised to find enormous raw Emeralds and jewelry shaped by the Incas. The Spanish conquistadors found intricately carved eggs and flower bells from raw Emeralds to be presented to the lost statue of Goddess Umina.

One legend believes the statue was a giant emerald the size of an ostrich egg that hosted the spirit of Goddess Umina.[7] The egg and flower bell carvings were presented as her daughters when they sought her guidance.[8] When the Spanish traded what they’ve found for other precious metals, it helped peaked the curiosity of European and Asian powers into the Americas.

The United States has also enjoyed a recent history of mining for Emeralds in North Carolina. The first North Carolinian Emeralds were discovered in 1875 by farmers in the area. So far, 5 major deposits have been found in the state, including the Rist and Ellis mines in Alexander County and the Crabtree mines in Mitchell County. Today, thousands of rockhounds visit the mines to try their luck at one of the world’s most important precious stones.

Emeralds have mesmerized powers and civilizations throughout history. Their deep green color has inspired many legends and works of art, and is often regarded as one of the most sought after stones in history.

New Finds

Recently, significant finds of emerald have been mined in Ethiopia, nar Kenticha, Oromia. The country has also been a significant producer of fantastic color-play opals this century. While most of the material is rather cloudy and included by biotite, there have been some beautiful cut stones that have emerged as well as rich green crystals.

Ethiopian emerald cut gemstones from Kenticha Cut emeralds from recent finds in Ethiopia

Want to see these rare crystals and gemstones in person? We’ve recently updated our galleries with many impressive specimens from around the world. You can find our latest collections here. Also, don’t miss our listings for our rare rock and mineral shows. We’d love to meet with you and talk about the specimens in our collections!


[1] Glenn K. Faceting History: Cutting Diamonds and Colored Stones. Xlibris Corporation, 2005, 22.

[2] Emerald History and Lore”. Gemological Institute of America Inc.

[3] Br O. “Nero’s Emerald”. National Center for Biotechnology Information.

[4] Diana P, Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire (Walter Books, 2009), 125.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Courtney S. “Former Incarnations: The Secret Lives of Objects in Treasures from India”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[7] Fara B. “Histoy and Legend of Emerald – Gems of Yore”. International Gem Society.

[8] Ibid.

Copper Queen Mine, Bisbee, Warren District, Arizona

Sep 4, 2019

The Copper Queen Mine was first discovered in 1877, and ever since, the history of this mine rivals the drama of an old western.  Silver and copper deposits were reported in the early 1870s, and in 1877 , rich outcrops were found for prospectors to dig into.

To set the stage, the Copper Queen Mine is situated, in what was then, hostile Apache territory in Arizona, and the U.S. Calvary patrolled the area. One day, they were searching for water in a canyon in the Mule Mountains of Southeastern Arizona, when they noticed outcrops that were tinted red with iron. These outcrops were said to contain cerussite, a lead mineral that was often found with silver; a good sign for prospectors. Sgt. George Dunn grubstaked (outfitted with provisions in exchange for part ownership) the area to George Warren to start the mining operation with a handmade map of the area.  Warren proceeded to get drunk in the Bruneko Saloon, told everyone within earshot about the discovery, using his name for the area, and then proceeded to lose his stake in the operation in a horse race. Warren was soon declared insane by his partner, and promptly committed to a state asylum in Phoenix in 1881. Shortly thereafter, his partner squandered his small fortune. When a group of miners heard about Warren’s plight, they managed to buy his freedom with a sack of sugar, and Warren emerged from Phoenix penniless. Even so, he almost immediately found himself jailed after wandering into Mexico. He finally returned to Bisbee in time for Christmas in 1892, but unfortunately caught pneumonia and died. Warren’s strange life came to a quick end, but he was responsible for getting the word out about the ores that people were looking for, and when the did, they named the mining district in his honor.

The tale of the Copper Queen picks up in 1880 when Benjamin and Lewis Williams and Judge De Witt Bisbee leased and bought multiple mining claims, including the Copper Queen. Bisbee was crucial to the area’s survival; he invested large amounts of capital to build a smelter in the town to save money instead of shipping ore to Wales, Arizona.  The town was named after him in 1880 when it transformed from a collection of tents and hastily constructed buildings to a real mining town. The Copper Queen Mining Company was formed, and the rich ores they discovered rewarded the investors. The discovery site was quarried until a massive pit formed, and a shaft and tunnels were then constructed to follow rich copper veins. By the time all was said and done, the mine had hundreds of kilometers of tunnels and stopes that were developed until nearly all of Bisbee mine became connected underground. Despite of considerable exploration, in mid-1884 it seemed only a few months of ore remained in the Copper Queen mine. The Phelps Dodge & Company had opened the Atlanta mine adjacent to the Copper Queen in hopes of encountering similar geology, but the initial results were not as good.  In one of the last mining efforts in the Copper Queen hit an ore body 60 meters in the main shaft. The same ore body was just discovered in the adjacent Atlanta mine at the same time. The Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company formed from the two companies to give the mine a second chance. They held control over the area of Bisbee for 15 years until Phelps Dodge developed adjacent areas Copper Queen Consolidated had overlooked, and eventually took over the Copper Queen.

Azurite malachite copper queen This is a large, very sparkly display specimen of azurite from the most classic era at the Copper Queen Mine, around the turn of the 1900s.

The Queen was always productive; lode after lode was discovered. In the hopes of continuing the fruitful production, The Phelps Dodge Corporation eventually took over the mining operation and had total control of the area by 1931. Ben Williams became the General Manager of the Copper Queen from 1882 to 1889 and had a stunning personal collection that was recently brought to market.  The equally impressive collection of S.W. Clawson, the Mine Foreman of the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company in the late 1890s and early 1900s resides in the LA County Museum of Natural History. Even the miners had personal collections, albeit with questionable provenance. The miners believed it was a birthright to sneak minerals out of the mine and take them home. They even had a saying that “a specimen was only stolen when it was stolen the second time.” No one really tried to stop the miners unless they abused this tradition by taking unnecessary risk or if the miners were taking too much time collecting on their own. The Bisbee area was one of the greatest copper camps on Earth, producing more than $6 billion in metals.  Today, great tailings and dumps remain to showcase the history of mining in Arizona.

The Copper Queen was among the most prolific mines in the Warren District.  The rocks of the Bisbee area consist of Precambrian quartz sericite schist basement overlain by 1,600 to 2,00 meters of Paleozoic, predominantly calcareous sediment. During the Jurassic Period the rocks were intruded by numerous stocks, dikes, and sills, then underwent several episodes of mineralization. The origin of the limestone is from a multistage intrusion along the Dividend Fault about 180 million years ago. These intrusions deposited around 450 million tonnes of pyrite!  Following the limestone intrusions, there was an iron/copper intrusion following along the same dikes. This intrusion led to significant deposition of copper in the Sacramento Complex that later became the ores that would later be mined. A third intrusion was a lead/zinc intrusion that replaced limestone deposits and were deposited adjacent to the pyrite and copper deposits. A fourth and final, small-scale intrusion brought a large amount of precious metals that would later prove to be economically significant. Just prior to the Cretaceous there was broad regional uplift that led to erosion of the Paleozoic sediment forming deep canyons. During the Cretaceous the rejuvenated Dividend fault dropped the southern block about 600 meters relative to the northern side. Later, in the Pliocene the region-wide normal faulting formed the topography of today.

The mineralization of the mine is high-grade copper carbonates with minor lead zinc and carbonates in irregular replacement ore bodies. The pre-existing networks of dikes, sills, faulting, and brecciation controlled the ore deposition. More than 320 species have come from the Bisbee area. Among the species produced are botryoidal azurites, soft tufts of malachites with azurite overgrowths, gypsum, aragonite stalactites, and some of the world’s finest blue-green spangolite in small vugs in cuprite that were lined with velvet malachite. Rare cuprite crystal groups in octohedral cubes up to 3 centimeters in red and in the stunning acicular chalcotrichite variety. Calcites in myriad colors with unrivaled inclusions of malachite or cuprite are also among the best specimens to come from the Copper Queen. The Copper Queen is famous for the malachites and azurites that have varying hues of blue and green, stunning ingrown/overgrown nature, and beautiful shapes.  Some of the most pristine specimens have concentric rings alternating with blue azurite, blue-green malachite, and brown limonite. There are stunning examples of native copper in dendritic and branching clusters often in parallel orientations, and examples with twinning.

Copper Queen mine Bisbee An old Copper Queen mine copper with branching form completely crystallized from top to bottom with sharp spinel twins.

The western action never seemed to stop in Bisbee.  In 1884 John Heath and his gang of robbers and murderers targeted the town. The townspeople tracked him down and hanged him from a telegraph pole.  The town had peaceful times, too. The cave was large enough to host events for the town: members of the Masonic order lived there and had a ceremony inside the Copper Queen, and Bisbee High School students held a prom in the Queen. When World War I came, unions sought to organize the mine and threatened to strike. County Sheriff Harry Wheeler marched 1200 strikers onto a train and had them shipped to New Mexico fearing the strikers would dynamite the shafts. The sheriff was brought to trial as a kidnapper, but the judge ruled in his favor saying the extradition was necessary to save the community.  President Woodrow Wilson even admonished the strikers, adding to the incredible story of the Copper Queen.

Azurite and Malachite, copper-based minerals Azurite on Malachite from the Copper Queen Mine, Bisbee, Arizona. Ex. Frank Valenzuela, Joe Budd Photo.


Bancroft, P. (1984). Gem & Crystal Treasures. Western Enterprises Mineralogical Record.

Copper Queen Mine (Halero Mine), Queen Hill, Bisbee, Warren District, Mule Mts, Cochise Co., Arizona, USA. (2015, January 1). Retrieved January 13, 2015.

Graeme, R. (2008). Bisbee, Cochise County, Arizona. In American Mineral Treasures (pp. 12-19). East Hampton, Connecticut: Lithographie LLC.

Rare Chalcopyrite Balls from Daye, China

Jul 5, 2019

Chalcopyrite Balls

Tonglushan Copper Mine, near Daye, Hubei Province, China

found Jan 2019 through April 2019

These "balls" started coming out in January, from one reliable source of mine who works directly with miners at Tonglushan (literally "Green Copper Mountain" in Mandarin), which by the way is also the world's oldest continuous working copper mine. It has been active since the Chinese Bronze Age 3500 years ago, and there is a historic museum atop the old ruins. Nowadays, they mine deep underground with huge trucks and modern mining. Tonglushan is the recently productive source of many modern copper minerals from China including Malachite in stalactites and sheet forms, the strange chalcocite "balls" in matrix that came out a few years ago, sparkly Pyrite on Calcite, Calcites of different colors, Gypsum, and many other species. The modern entry is just down the road from the museum and the archaeological grounds of the old smelters and kilns of ancient times.

Chalcopyrite fine mineral specimen from Daye, China These new 2019 chalcopyrite finds from the Tonglushan mine near Daye, China are stunningly complex!

When these first came out, we thought they might be some trickery of a new way to fake copper minerals. However, the source has worked with me for nearly a decade and said the miners were truthful and forthright. I had the first specimens looked at in several ways. We cross-sectioned one of the larger yellow chalcopyrite balls to look at the internal structure (which was normal and radial, so these are not carved), and to do analysis at University of Arizona via EDS. The results came back conclusively chalcopyrite, with no bornite (as I had guessed the multicolored coating on top might be). Both internally and externally, these are pure chalcopyrite that matches the known standards. We then asked the miners to provide matrix specimens. Apparently, the easy pickings were the floater clusters on the bottom of the pocket, and few matrix pieces had been collected (from above). In the fourth and final lot that I obtained in May, which was collected in April, we were finally able to get the matrix specimens by paying extra. The floaters had been simply picked up in the bottom of the open pockets, and the matrix specimens took more work (and time, and tools) to acquire from the roof of that last pocket. Matrix is Mudstone, an extremely fine-grained sedimentary rock consisting of a mixture of clay and silt-sized particles.

Additionally, Dr. Stuart Mills (Senior Curator of Geosciences at Museum Victoria) has been studying these extensively for a future paper. Some of his initial findings are available here.

New Chalcopyrite balls from China Two views of the inside of chalcopyrite balls from Daye, China

Courtesy of Dr. Peter Megaw, who examined pieces in China with us :

As you can see in the accompanying images, the matrix pieces show a rim or zone between the balls and the mudstone matrix.  My guess is that fluids of some sort dissolved whatever cement was holding the mudstone together, liberating the sulfide balls and allowing them to pop free and accumulate in the bottom of the void in a nest of loose sand. Originally, each ball would have been completely surrounded by this zone but in some cases it was incompletely dissolved (perhaps because it was more completely sulfidized?) leaving the balls stuck to the matrix. I think (simple) weathering is very unlikely to be the culprit as the leaching the agent. The oxidation you can see is not very pervasive and the balls generally look fresh; since chalcopyrite weathers easily and quickly I think if this was a weathering effect you'd see more oxidation and chalcopyrite destruction than you're seeing here. More likely is that late ore fluids dissolved the matrix around the balls and may even have contributed a little sulfide to “glue” the loose balls together. Closer examination of those rims and their transition towards the matrix will tell you whether this scenario is plausible. I am also intrigued by the complex lumpiness on the back of the largest matrix piece. That may reveal some aspects of the overall environment they formed in.

Fine, rare crystal for sale - Chalcopyrite from Tonglushan, China Multicolored chalcopyrite balls "cemented" together by remaining sulfides in the formation pocket. Daye, China

These matrix specimens show that the chalcopyrite forms much in the same was as "Blister Copper" from Connecticut or Cornwall formed, but in different matrix. Instead of forming in, and being bonded to, solid sulfide ores as at those classic localities, these form in a hard sandstone rock matrix with lots of cavities. The chalcopyrite filled veins and cracks, and also bubbled up into these shapes where open space allowed it. Some specimens do show two balls fused together, or clusters of smaller merged with larger, naturally in the matrix. Later, the structure of mudstone holding these heavy objects was degraded and as the sulfides are heavy they simply fell out and settled to the bottom of the pocket (except for some pieces stuck in matrix on the top). This is similar to some gem species' pockets in kaolinized clay where everything settles to the bottom in a mess of floater kunzite or tourmalines; or  like you'd expect to happen if clusters of Spanish pyrites had been exposed to such effects and ended up in open pockets instead of frozen in a mountain. When found, the miners scooped these up and took them out, and we have only cleaned them with water and a quick bath in SimpleGreen. When you look at the matrix specimens, you can see incipient floaters coming out of the strange mix of sulfide-infused mudstone, and easily imagine how these would have formed by the logic above.


This piece is super cool. Many mineral collectors love specimens that tell a story, and this one definitely does and looks good too. The corona surrounding the balls make a very aesthetic picture but give a glimpse at the formation of this find. Originally, each ball would have been completely surrounded by this corona zone. Looking at this specimen you can see how the corona has been preferentially dissolved, and when you rotate the specimen you get an amazing cross-section of this phenomenon. Plus, you can see the relationship between the Chalcopyrite and the mudstone matrix, the complex lumpiness of matrix is super intriguing! This piece is both visually and intellectually stimulating.

We'll be launching these for sale over the next month (and featuring more at the 2019 Dallas Symposium!) so if you haven't already joined our mailing list (in our webpage footer, or by registering for an account), do so for notification when we have these available for purchase!