My mineral collecting did not start out well. I dropped a prized calcite specimen and it broke. Thirty five years later I still regret it. My clumsiness put me off collecting minerals for twenty years. Evidently I was not up to looking after these treasures that grow in the dark. Instead, as an unconscious penance, I concentrated on faceting, which really is a matter of painstakingly transforming broken crystal fragments into reflective gems, giving them renewed sparkle and life.

But the hunt for faceting rough inevitably involves looking at many mineral specimens, and some of them demand to be taken home, even against firm resistance. On one visit to Tucson in the early 1990s, with the express intention of buying nothing but faceting rough, I returned three times during one day to goggle at a group of lazurite crystal specimens in matrix. Eventually the Afghani dealer, disbelieving my repeated insistence that I was not in the market for mineral specimens, lost his patience. He brought out several more and made me an offer to purchase the lot that I could not refuse. No one will believe I was really not trying to get a bargain but just captivated by something I had only ever seen illustrated in coffee table mineral books!

How and why do we collect? No doubt peoples’ strategies and motivations vary. My resistance was broken by the lazurite at Tucson. Now my guide is that if I return to a particular specimen on offer several times and cannot get it out of my mind, then if it is affordable it should go home with me. I have tried to impose more discipline on myself – concentrating on the garnet family and an ostensible regional focus on Namaqualand – but it doesn’t really work. I can always persuade myself that something is mineralogically interesting even if it doesn’t complement what I have. If I had the space and the money my collection would be huge. As it is, it is quite modest because I cannot afford much of a silver pick.

With diligence, and discipline, I suppose one could build a world class collection on a modest budget. The secret seems to be to start young and to specialise. It is a definite advantage if you started young fifty years ago. Now I kick myself for missed opportunities. Over the 1974 Christmas holidays I worked for Sid Pieters in Windhoek, faceting Cape Cross jeremejevites for him. During the couple of months he put me up in his home I saw some staggering Tsumeb specimens, some of which I photographed. I could not possibly have bought those, but I could have bought others, and didn’t. Ah, what folly!

Money might buy more beautiful specimens, but the self-collected ones are special. They are talismans that help recollect adventures, the crazy things we do to dig up or pick up glistening crystals. My self-collected minerals may not be very glamorous but they have more personal significance than those bought, even those bought under memorably odd circumstances. The other specimens with special significance are those given to me. They have personal histories of generosity attached to them; like the Vredendal adularia complex twin given to me by Lesley Bust who thought I would appreciate it more than she would; the multi-coloured tourmaline that Maury Morgenstein dug himself at the Himalaya Mine in California; and the blue Jan Coetzee fluorite given to me by my father from his collection as compensation for the loss of the ruined calcite. After all, collecting minerals is a human enterprise, and it is the human connections that we make while doing it that are as valuable, if not more so, than the minerals themselves.
Duncan Miller

Cerrusite                                                                        Dioptase