|Why collect microminerals?
The best reason is that they're really fascinating. The variety of crystal shapes, colors, and combinations is literally endless. Even the non-collector often does a double-take upon looking through that microscope.
I can think of some other good reasons to collect these tiny minerals, also.
In a place like Franklin there are some cabinet specimens that command very high prices. There are a few minerals where a 3 x 4 inch specimen costs as much as a decent used car. That's certainly not the majority of the specimens, but there are definitely some. An unfortunate outgrowth of this is the tendency for some people to look at minerals strictly as an "investment". While the top-end minerals do seem to go up in value, I don't think I need to explain how easily money corrupts a good thing. Where there is perceived value of the monetary kind, it seems there's always the baggage that goes with it.
Most long-time collectors are fine people. It's just that a sparse few seem to... hmm, how do I put this?... well, they're basically the kind of people you just wish would hurry up and move on to something else. Hearing some of the comments these individuals have made, it's enough to make a beginner want to quit the hobby. Don't do it, though. They would win.
Micromounters are not so interested in the monetary side of things, instead concentrating on the scientific aspects. They may overlap somewhat with the cabinet specimen crowd, but generally the "micro guys" specialize in minerals that need some kind of magnification to see properly. Most micro specimens aren't worth more than about 10 dollars, so you don't see the kind of scheming you may find in the world of cabinet specimens. As I detail below, some exceptional micros bring more than $10 (some of them quite a bit more), but you get the idea; I'm talking about the average specimen that fits in a 1 x 1 inch box or smaller.
Micromineral pricing all depends on what the mineral is, of course. It also depends on whether the specimen is mounted, and how well it's done (we'll revisit this topic later). Rarity plays a role.
If the only known example of a particular species exists as a micro, then that's going to be one expensive micro. If shady characters take interest in any micro, it will be that one. Nobody knows why this happens. I say this mostly in jest, though, because rarity vs. price actually hits a wall at some point. Other collectors have pointed out that the ultra-, ultra-rare micros don't actually draw as much collector interest. Only the real connoisseurs even know what they are, which means the prices on such specimens can actually be lower than on more common specimens. In other words, for something to be valuable, there must be enough examples of the material to generate the kind of widespread interest that drives up prices; while at the same time, the thing can't be common as dirt.
On a related note, I don't mean to sound chauvenistic or suggest this is somehow a man's hobby. It isn't. In the past, I'd estimate 90% of collectors were men. There may be more women who collect now than before. This is a very good thing, provided they don't get as overtaken by greed and silliness as some of the men have been. Thus far the female collectors have been largely immune to the behavior I mentioned above, but who knows what those magical Franklin rocks could do to them over time. Never underestimate the power of pretty rocks. The Vikings often went out and destroyed whole towns in their quest for sparkly gems and pretty stones. Sometimes they could be appeased by offerings of said stones. Sometimes.
Enough of this, back to microminerals:
Where to find microminerals
Most well-known collecting sites yield interesting micro minerals of some type. Professional prospectors usually leave micro specimens behind because they aren't worth much money. It also can take a great deal of searching and work to recover them. This leaves you with the chance to find some attractive micros, even in heavily-collected areas.
Micro mineral specimens can be found in many common igneous and metamorphic rock environments, sometimes even in sedimentary environments. I found some decent hornblende (generic name for black amphibole), zircon, quartz, and pyrite micro crystals down the road from my house, in an otherwise "boring" area for collecting. Areas virtually barren of larger specimens can still yield good microminerals; in fact, some localities are near-famous just for microminerals. Consider Sugar Grove, Pendleton County, West Virginia, well-known among micromineral hobbyists for its fine zeolites and "wire" pyrite crystals.
What you can find
This depends on where you look. There are far too many places, even in a small state like New Jersey or Connecticut, to list on this site. Even places like Rhode Island and Florida, which are not widely noted as collecting destinations, have microminerals. Likewise, you can even find micros in Kansas if you know where to look. The mineral species will of course be limited by the rock types, but sometimes you can find interesting things even in the middle of a sedimentary landscape. The coastal plain regions of New Jersey, for example, have yielded fine micros of vivianite and strunzite.
Most "classic" collecting sites for larger minerals will of course have great micro potential. See the main page for north Jersey mineral lists and areas I've included. The beginning micro collector can find quartz, pyrite, calcite, and others just by looking carefully at rocks in the back yard, the woods, or down the road.
Prices and equipment
The average micro specimen costs between $1 and $10 (USA) if you buy it from a dealer or at a show. While I've been known to pay up to $15 or even $20 for an exceptional or rare piece, the bulk of specimens I've bought have been in the $3 to $7 range. Generally speaking, a very carefully-mounted specimen with a neatly-written or printed label will have more value than the same specimen mounted carelessly and having a sloppy, chicken-scratch label. You can usually remount a badly-done specimen, but it can be time-consuming.
The above should not be taken to mean that a piece of common, amorphous junk rock will take on an air of desirability if it is carefully mounted. Micromounters want at least good, representative specimens from a locality. However, with any locality you should understand what is "representative".
If you're really on a budget and don't get out in the field much, there's the giveaway table, a normal feature of micromount clubs and symposia. As I might've said before, the "micro" hobby is about minerals, not about taking out a second mortgage on your house. Micromineralogists (both amateur and professional) tend to be very conscious of things like crystallography, chemical classification, and paragenesis- things the average cabinet collector overlooks in the quest for big, "show-stopper" pieces (not that I have anything against big, "show-stopper" pieces.)
There are some very rare microminerals which are much more expensive than average, on the order of 25 to 100 dollars a specimen. For that price, they had better come from a reputable dealer who will guarantee their authenticity. The most expensive ones ought to come with either an instrumental analysis summary or a guarantee from the dealer that identical material has been tested. If you can't get a certificate of analysis with it, there's another tip when buying such specimens: if the ID doesn't sound right for the locality or it's otherwise controversial, do some more research or just pass on it.
A specimen offered as something that's never been verified from a particular locality is especially suspect. However, keep in mind that even "authoritative" works may have incomplete lists of the species that can be found at a particular locality. Trying to narrow a specimen to a certain part of a mining district, 100 years later and working only from dump material, is pretty difficult. However, when multiple instances of that mineral are found on the mine dumps, in the right kind of host rock, that's a good indicator.
Don't feel compelled to go out and buy expensive specimens if you don't want to. Most of us cave in and do it once in a while (within reason), but what makes a real collector is the willingness to get one's hands dirty digging in piles of rocks, to peer through a microscope for hours at the day's finds, and to study & catalog these minute treasures... practices that might "freak-out" common folks (i.e., those ignorant of science).
If you collect your "micros" in the field then specimen cost is irrelevant. Aside from food and gasoline, your primary expense will be for supplies: about 35 to 60 cents for each plastic box, a few cents for the post, dab of glue, and box liner or coating of paint. Add on to this the cost of a good precision loupe of about 10x magnification: between $15 and $75 (depending on brand name). You can get up to 20x magnification in this price range, but 10x in a loupe gives greater depth of field and sharper focus for most collectors. Excellent 10x triplet loupes from Belomo are available from the website of CR Scientific,
(Read my article about loupes, by the way).
If you're serious about the hobby, consider purchasing a stereo microscope. These range from about $225 for a good, usable 'scope to more than $7000 for a high-end setup. The latter type is completely unnecessary for most hobbyists. You absolutely don't need to spend several thousand to get a scope that's more than adequate for microminerals.
Some pretty fine inspection scopes, priced surprisingly low, are available from another website with which I am affiliated, CR Scientific. Know that I wouldn't recommend them if they weren't excellent scopes. I recommend the Paragon or the Achiever. Combined with a $10 halogen desk lamp from your local variety store-- or better yet, one of those flashlights with multiple white LED's-- it's tough to beat the quality-to-price ratio of this setup.
I'd suggest getting a 10x / 30x scope and maybe buying the additional 15x eyepieces so you can take it up to 45x magnification. This will be suitable for 90% of microminerals you'll collect. However, the 20x / 40x model is equally popular; 15x eyepieces would take you up to 60x maximum power, which is around the practical limit of these Greenough-type stereo scopes.
This has been a look at micro collecting and some of the basic tools of the hobby. I hope you've enjoyed this article. Thanks for stopping by!
about Micros - how to mount and label specimens
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