What To Look For When Acquiring Gems & Minerals
I have been asked countless times, “How do you pick the pieces that you acquire? What do you look for?” It’s a great question, and over time the process often becomes second nature so I might not even be thinking consciously about the numerous qualities that I’m scrutinizing as I scan each piece. Take the massive Gem and Mineral show in Tucson, Arizona every winter for example: If I go into a showroom, there’s probably hundreds of specimens. Then there are hundreds of showrooms at this one particular show, and over forty individual shows throughout the city. That’s well over a thousand venders, totaling over a million pieces. Probably well over a million. It’s mind-boggling!
So how do you even start? Where do you start? For one, you quickly learn to identify which rooms might have something I’d be interested in, and which rooms can be passed over. I’m looking for pieces that are priced significantly below retail, so that I can get great cost savings to pass on to my customers. If I step into a room with high-end showcases, expensive lighting, well-dressed sales personnel serving wine and cheese, then I know I can move on. Now, I may take a look just to see some amazing “museum” pieces, but it’s clear the pricing is retail and above. I can quickly tell if a room is overpriced, yet if there are some potentially interesting pieces, I’ll ask the vendor if he/she is able to move on the price, especially if I bundle a few pieces. If they say they might be able to do up to 10%, once again, I’ll move on. Of course, if a room is selling items I’m not particularly interested in, such as framed insects, sea shells, incense, rugs, folk art, knives, strange clothing and stone pipes (not kidding), I keep moving.
When I enter a room or approach a booth, I begin to scan the displayed pieces and look for aesthetics. I’m looking for pieces that catch my eye, that stand out from the crowd. The following is a list of qualities that cause a piece to stand out.
I look for well-developed crystals with clean faces and terminations, and absolutely no polishing, it has to be all natural. Any crystals will likely be the focal point of a piece. If the crystal/crystals don’t pop, then there’s often not much left to make the piece desirable.
I like to see rich, saturated colors. Deep purples (Uruguayan Amethyst), rich blues (Cavansite) and reds (Vanadinite) to name just a fraction of the multitude of mineral colors. Recently I’ve seen some Vanadinite come to market that has a brown hue, and for me, it just doesn’t have the same draw as the deep red color I’ve come to associate with Vanadinite. For other collectors, it may not be as important of a factor, but for me, it certainly is. For some collectors, a specific color is everything; I know of some collectors who, for example, collect exclusively blue minerals, or others who collect only red minerals, and so on. Color is a huge component of collecting and one of the main driving components of aesthetics.
The ability to reflect light. Some minerals have a “glassy” (vitreous) luster like Quartz, a metallic luster like Stibnite or Pyrite, a pearly luster found in Muscovite (and pearls of course), or even a silky luster as found in some forms of Malachite and Selenite. There are several more, but one official luster category, “dull,” is not one I’m particularly interested in. Luster, along with color, can catch your eye immediately and separate a piece from the dull masses spread across table after table.
This is the difference between different minerals, crystals, colors and luster. Deep blue Azurite crystals on green Malachite really stands out. A golden Calcite scepter in a purple Amethyst Geode is incredible. A black Schorl Tourmaline with an aqua-blue Tourmaline is a classic. The combinations are endless. Any time I can find pieces with different minerals and colors I immediately take a closer look. I also really like the contrast between a well-defined, lustrous crystal or crystal cluster on a non-descript matrix. Take a Herkimer Diamond for example – you have this beautiful Quartz crystal with an adamantine (brilliant, like a diamond) luster along with bland, brown, dull-luster Dolostone (Dolomite) matrix. A “beauty and the beast” contrast like none-other. Exceptional contrast gives any piece an edge in the search for outstanding pieces.
This quality allows a piece to be optimally displayed. It refers to a piece’s focal point or points (a crystal, crystals or crystal clusters) being centered, evenly spaced and attractively arranged in relation to another or its matrix (host rock). It’s quite similar to cropping a photograph in order to place the subject in the optimal position for viewing. Picture a cluster of turquoise Amazonite crystals interacting with Smoky Quartz crystals, evenly presented in an amazing display. It’s very subjective, yet when you see the interplay between crystals, different minerals and matrix that succeed in drawing your eyes to the main attraction, it’s a sight to behold! However, it’s certainly not a deal-breaker if a focal crystal or cluster is off to one side, but it does add a “wow” element when all of the focal elements are uniquely and proportionally presented.
The quality of light being able to pass through a crystal or mineral without any impediments, imperfections or inclusions. Of course, this quality only applies to minerals that are known to be transparent. A transparent crystal of Selenite might be referred to as “water clear.” A transparent crystal of Aquamarine would be referred to as “gemmy” since transparency is what constitutes a gem quality mineral, such as Diamond, Ruby, Emerald, etc. (Most transparent minerals can also be translucent, that is, only allowing light to partially pass through. Opaque minerals do not allow any light to pass through.) This quality of transparency can easily and clearly be seen (pun intended), and should put a piece in the que for further consideration.
I will simply call the next three qualities the three “D’s.”
Damage, Dollars and Dimension
Damage: Let’s assume that a particular piece catches my eye – great color, luster, balance, contrast, etc. I pick it up and take a closer look. I see a ding on the top of the large, central crystal. The termination is chipped. But everything else is good to go. Sorry, I set the piece back down and keep scanning. However, if there’s a small ding on the side, or face of a secondary crystal, near the bottom, or on the side somewhat out of the line of vision, yet everything else about the piece is exceptional, then I’m likely to try and buy the piece at a reasonable price. Finding a piece that is “perfect” is frankly, not possible. With some magnification, I can find a minor ding or chip on virtually any piece. So, whether there’s some damage is not the question. Ultimately, the question is whether or not the level of damage is acceptable or so extensive that it effectively renders the piece worthless. To me, if there’s any damage that is excessive, easily visible and distracts from the focus and beauty of the specimen, I set it back down. But again, small dings, scuffs and other minor imperfections that are at best difficult to see without magnification, appear infrequently and are out of sight, need not be considered a deal-breaker. However, as I mentioned earlier, for me, chipped crystal terminations are, in fact, a deal-breaker.
In addition to minor imperfections, specimens and crystals will often have a “contact” which is where the specimen was connected to a cavity wall, a “pocket,” or some other matrix within the earth. In the process of extracting the specimen it is natural that there will be an area of imperfection at the point where the specimen was connected. Contact is very normal and natural, and assuming the contact area is minor, out of sight and not distracting, then this is completely acceptable. I’ll attempt to buy it. What’s worth considering is that without minor contact we would never have the piece to enjoy in the first place. The only time you find a specimen without any contact is if it is a “floater,” that is, a specimen, particularly a crystal or crystal cluster, that grew from a point that was free of any impediment on all sides. This is very rare and also very expensive. Those pieces end up with the nicely dressed vendors serving wine and cheese . . .
Dollars: Is the price fair? Who determines what fair is? Well, in this situation, I do. And when you shop for specimens, you also determine for yourself what’s fair. If I find a piece that meets all of my criteria, I then need to quickly determine what I could reasonably ask for that piece online or at a show. Then I reverse engineer – if I can sell it for X amount, then I need to buy it for Y amount. That is the fair price for me. This is where negotiations take place, and in a moment or two (or sometimes much longer), there will be either internal elation or disappointment. In any deal you always have to be willing to walk away, and I have walked away many, many times. However, many times as I was out the door and quite a distance away, I would hear a voice summoning me with a sudden change of heart. And we would close the deal after all. Sometimes the deals happen when you least expect them. I know what I’m willing to spend, and more importantly, I know what I’m not willing to spend, and that’s a critical discipline for me to be able to offer beautiful pieces for very fair prices.
Dimension: There’s a common misperception that bigger translates into better; thus bigger is more expensive. Some dealers will ask for more money for big pieces, and in fact, they will defend their pricing by saying “look how big it is.” I’m not at all impressed with big, I’m impressed with quality. And if I can get a large piece that meets all of my aforementioned qualities, then I’ll buy it. I’d much rather buy a smaller specimen in excellent condition than a larger piece that is not in excellent condition. Usually what comes with a bigger piece are bigger dings, chips and scuffs. Don’t get me wrong; a large piece in excellent condition is certainly worth more than a smaller comparable piece, and I love to own big, excellent pieces. But consider this: Getting a big piece out of the ground, wrapping it in a thin layer of newspaper, transporting it in a bucket with other under-protected big pieces in the back of a beat up pickup truck on an unpaved road to market, where it will eventually make its way to Tucson via numerous other hazardous trips, does not make for good odds that it will arrive in excellent condition as compared to smaller pieces. It’s not impossible, but the odds are definitely stacked against it. Again, quality will always trump size.
And finally, my last criteria is:
Hmm and Wow
These two descriptors go together like bookends. The very first quality is the “Hmm” factor. That is, I see a piece that has some intriguing qualities and my initial reaction is “hmm, that looks interesting.” Then if the piece subsequently meets all of my criteria, then my final expression is “Wow.” Now I’m ready to buy. It’s that simple!