By Sir Howard Smith
John Sampson White, former curator of the Smithsonian Institutions mineral collection, recently described how fancy, aesthetic crystal groups of the competitive exhibit kind no longer appealed to him, and he added that you can learn more about mineralogy from one loose quartz crystal than you can from the biggest and flashiest quartz group the world has ever seen.
This assertion might be open to debate, but the point he made was that the interest and instruction in a mineral specimen lies not only in its aesthetic qualities. Well, we all say Hear, heart, to that, and we would also agree with him that one of the many great pleasures of mineral collecting is found in handling, examining and studying a specimen, for one never knows what one might find.
Once on a very dull and overcast day, I purchased a specimen which was displayed in a dark corner. It was labelled Tear-drop smithsonite, Broken Hill, NSW. and I bought it purely on this information, for it was impossible to really see what I was getting, except that the tear drop crystals were apparently fairly small. At home the next day, I unpacked the specimen and examined it closely in daylight.
The tear-drops turned out to be myriads of 5mm quartz crystals which had grown upon and among lustrous black crystals of sphalerite. Almost colourless single and stacked rhombs of calcite were distributed over the specimen, some upon, others totally enclosing pink crystals of rhodochrosite.
Further examination under a hand-lens disclosed a small plate of pyrite which was studded with tiny cubes of pyrite, the whole embedded among a forest of quartz crystals. A sparkling nest of fine, hair-like jamesonite next appeared under the lens, followed by a few tiny rhombs of rhodochrosite perching on the tips of quartz crystals, and finally inclusions of jamesonite in calcite crystals.
The back of the specimen was a repeat of the front, except that the calcite crystals were larger and darker, the partial inclusions of rhodochrosite more visible within the calcite crystals, while a pocket of quartz crystals thickly investing half the specimen left the other half free to be covered in matted jamesonite. Furthermore, the number 13783 on the back identified the specimen as having once been in the possession of a noted Sydney collector.
The specimen has no matrix; it is all crystallised minerals which by their placement demonstrate that the first to form was sphalerite, then came the quartz followed by rhodochrosite, then the jamesonite and pyrite with calcite last of all.
Far from originating in Broken Hill, the specimen was from the classic Romanian locality, Baja Sprie, and although pretty to look upon, it is certainly replete with interest when examined, and laden with information when studied. Under a microscope there might still await discoveries, left or right-handed quartz crystals perhaps, or different crystal forms of calcite.
John Sampson White might have exaggerated somewhat, but he was certainly in the right direction. Because for solace, relaxation, as a learning exercise or just to fill in time, there are few substitutes for handling ones mineral specimens one by one and examining, studying and contemplating them.
Throughout past ages and until quite recent times, mineral collectors increased the variety in species and locality of their collections by exchanging specimens with other collectors in places remote from their own. After 1841, when the famous Penny Black ushered in postal systems as we know them throughout the world today, contacting distant collectors and arranging exchanges became easier, and therefore more popular and frequent.
Before the Lapidary Club of New South Wales was formed in 1953, there were no mineral and gem shows in Australia, no gemkhanas or gemborees. There were no dealers to spread arrays of rare and beautiful specimens from world-wide localities before our eyes, no world travellers on our doorsteps with car-loads of crystals, that we might pick and choose additions to our collections according to our finances and our fancies. We could only send mail orders to perhaps Wards Natural Science Establishment in the United States, or to Gregory, Bottley & Company, (no Lloyd then) in Britain, calculate exchange rates and hope for the best. The alternative was to exchange specimens through the mail.
It was not until March 1955 that our first mineral magazine, The Australian Amateur Mineralogist, appeared on the scene. Six months later it carried its first mineral dealers advertisement, that of Specimen Minerals (Australia) Limited, offering Broken Hill cerussite in fine crystallised specimens, reticulated, arrowhead etc., 2 inch by 3 inch 35/- ($3.50), or Broken Hill anglesite in lustrous orthorhombic crystals on crystallised cerussite, 2 inch by 3 inch, 42/6 ($4.25). Purchasing from Specimen Minerals, however, was still a mail order operation.
Before even this service was available in Australia my only methods of collecting minerals were by personal field collecting, which brought meagre results when transport was by push- bike, and by exchange through the mail, usually in response to classified advertisements in the United States magazine Rocks and Minerals. In 1956 I published an article in this magazine and soon received over 100 letters offering exchanges as a result of it. It seemed that American collectors still relied upon mail exchanges too.
All of these letter-writers were answered in laborious longhand, but I chose only two with whom to arrange exchanges and these remained constant swappers of specimens for the next ten years. Others became exchangers on a periodic or once-only basis, but the associated correspondence itself was fascinating. It told of collecting trips in exotic places and of events in families far away. Of course, the curiosity and excitement aroused by the arrival of a surprise box of specimens constitute emotions for which one never loses the profound desire and unlimited capacity to enjoy. Whether from Italy, Britain, Czechoslovakia or the United States, never in all the years did an exchange fall below expectations.
My two constant American exchangers of minerals both died in 1967. By then gem and mineral shows were becoming common annual events, mineralogical societies were soon to be formed and the need for mail exchanges of specimens waned. My last article in Rocks and Minerals was published in 1987 and produced not even one letter offering exchanges. The golden years of mineral exchanges by post had become a happy memory.
Over eleven years of exchanging specimens by mail, never was a letter unanswered, a parcel of specimens unacknowledged nor a courtesy overlooked. Furthermore, the specimens received as exchanges always seemed to be at least the quality of those sent, and most often were superior or greater in number.
The advent of our own magazine, The Australian Journal of Mineralogy with its welcome section of classified advertisements, has raised possibilities of again enjoying the delights of mineral exchanges with other collectors, Australian as well as foreign. Although but two issues are so far in print, the Journal has already carried several advertisements for the purchase, donation or exchange of mineral specimens, and our own Newsletter, a year or so ago, carried overseas addresses of collectors wishing to exchange specimens. With fond memories of earlier years when fascinating correspondence of humour and goodwill, along with mysterious parcels bearing foreign postage stamps, arrived regularly in my letterbox, I have taken up the advertised invitations on several occasions.
After a year I still await a reply to one of my letters. I have had no acknowledgement, let alone thanks, for a parcel I sent gratis and with no strings attached. To two letters in response to advertisements I have had no reply. What a difference from the unfailing good manners of the collectors of the 50s and 60s!
Corresponding and exchanging with collectors around the world carries with it a heavy responsibility to ones country, quite apart from the pleasures this activity brings. We can all be judged by the courtesy, generosity and good manners, or the lack of them, exhibited by just one of our countrymen or countrywomen. Our own Society Members would never offend in any way, but it is unfortunate and true that bad manners are indeed sometimes displayed by Australians interested in minerals.
How easy it is, therefore, to give ones country a good name or a bad one. Recently I answered an advertisement for an exchange of mineral specimens with an overseas address and received a marvellous reply from a Scotsman who not only sent a list of available minerals and their interesting localities, but also regaled me with the wonderful benefits to be derived in a snow storm from a dram or two of single malt whisky. Who could fail to love the Scots after that? My parcel is on its way to him, no strings attached.
As the hobby of mineral collecting entered a new Golden Age from the 1950s, so too, perhaps, the exchange of specimens through the post is about to enjoy its renaissance. Such practice is truly an engrossing facet of mineral collecting and opens the door to the acquisition of unusual collector-collected specimens from remote or poorly known localities rarely found in dealers stocks. Moreover, the rules are simple: return of exchanges guaranteed if not satisfied, full stop.
The implied, unwritten and seldom mentioned rules, however, are equally important. Answer letters, acknowledge parcels, exercise courtesy. In other words, display good manners.