Recollecting rocks and minerals

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Malcolm Chapman (UK)

Collecting is natural. We all do it to a greater or lesser degree and what we collect is motivated by many factors including value and the appeal to the eye. Rarity is often a factor, as is cost, and interest can be awoken by someone you are related to, a teacher or a friend. So how did I become involved with collecting rocks and minerals? It was a television programme called Serendipity, which was broadcast about 35 years ago.

Not long before (and at great cost), I bought some amber jewellery. And, then, there on the TV, was a young lady walking along the beach at Aldeburgh and picking up stones – not many, considering the number surrounding her, but a few handfuls. She was collecting amber and she had gathered an admirable collection for free, which would have made most people envious.

The grey matter started working. Aldeburgh was some distance away, but, close at hand, was the beach at Sheerness and I knew about longshore drift….

By the action of wind and tide, stones on the east coast work their way south and north-facing beaches, like Sheerness, gather the stones moving from north of that point. Therefore, I decided that amber should be on Sheerness beach.

I had never studied the stones on a beach before, but I believed that there could be many glamorous stones that I could find such that I envisioned making jewellery with them, mostly pendants. My experience was that they came in many colours and were often worn into the right shape and size. Of course, the problem was that they were damp when I found them and showed their colour beautifully when on the beach. However, when dry, they lost their brilliance. Therefore, it was time for study and I began to learn about tumbling stones and then making jewellery.

I put these ideas together and then I had to learn marketing. That came easy at first as I sold them at the office, but eventually that market dried up. So, in the end, I put them up for auction and they sold at values so high I couldn’t believe it.

My mind had started wandering. Those stones had spent hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, being tossed around in the sea. Yet, they could be made to look so beautiful. So, what about the original stones before I or the sea had worked on them? They must have looked better still. It seemed a good idea to seek them out to see how good they actually were. Logically, as my stones had come from the east coast, that seemed the place to start looking. So, I started collecting books, but none referred to this area.

In fact, there seemed to be a total lack of east coast locations of any importance. However, one book referred to Devon and Cornwall and the wealth of resources to be found within their boundaries. And it named locations and the stones that could be collected (although, at that time, they meant little to me as I lived on the east coast). These places were a long way away. Fortunately, I owned a camper van so I could park anywhere overnight. So, as a first expedition, I planned 20 locations to visit over a week. However, there were problems – some sites would not allow access, some could not be found and some had been flattened and covered with soil. However, there were a number of places that could be located and also some I came across that had not been planned.

It is said that if a child catches a fish first time he or she goes fishing, they are hooked for life. The same might be said of rock collecting!

That first journey, over 30 years, ago contained moments that have remained with ever me since. The first piece of quartz crystal I found came from north of Dartmoor: Cligga Head produced a quartz and cuprite combination that was of an excellent quality. I also found various crystals in the St Just/Bottalock area. In fact, it was here that I came across two men who collected crystals from the walls of mines, including torbenite, which was very radioactive, as I found when testing the piece they kindly gave me.

Fig. 1. The photos are examples of how magnification can expose new minerals in a sample. However, becuase of thier small size, identification is restricted to visual clues.

I began to make a point of collecting anything that caught my eye. I knew I would have a lot of time to study them after I got home. However, the last port of call on that seminal journey was disappointing. I found a site with lots of crystals and was about to start collecting when I was thrown out. A member of staff employed by English China Clay ejected me for my own safety, although I could see no danger. That location is now visited by millions of people: they have put some strange domes there (and a lot of plants) and another great collecting site was gone!

I am not criticising the EU. In fact, it employees were magnificent in their attitude. When I was next in Cornwall, being the type of person I am, I decided to complain in person at their head office about being ejected.  I gave no notice of my visit. I made my complaints and was about to leave when I was invited into the office. There, a man asked someone to collect together some bits and pieces and, while we waited, he explained their safety rules, which were very simple – no one could be on any site without a company representative. They had a system whereby they allocated retired members of staff to accompany visitors. As they had lost some of these people recently, he could not allocate anyone at that time. They then presented me with a box of minerals, including a large piece of turquoise and a stone set in plastic.

Later, he allocated me to Maurice Grigg. The name may mean as little to you now as it did to me then. However, just tap it in to your Google search and you will begin to get some idea of the importance of the man. He had the best collection of Cornish minerals and rocks outside museums and they were all self-collected. His rejects, which lay in his garden, would have been regarded elsewhere as a great collection. He had worked for ECC all his life and had collected over many years. It is difficult to name the best thing in his collection, but, for me, it was his collection of morion (black quartz). It comprised large pieces of crystals as good as I have ever seen.

Maurice knew all the places to go for scarce and rare minerals. For example ‘miner’s eggs’ are rare crystals of kaolinite found in china clay. They are not great to look at, but very valuable. He took me to where they could be easily found. In fact, tourmaline rocks were easy to find when Maurice was there. He regularly found specimens that were recognised as being the only examples found in Cornwall or even Britain. Maurice gave access to many peoples to absolutely dream locations. In this respect, many well-known geologists hold Maurice in high regard and can tell many lovely anecdotes about the man. Sadly, Maurice died in 1997. He will be remembered by many people and he was my teacher.

My research provided me with many more locations to visit including (and especially) Wanlockhead in Scotland. My collection now comprises thousands of items of British origin. Maurice convinced me that I should not buy foreign items and, mostly, I have respected that idea. However, I have bought Arkansas quartz to sell on and have kept some good specimens. Otherwise, there are only about half a dozen items I have not found myself.

Unfortunately, it is now impossible for me to go collecting due to ill health, so I have taken up a new hobby. I have got into micro collecting. Actually, that is not true. You see, I have been into micro collecting since the beginning, only I didn’t realise it. My new collect consists of the rocks that I have already collected because they looked unusual. Under magnification, they display the characteristics that drew my attention in the first place. Now, they provide their own mystery as they have to be identified. Depth of focus is a problem when photographing, but some are quite good. There are a few examples illustrating this article with no identification to give an example of the craft. But, at the end of the day, this is a hobby (or career) that can occupy a lifetime. Everyday, every location, every find is different. It is to be highly recommended.

But, I suspect, you already know that.

One thought on “Recollecting rocks and minerals

  1. Great to see an article on this underrated subject I have a large collection of self collected and bought items and love to talk to fellow enthusiasts.
    Barry Taylor
    01494 794470

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