Minerals are natural compounds formed through geological processes.
They are solid and naturally occurring, with a crystal structure and a specific chemical composition which defines the colour of the mineral along with its lustre and hardness.
There are over 2000 types of mineral, each with its own composition and appearance, and more are discovered each year.
Many collectable minerals are also known as crystals, due to their structure and appearance.
Some minerals are cut, faceted and polished to create gemstones, which are used to decorate jewellery.
Each type of gemstone belongs to a different class or species, the properties of which can vary depending on individual composition.
The collection and study of minerals is known as mineralogy, which is a specific area of geology.
This is a highly-developed discipline with a basis in both scientific research and commercial mining, and many natural history museums around the world have large mineral collections on display to the public.
Some collectors obtain mineral specimens for their aesthetic qualities, while others collect them for purely scientific purposes, but often the motivation for mineral collecting is a combination of the two.
A reasonable degree of research and study is required by small-scale amateur mineral collectors for the purposes of identification and classification.
As with many areas of collecting that deal with naturally-occurring items, there are two types of mineral collector: those who purchase mineral specimens and displays from dealers and auctions, and those who collect them in the field.
The hobby of collecting minerals in the field through excavating sights is sometimes known as ‘rockhounding’, and those who do it are often described as amateur geologists.
This side of the hobby has much in common with fossil hunting, and the two are often closely linked in terms of techniques and types of equipment used. They are also both practised in areas of geological interest which often contain both interesting mineral deposits and fossil specimens.
There are several different types of site used for gemstone collecting. These are:
- Roadcuts - exposed layers of rock created through road development, found directly by the roadside.
- Mine Dumps - areas located near working or abandoned mines used for discarded material.
- Trenches and open cuts - areas located within old mining areas.
- Tunnels and adits – underground or partially-covered areas, which can be parts of natural cave formations or man-made mines.
There is a large community of mineral collectors worldwide, along with a growing number of organisations at a national and local level that offer advice and information. There is also a busy collectors market, which can range from the smallest examples sold as souvenirs in gift shops to the largest spectacular specimens which appear at major natural history auctions. The endless variety of shapes, sizes, colours and formations have made minerals one of the most popular natural collectibles.
History of mineral collecting
16th to 19th centuries
The hobby of mineral collecting (and the study of mineralogy) began in earnest during the 16th century.
The German scholar Georgius Agricola (1494 – 1555) is known as the ‘father of minerology’ and produced the first two comprehensive works on the subject: De Natura Fossilium, his account of the discovery and occurrence of minerals (1548) and De Re Metallica, a systematic treatise on mining and extractive metallurgy published after his death in 1556.
Another notable collector during the 16th century was Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Bohemia, and King of Hungary and Croatia. He was the owner of Europe’s most extensive cabinet of curiosities and built an extensive collection of art, natural wonders and mechanical devices which was housed at Prague Castle.
This included a mineral and gemstone collection, systematically arranged and housed in 37 cabinets. He was a patron to many natural philosophers and his mineral collection was tended to by his court physician Anselmus Boetius de Boodt, who himself published the influential work De Gemmis et Lapidibus on the subject in 1609.
The 17th and 18th centuries were characterised by a new spirit of scientific rationalisation and a desire to document and categorise the natural world. Private collections became the focus of scientific study, and minerals previously gathered purely as items of beauty became samples to be examined and classified.
19th century to the present day
The 19th century saw the shift from private to public collections as museums of natural of social and natural history began to grow from personal collections into national institutions. In 1807 the Geological Society of London was founded, and fellows of the society such as Sir Charles Grenville and Robert Ferguson were pivotal in the growth of mineralogy.
Grenville’s collection was purchased via Act of Parliament for the British Museum after his death and had been catalogued by the Frenchman Jacques Louis, comte de Bournon (who was responsible for cataloguing many of the era’s great collections).
Bournon’s contribution to mineralogy was later recognised when the mineral Bournonite was named in his honour.
Grenville was also close friends with another great mineral collector of the day, James Smithson, with whom he regularly exchanged examples.
Smithson later bequeathed his fortune to be donated to the American people in order to fund scientific study, and the Smithsonian Institute was founded with the donation.
The world’s most expensive mineral specimen
The most expensive mineral specimen ever sold at auction is a gemstone: the 24.78 carat ‘fancy intense pink diamond’ sold in Geneva in November 2010. The GIA (Gemological Institute of America) report stated that the diamond is fancy intense pink, natural colour, VVS2 clarity, and that it may be potentially flawless after surface polishing. Featuring a classic emerald cut, the diamond (set in a ring) sold to a British dealer for a world record price of $45,442,500 (including buyer’s premium).
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