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Advice For Beginners: Nine Lessons Learned from Experience

by John H. Betts, All Rights Reserved

  1. Keep those labels.
  2. Start cataloging your collection early.
  3. Buy a good book and use it.
  4. Buy a good trimmer and use it.
  5. Join your local mineral club.
  6. Don’t collect more than you can display.
  7. Develop relationships with dealers so they call you when good material comes in.
  8. Buy the best mineral you can afford.
  9. Never accept any damaged specimens.

The following advice is aimed at beginning mineral collectors. This is the advice that I wish somebody had told me when I was starting out. Sadly, these lessons were discovered through experience. Every experienced collector will tell you the same advice, though perhaps in a different way.

Keep those labels.

Labels are important to your collection. They are the only evidence to distinguish an ordinary green tourmaline from Brazil from that rare tourmaline from the Gillette Quarry in Connecticut.

I still remember the time when my mother, in an effort to clean up my bedroom, discarded all the "scraps of paper" next to the minerals I had recently purchased at a big mineral show. They were, of course, the labels that accompanied the minerals with locality information.

Recently I assisted a collector in identifying minerals and localities because, when he started collecting minerals he appreciated them for their beauty only, and had discarded all the labels. Then, as he became a more advanced collector, he realized that a common mineral can be very rare at some localities.

An example of that is the madness eastern collectors have for the 1-5 mm sphalerite crystals from the zeolite cavities in the trap rock quarries like at Southbury, Connecticut. It is a common mineral in the Midwest, but a sphalerite from Southbury commands a big price.

The label is all we have to identify the locality and give the specimen status as a rarity.

After locality, a label can tell the history too. I have one mineral in my collection with a Carl Bosch label and a Smithsonian label. Surely anyone will agree that this is a rarer, and therefore more valuable specimen, than a similar specimen without such documentation.

So you can see that the label is for more than merchandising. It is your evidence of the uniqueness of your minerals. So find a way to keep your labels. Whether you file them in a card file and put numbers on the specimens, or glue the label to the bottom of the specimen they way the old dealers did, find a way to keep this valuable record with the mineral specimen.

Start cataloging your collection early.

When Joe Cilen died he left behind a collection of 23,000 mineral specimens. That isn’t particularly significant except that every specimen was cataloged, cross referenced, and recorded along with all original labels that came with each mineral. Now that is impressive, and he did it in the age of manual typewriters. No photocopiers, computers, or database software!

Joe started early on with his cataloging and maintained it fastidiously throughout the years. That enabled him to stay ahead of the game. Don’t wait until you have 500 or 1000 specimens in your collection - start now. It is never too early.

And it has never been easier, because now we have computers and spreadsheet or database software. You can buy off-the-shelf cataloging software, but Excel works very well too. I suggest you record at least the following:

· Number (unique to that specimen)

· Mineral (the true mineral name) plus any varietal names

· Country, State, Town, Mine, Mine specifics (i.e. 700’ level, station 192)

· year it was mined

· how you acquired the specimen

· price paid.

· And for the detail oriented I also record: size, crystal sizes, weight, year acquired, fluorescence, previous collection it was in, current value (this must be revised periodically), and where in your home it is located.

Of course not every mineral will have information for every one of those categories, but if you are setting up a database you should consider these as the basic requirements. Just think how great it will be once your collection is cataloged. You will be able to bring up on your screen ever Wulfenite you have, or all minerals from a locality. If you record where the minerals are stored in your home, you could list all minerals in the "left display case" and generate an inventory list to be kept in that display case. Start cataloging your minerals today. Its a good thing.

Buy a good book and use it.

Too many questions that beginners ask can be answered with a little effort and a good reference book. Every beginner should invest in one good reference book on minerals. It should be comprehensive yet not too technical. I highly recommend Mineralogy by John Sinkankas as a good reference book (in fact I recommend every book by John Sinkankas). When it comes to field collecting I recommend Field Collecting Gemstones and Minerals also by Sinkankas. With these two books in your library, you have a good start at learning 90% of what you will need to know as a mineral collector.

A corollary to this rule is to subscribe to a good mineral magazine. This will fill in the recent advances in mineralogy that are missing in all reference books. Mineralogical Record is by far the best magazine on the subject in the U.S. and there is no excuse for not subscribing. It is essential.

As you build your reference library, don’t just browse through them - read them. Cover to cover. And remember, these are for you reference - your working copies. Don’t be afraid to highlight them, make margin notes, add post-its, etc. We were taught in school not to mark up books because the school district reused the books every year. And of course you wouldn’t mark up a rare book that has investment value. But for a working reference book your notes and highlights will help you as you use them. And using them is what is most important.

Buy a good trimmer and use it.

Too many collectors have "matrix-rich" minerals in their collection. By this I mean specimens with too much matrix in proportion to the minerals you are really interested in. Buy a good trimmer, it will pay for itself the first day you use it by turning at least one unbalanced, oversized, leaning to one side mineral specimen into a right-sized beauty that sits with the crystals displayed to their best advantage. I know some trimmers can be expensive, but consider how much you spend on minerals. I suggest you set aside one months mineral budget and put it into a trimmer. By trimming up your collection that small investment will increase the value of your entire collection.

An extension of the need for a trimmer is to buy a trim saw too. There are some minerals that defy trimming because of fragility or the lack of opposing surfaces for the trimmer to grab. This is when a saw becomes invaluable. A word of caution though, many collectors feel a sawn surface devalues a specimen. I personally would rather have a bottom sawn flat to display a mineral well than a naturally broken surface on a specimen that leans over and requires and acrylic pegstand to support it in the proper orientation. If you are one of those that dislikes sawn surfaces then use your money to buy acrylic stands instead.

Join your local mineral club.

Almost anywhere you go there is a local mineral club nearby. Join one. Those of us in the east often have four or five clubs within driving distance. Choose the one that fits your needs as a collector. Clubs provide a valuable list of services to members including: arranging field trips, monthly educational lectures, a newsletter with local mineral news, as well as a social setting to meet other collectors. Some clubs are better than others. Ask around at your local mineral show among the dealers and attendees to get a feel for the clubs. Generally the dues are minimal and well worth the value as an educational resource for beginners. Once you are in the club, look around for possible mentors to help with your collection and guide you as you progress. And of course if you join a club, make sure you take the time to attend the meetings.

Don’t collect more than you can display.

There is probably something psychologically unique about collectors. Freud would probably say we were poorly potty trained. Whatever it is, many collectors get out of hand and focus on the hunt, on gathering all they can. The result is a garage or basement filled with minerals in boxes. And what good are they in boxes!!? Somewhere in my collection of minerals in boxes I have a tourmaline from Lambertsville, NJ that I have promised to trade with another collector. But I can’t find it. I might as well not own it.

So invest in a cabinet or display case for your collection and display them. It doesn’t have to be a glass-front cabinet, a chest of drawers stores minerals very efficiently, yet makes sharing your collection with others convenient.

If you have more than you can display, then choose your best to display. Then take a hard look at what is left in the boxes. Do you really need them? If not, then take a few minerals to the next show or club meeting and offer them to friends or one of the dealers. If you do need to keep the specimens then spend some more money on display cases.

Eliminating specimens from your collection is a good thing, not bad. The minerals you are getting rid of can be traded with another collector or you can offer them to a dealer as partial payment for that killer he has. Most dealers will gladly allow you to trade up, though don’t expect to pay for the entire purchase in trade. Trading is not to be underestimated. The key to a good trade is both parties get something they want. When you are trading up, offer a flat of minerals for that one killer you just have to have.

Often the best trading is when you travel to another region. Offer minerals from your home region for mineral from the other guy’s home region. It is likely that each of you will be getting rid of minerals that you are up to you eyeballs in and can’t give away at home.

Every collector avoids de-accessioning by saying that "some day I will move to a bigger house and have room for lots of displays." Trust me, that never happens. If the house is that big you will have spent all of your money on the down-payment and closing costs. And the day after you buy it a major repair to the roof, boiler, (you fill in the blank), will require you to spend your mineral money on repairmen and supplies. So be realistic. Collect for today’s situation. Get rid of your minerals in boxes.

Develop relationships with dealers so they call you when good material comes in.

Once you are an impassioned collector you will develop a specialty in your collection. This is often collecting the same mineral from many different locations or collecting many minerals from one location. Whatever it is, you will be on the lookout for those unique mineral specimens that fill the gaps in your collection. The best advice I have is to develop a relationship with several mineral dealers that you have bought from in the past. Take the time to tell them your interest, give them your want list, check in periodically to see what is new. Dealers see more minerals in a year than you could ever hope to see in a lifetime. If they have you in mind, you will have a better chance at building a unique collection.

There is a down side though. If a dealer finds you something that you have requested, you run the risk of spoiling the relationship if you do not buy the specimen. I am not suggesting that you buy everything that is offered. But understand that a dealer will eventually drop you from his list if you don’t occasionally purchase his offerings.

Buy the best mineral you can afford.

When you buy, get the best. Remember the last mineral show you went to that had display cases. Which was more impressive or memorable: the case stuffed with 50 specimen each worth $20 or the case with one specimen worth $1000. Though the dollars may vary, we all remember that "killer" at the last show. Yet both collectors invested the same amount.

Lawrence H. Conklin, the distinguished NY mineral dealer who has guided many advanced collectors, suggest that collectors do the following: set a budget for mineral purchases in the coming year, decide how many specimens you must buy during the year to satisfy your urges, then divide your budget by the number of specimens to set the target range for you purchases. For example you say you want to spend $600 in a year and you go to six shows a year and have to buy something at every show. The advice to buy the best possible minerals says you should the buy one $100 mineral at each show - rather than buying ten $10 minerals. At the end of the year those $100 minerals will look better than a collection of $10 minerals

How much did you spend on minerals last year? Not many people can answer that. Take the time to add it up. It will probably be more than you expect. Use last year’s purchases as a guide to set your budget. Then divide that budget among the fewest specimens possible. You won’t spend any more than you intended, but you will end up with a much better collection.

Never accept any damaged specimens.

Too many beginner focus on getting a good deal at low prices. The result is they often lose sight of the quality and condition of the specimens. The first step to moving out the beginner status is to stop buying damaged crystals. Never accept edge "dings" or "contacts". Period. End of discussion.

What if the dealer tells you that all minerals from a particular locality are dinged? Then you don’t need specimens from that locality.

This simple rule will improve you collection and the collection will hold it’s value much better as time passes. As you walk a show keep this rule in mind and you will not make a bad purchase.


Much of this advice is just common sense. But it is not readily apparent to the beginner. Take this opportunity to learn from experience. I have learned these the hard way. Half of my collection is boxed away in a closet and I still can’t find that Lambertsville tourmaline…


See my follow-up article with More Advice for Mineral Collectors...



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