By Tony Forsyth
Many collectors starting out ask this question wanting a simple answer. Its easy, you might think. You just know a good specimen when you see one dont you? Trying to express in words what makes a good specimen is more difficult. It really depends upon your point of view, and your ultimate goals as a collector. We all at some time or other return from a fossicking trip with our prized finds which we then spend hours cleaning and trimming to bring out their best features. Because we have found these specimens ourselves, they also immediately take on a special significance to us as collectors. We are willing to dismiss many of the specimens shortcomings in allowance of the fact that they are ours, and we rightly elevate them in rank in our collections!
Mineral judges at shows such as the Gemboree just past, are governed by a rigid set of rules that endeavour to allow specimens to be judged impartially, regardless of value or rarity. So what makes for an excellent specimen when factored for competition purposes, may perhaps appear insignificant, even ordinary to many collectors. Points are awarded for labelling, proper identification and crystal perfection etc, but the fact remains that a nice clean quartz crystal that could be purchased for $5.00, may conceivably beat a proustite crystal valued at $500.00 that has a damaged prism face. I know which I would prefer in my collection! But from a mineral judges point of view, the quartz was a better specimen i.e. it fit the judging criteria to a better degree.
So discounting the I found it factor, and the rigid set of mineral judging rules, what do we look for? Price is a good indicator, and with dealers having to be competitive to survive commercially, you will find that some specimens are dearer than others for a specific reason. This could be: size, rarity of type, colour, perfection of crystallisation, lack of damage, famous or rare location, and also aesthetic appeal. A good rule of thumb is the more specimens that you look at, the better you will become at identifing those that stand out from the pack. As I said, price on a dealers stand is a good indicator, but it is not always so. For instance, many times you will come across a dealer selling a flat of same type specimens, all of similar size and all priced exactly the same. This is probably because the dealer bought them at a bulk price, and although knowing them to vary in quality, is willing to sell them at a set price just to recoup his outlay plus profit with no extra work required pricing them seperately.
This, then, is where you get to exercise your aesthetic choice, and take into account those other points mentioned. Lets say you have chosen the specimen type that you wish to add to your collection, and there are number to choose from. Dont immediately choose the biggest - big is not always best in minerals! Carefully look the specimen over for damage, chipped terminations especially can devalue a crystal specimen. Check that the specimen is not glued or repaired (or in fact fraudulently constructed, as has been the case with some amethyst and calcite geodes and cassiterite specimens seen lately). Are the crystals of unusual habit or exhibit features such as twinning or inclusions? Is the colour, lustre or transparency of one specimen better than others? Are the crystals seperate, or are still attached to the host matrix, as these are usually more desirable. Finally look at the actual arrangement of the crystals on their matrix. Are they just a lump, or do they create a striking visual effect.
The best specimens tend to have a matrix that provides a good base for display, as a backdrop to show off the crystals. The matrix may provide contrast in colour, but it should not constitute a disproportionate amount of the specimen, and it helps if it is able to sit and display in a cabinet without props or aids. Look at photos or view classic specimens on display in museums - they all tend to have a central focal point to the viewer. This is usually a single crystal or crystals that are larger than their surrounding ones. A spray of crystals with one or two large ones on a druse or carpet of crystal, is preferable to a mass of all similarly sized crystals.
So there it is! After a while you will not need to consciously think of these factors, but you will soon find yourself becoming more discerning in your choice of specimens. You may look back at your own collection and think to yourself, why did I buy this or that? This shows that you are learning, and becoming a more knowledgeable collector.