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Rock Collectors: A Collection

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I like to collect rocks, and so do many other people I know. Rock collectors surely are similar to other kinds of collectors, and surely we have our own peculiarities.

The Rock Collecting Types

I think of a rock collector as someone who compiles rock and mineral specimens as an end in itself. Rock collectors come in several models:

  • The rockhound is the most familiar: someone who enjoys hunting for unusual, rare or valuable minerals in organized group trips to mines. Rockhounds swap specimens with other collectors and may sell small amounts of material. Some tend to acquire piles of "bulk rough" that they may process later, but others may maintain exquisite cabinets of fine mounted minerals. They are hobbyists who may graduate to become dealers.
  • The lapidary collects rocks to make things with them. I would include faceters in this category too: people who cut crystals and gemstones into jewelry makings. They are hobbyists who may graduate to become artisans.
  • Another would be the jackdaw, named for the crowlike bird that gathers shiny objects in its nest. The jackdaw rock collector likes pretty rocks and often decorates with them.

That said, some people collect rocks as a means to an end. I don't call them rock collectors, although they certainly care about rocks:

  • Geologists aren't rock collectors. Their collections have scientific or professional, not personal purposes.
  • Mineral dealers aren't rock collectors, even if they dig up their own material. Their collections are for sale, not for pleasure.

Teachers and students—and I put myself in this category—are in-between rock collectors. Their collections are for educating themselves and others.

Here are some peculiarities of the only rock collector I really know: myself.

A Student/Teacher's Rock Collection

As a child I was a rock saver, but a coin collector: I had the familiar dark-blue albums with the round slots pre-cut for coins from each year and mint mark. I concentrated on filling those slots. My big rule was that I would only collect coins that I had found myself. Paper-route money was good for that. After a few years I started going to banks and buying rolls of coins to search, but at first that felt like taking a shortcut. Visiting a dealer and buying a coin out of a tray—what was the fun in that? Only toward the end did I start buying coins, to fill the albums once and for all. There's a similar type of stamp collector who accepts only used, postmarked stamps from their own mail.

You don't need to have been a coin (or stamp) collector to become a rock collector. But I did, and one personal rule I kept was to collect only rocks that I've found myself. To me, the virtue in this is that I've documented each stone and its context. It means that each of my stones is connected to an experience in the field. It means that each rock represents something I learned and stands as a reminder. My collection, in brief, is a hoard of knowledge—a rock library.

The most unusual thing about my collection is that most of it is documented here on About.com. In fact, I can safely say that I wouldn't have much of a collection if I hadn't been building this site since 1997. A personal collection that only I can appreciate would be too solitary. But with you figuratively looking over my shoulder, building the collection is fun and meaningful.

My collection stays relatively small. That's because I'm a careful selecter. You might call my practice, seeking a type specimen for each place I visit—a single rock that displays the geological features of the site in miniature. I think that may be part of what appeals to me about suiseki, a traditional Japanese art form based on individual natural stones. However, my storage and display techniques are rudimentary.

I could trade rocks with other collectors, like many people. But then I would need to take more rocks. I've visited more than one outcrop that has been harvested out of existence, and I'd like to stand aside from that process. Besides, if no trading partner is interested the collecting has been a waste.

I can even collect where collecting is forbidden or unfeasible, thanks to the camera. More than that, photographing a rock and then leaving it behind allows me to collect without collecting. It makes me feel, to use Thoreau's words, rich in proportion to the number of things I can afford to leave alone. The rock's essence is the lesson in the image, and that's what I give you too.

A word about the rock and mineral photos on the Web and on my site: Rock photos are generally good examples of the rock types you'll see in the field. The same is not true for minerals, however. Mineral photos tend to favor spectacular specimens. I try as much as possible to avoid that approach in my mineral galleries, because for me the point is to learn minerals from typical specimens, the way that students of rocks encounter them.

Rock Collectors versus Mineral Collectors

Rock collectors and mineral collectors are two different kinds of rockhound. Although both seek specimens that are good examples of their type, good rocks and good minerals never occur together. A good rock specimen contains all the right minerals in due proportion, but a good mineral specimen is always out of proportion for its rock type.

Rock collectors are generally limited to whatever they can find or trade for, because there is no market for rock specimens (except for educational starter collections). Little more is involved than trimming a hand specimen and recording where it was found. Mineral collectors, however, can shop for all kinds of rarities in rock shops and mineral shows; indeed, you can amass a great mineral collection without getting your hands dirty at all. And a major part of the hobby happens at home in the cleaning, mounting and displaying of mineral specimens.

The geologist goes beyond a preoccupation with rocks and minerals. To the geologist these are only the beginning of a larger preoccupation: investigating the Earth's past, Earth's workings, and Earth's useful products.

PS: Mineral dealer John Betts prepared a nice summary of the different subspecies of rockhounds, "A Field Guide to Mineral Collectors."

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