Ask any mineral collector to name a classic mineral locality or region in Britain and they will probably think of Cornwall or Devon, perhaps Weardale in Co Durham, or even the Caldbeck Fells or the West Cumbrian iron mining district in Cumbria – but probably not Wales. This is not to say that Wales has no classic minerals, but is perhaps a reflection of collecting habits and the preference for large, brightly coloured crystals.
Wales has a long history of mining dating back to, at least, the Bronze Age, but, unlike some other regions, there does not appear to have been a desire by miners to extract mineral specimens for sale. Indeed, a network of mineral dealers, as was clearly present in Cornwall during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was totally absent in Wales.
One factor is that the establishment of a National Museum in Wales occurred relatively late (in 1907) and did not open to the general public until the 1920s. Before this, there was no central repository for specimens collected in Wales and, consequently, mineral collections with historical significance are rare in the Principality.
The university colleges founded during the 1870s and 1880s built up their own academic collections. Earlier still, the Royal Institute of South Wales (founded in Swansea in 1835), established geological collections, but its focus appears (from what records remain) to have been wide ranging and not specific to Wales. Therefore, during the heyday of mining in Wales, the lack of one overall institution focussing on the mineralogy of Wales appears to have resulted in a dearth of specimens being preserved.
Some historic Welsh material exists in older collections based in England, for example, the Natural History Museum in London, but, compared with other British mining regions, the number and quality of specimens is limited. Since its foundation, the National Museum of Wales has, acquired a number of private and academic collections containing old-time Welsh mineral specimens. This has clearly helped our understanding of Welsh mineralogy. Unfortunately, as with many old collections, provenance details are often vague or entirely absent.
What is a classic mineral?
In general, some experience is required to appreciate the minerals that occur in the Principality. In addition, to assess which Welsh minerals are ‘classics’, we must first decide what actually constitutes a ‘classic mineral’. Is it merely a case of something that is very old or maybe something of exceptional beauty? Perhaps, it could be a particular association or assemblage of minerals characteristic to a locality. A classic mineral is difficult to define and different collectors may have different opinions.
The most important factor is surely aesthetics. Attractive minerals are popular and remembered more than rare minerals that may be ugly. However, size is also important. Larger crystals get noticed more than smaller equivalents and, if a particular mineral represents the largest example ever discovered, it will certainly feature as a classic.
Type locality specimens, or those from the original locality of discovery for a species, are considered important and may also be termed ‘classics’. So to are minerals of particular cultural significance. In these cases, being attractive is not a prerequisite to being a ‘classic’.
The age of a specimen, or when it was discovered, quite often affects a collector’s opinion. Those minerals of historical significance often get described as ‘classics’, even though (physically) they may be no different to another discovered more recently.
Clearly, a large number of minerals will fall into one of these categories, but the real classics are those that satisfy several of these criteria. For the purposes of this article, a selection of classic minerals from Wales is described chronologically and not necessarily in order of importance.