By Peter Rosewarne


Have you ever wondered if there was a specimen out there that was the world’s best, or what the best six or ten mineral specimens ever discovered are considered to be? I thought it might be a bit of fun to put together a “Six of the Best” of the mineral kingdom based on expert opinion in respected publications, such as The Mineral Record and its supplements, Masterpieces of the Mineral Kingdom, and American Mineral Treasures. Some of these discoveries go back to 1952, while one was only discovered in 2020. As with assessment of all mineral specimens, there is some element of personal choice and bias in making such a selection but with most of the ones in this list, there is no argument over their place in the pantheon of great mineral specimens. They tick all the boxes of the classic requirements of such specimens, e.g. colour, clarity, form, size, rarity, provenance, aesthetic balance with some matrix (with exceptions) and lack of defects (we’ll touch on repairs/reconstruction later).

The theme of the Tucson Show 2020 was “World Class Minerals” and Wendell Wilson wrote an interesting piece exploring this subject in the May-June 2020 issue of The Mineralogical Record. Well known US collector and specimen miner Wayne Thompson explored the themes of ikons (US spelling) and masterpieces, with qualifiers of classics and contemporary masterpieces to distinguish between famous long-time sites and recently discovered sites of origin. However, in this article we are going further and trying to compile a list of not just world class specimens but the six best-ever discovered mineral specimens. So, here's a list, descriptions and photographs[1] to marvel at and debate, based on the characteristics listed above and consensus amongst authoritative experts in the mineral world.

A Top Six

A six of the best of anything that is for sale would probably be based on sales or sale price. However, when one reaches the stratospheric price level of the world’s best minerals, sale prices (in millions of US$) are often not publicised or specimens are traded between top collectors and/or museums, so this ranking is purely arbitrary and based on the characteristics listed above and some personal bias. Some were discovered by chance during normal mining operations while most were discovered as a result of dedicated specimen mining operations/ventures. Some of these would probably be on anyone’s list of best-ever minerals with more debate and options around two or three. Most have nicknames and, described in no particular order, my top six (three with multiple choices) are: 

·         the “Newmont Azurite”

·         the “Alma Queen” and “Alma King” rhodochrosites

·         “The Snail” rhodochrosite/manganite

·         the Jonas Mine “cranberry elbaites” (two or three contenders here)

·         the Tourmaline Queen Mine “blue cap” tourmalines (two or three contenders here too)

·         the “King of Kashmir” aquamarine

The Newmont Azurite, Tsumeb Mine, Namibia

This specimen was found at the famous Tsumeb Mine in 1952. Legend has it that it was used to settle a miner’s bar tab and sat in the bar for some years before being recognised for what it was and being reclaimed for the Newmont Mining Company. It made its way to the company offices in New York and currently resides in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It has been described by the late Lawrence Conklin, a New York dealer, appraiser and mineral historian, who was appointed to provide a valuation of the specimen in 1977, as the greatest mineral specimen in the world. However, as that opinion was written in 2004, subsequent discoveries might have persuaded him to change his mind, if he hadn’t died then. The Newmont Azurite is shown in Figure 1. It is comprised of several very large dark blue azurite crystals on matrix. There is some debate about where in the mine it was found but an old photograph from the papers of the mine manager between 1953 to 1962 that came to light in c.2018 attribute it to the 26th level, i.e. in the second oxidation zone. There is an article on this specimen in the May-June 2016 issue of the Mineralogical Record.

Figure 1 - 13 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm

The “cranberry elbaites,” Jonas Mine, Brazil

Brazil is well known for gem minerals and in particular, colourful tourmalines from complex pegmatites. The state of Minas Gerais is well endowed with such occurrences and famous mines such as Pederniera, Cruziero and Paraiba. However, one discovery at a small mine in 1978 was to set the mineral world alight, first with rumour and then gradually with mineral specimens of the highest order from one of the all-time greatest mineral pockets ever discovered anywhere.

The discovery of the rubellite-bearing pocket at the Jonas Mine in 1978 is the stuff of legend and one of the most spectacular finds in the history of mining/mineral collecting. After weeks of unproductivity, driving an adit towards the target pegmatite a small pocket was encountered filled with mud and water.

The presence of so much water suggested to the mine owner that there could be another pocket above this one. Exploring gingerly upwards they discovered a pocket and on inserting his hand inside, one of the miners withdrew a large and perfect, gemmy rubellite crystal. Widening the opening the miners were stunned to enter a 2.5 x 3 x 3 m pocket free of mud and with rubellite crystals scattered on the floor and numerous enormous crystals still in place on the sides and ceiling of the pocket within a matrix of cleavelandite (white platy albite) and quartz.

Wendell Wilson produced an artistic reproduction of the pocket which was called the Bambúrro (loosely translated as “Lucky Break or “Jackpot”) Pocket, shown in Figure 2, below. 

The largest of the crystals/crystal clusters were named and entered the ranks of the world's best. These included the Joninha (110 cm, 352 kg), Foguete (the Rocket, 85 cm and 82 kg), Tarugo and Flor de Lis. The Rocket Is shown in Figure 3 and is now in the collection of The Mineral Trust. The Joninha is shown in Figure 4 and is considered by at least two experts to be the best mineral specimen in the world. Despite the huge size of the two elbaite crystals at 25 x 30 cm and 25 x 50 cm, I can’t say that I agree. It is now in the collection of The Mineral Trust. It is estimated that 200 kg of gem-grade rubellite was extracted from this pocket. Although the pocket was so free of clay that specimens didn’t need cleaning, many of the larger crystals were in pieces and needed reconstructing, e.g. The Rocket was in three pieces.

Figure 3 - 85 cm and 82 kg

Figure 4 - 110 cm, 352 kg

Further mining by new mine lessees turned up another pocket near the original big pocket and a superb specimen (45 cm with a 12 x 35 cm rubellite) named the Rose of Itatiaia (named after a small village nearby), shown in Figure 5. This specimen was sold a few years ago for US$1.65 million. There is a very informative article on the Jonas Mine and the “cranberry” elbaites discovery in the May-June 2012 issue of The Mineralogical Record.

Figure 5 - 45 cm with a 12 x 35 cm

The Alma Queen and Alma King, Sweet Home Mine, Colorado, USA

The Sweet Home Mine is located on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains about 144 km southwest of Denver, Colorado, near the small town of Alma. It was opened in 1871 as a silver mine. In 1966, a pocket was discovered containing hitherto unknown quality rhodochrosite, with rhombohedral crystal form rather than the scalenohedral form that we know from the Kalahari Manganese Field (KMF) rhodochrosites. One specimen, named the Alma Queen and shown in Figure 6, was proclaimed then to be the world’s best mineral specimen and was sold for US$2 500 in 1967. The largest rhodochrosite crystal measures 10 cm.

Figure 6

In 1991, a consortium of miners, collectors and investors started a rhodochrosite specimen mining venture at the mine and hit paydirt in 1992 with the discovery of a succession of pockets yielding spectacular rhodochrosite specimens. The pick of these is apparently the Alma King which currently resides in the Denver Museum of Natural History. This specimen, which is shown in Figure 7, features the largest rhodochrosite crystal in the world, a perfect, translucent, deep red rhomb of 14 x 16.5 cm, set on a bed of clear quartz needles, tetrahedrite, chalcopyrite and calcite. However, my vote would go to the specimen in Figure 7b, which has rhodochrosite rhombs to 8 cm on a 23 cm matrix of quartz with tennantite.

Figure 7 – a rhomb of 14 x 16.5 cm

Figure 7b - rhombs to 8 cm on a 23 cm matrix

The Snail, N’Chwaning I Mine, South Africa

Rhodochrosite from the KMF is among the most sought-after minerals in the specimen collecting world. Original discoveries in 1963 at the Hotazel Mine were rather nondescript but then between 1964 and 1967 lovely ‘wheat-sheaf’ groups were found and some scalenohedral crystals. However, the real bonanza came in 1977 at the N’Chwaning 1 Mine when some of the best rhodochrosites found anywhere were discovered. A series of pockets were discovered in the manganese ore over a period of about two weeks and a feeding frenzy ensued according to the description in the January-February 2017 issue of The Mineralogical Record by well-known local collector Desmond Sacco. He self-collected many boxes of specimens underground, taking only perfect, undamaged ones, and hefted them out to the surface, storing many of them in a mine office. Unfortunately, these were stolen and the miners underground also took anything they could, damaged or not, and the site was soon cleaned-out.

Looking at the specimens photographed in various publications referenced herein, one can only marvel at the beauty of what was uncovered. One specimen stands out on account of its unmatched aesthetics and that is the one nicknamed The Snail, shown in Figure 8. It is 8 cm in width. One can do no better than to quote from the commendation from the 2020 David P. Wilbur Award for “The Snail” as presented to Bill Larson for The Finest Overall Mineral Specimen in Show at Tucson 2020 (May-June 2020 issue of The Mineralogical Record): “Collected from the N’Chwaning I mine in 1976, this piece is stunning from every angle, featuring a mounded, sparkling mass of deep, rich red, translucent rhodochrosite aesthetically positioned atop an equally lustrous black manganese matrix. The stark contrast between the cherry red rhodochrosite and the sparkling black manganese is visually impactful enough to stop viewers in their tracks. One of the finest rhodochrosite specimens ever found, its breathtaking appearance bears witness to why it became an instant icon in the collecting world.”

I remember driving to Swakopmund in 1997 and stopping at a very well stocked mineral shop in Karibib and eying some specimens of red scalenohedral rhodochrosite but I wasn’t a serious collector in those days and I thought that the price of ZAR1 000 for a single crystal (as I recall) was ridiculous… The Snail is thought to be the first mineral specimen to sell for over one million US$.

The N’Chwaning mines and their minerals are described in the January-February 2017 issue of The Mineralogical Record and in The Manganese Adventure.

Figure 8 - 8 cm in width

The Blue Cap tourmalines, Tourmaline Queen Mine, USA

In 1971, Pala Properties International started a new mining venture at the Tourmaline Queen Mine, located in the gem-pegmatite area of southern California. After some hard work and some promising signs, they entered a very barren area for 12 m or so. They then changed the direction of tunnelling slightly and hit what has been described by one authority as the find of the century. Initially, some single crystals of tourmaline with a rubellite body and indicolite blue cap were pulled out of the clay and mud in the pocket(s). These were beautiful but only a harbinger of what was to come; a series of large blue cap tourmaline crystals, some attached to quartz and albite matrix but some as singles, with many of the large single crystals fitting perfectly into gaps on a matrix of large euhedral quartz crystals. Some even had morganite crystals attached.

Out of this find came a number of iconic specimens that are up there with the “best of”, including The Rabbit’s Ears (24 cm tall and in the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Figure 9), The Candelabra (25 cm wide and in the Smithsonian Institution, Figure 10) and The Smale Blue Cap (13.2 cm tall and currently in the Wayne Thompson collection and features on the cover of his book, Ikons). About 35 specimens were recovered from the find. The Smale Blue Cap was bought by collector Steve Smale in 1980 for US$40 000, a price that apparently rocked the mineral world at that time. The blue cap is apparently due to the presence of iron (Fe2+) which removes the red part of the spectrum and causes the blue part to dominate.

The background to this discovery and the discovery itself are detailed in American Mineral Treasures, along with pictures of the specimens noted here and others.

Figure 9 - 25 cm wide

Figure 10 - 13.2 cm tall

The King of Kashmir, Shigar Valley region, Pakistan

This discovery is different from the proceeding ones, not just because the key mineral is different but because of the way it was acquired, both in the physical sense and on the ownership side. This is possibly the most difficult specimen extraction and transport and the riskiest purchase in the history of specimen mining. The story is told in edge-of-the-seat day-by-day detail in the November-December 2020 issue of The Mineral Record and only some main points are summarised here.

The high mountains in the region comprise meta-granites cut by numerous sub-horizontal pegmatites, 1 to 4 m thick. The latter are comprised mainly of quartz and feldspar with cavities sometimes containing gem aquamarine. The pegmatites are clearly visibly across the near-vertical rock faces and the local villagers have been scaling these faces for about 100 years and tunnelling into the pegmatites in search of gems. The mining season is short because of the extreme weather at these altitudes and as the writer states in the above article, a stoic fearlessness is required to mine in these conditions.

Word of a possibly unprecedented pocket discovery reached Fine Minerals International (FMI) in May 2019 and extended negotiations began with the miners, who wanted to sell the pocket in situ. With only some crystals taken from the bottom of the pocket, a video and photographs and the input of an agent on site to go on, a deal was struck. Then followed 12 days of drilling, chipping, sawing and splitting and hoping until the c.200 kg specimen fell from the ceiling of the pocket, as planned, onto the foam bed prepared for it, intact, with nothing broken. It still had to be transported out of the 30 m mine tunnel, down the 300 m cliff face and to Islamabad and then by air to FMI in the USA. It was further found that many of the loose crystals previously collected from the bottom of the pocket fitted neatly into gaps on the left-hand side of the specimen thus completing the incredible King of Kashmir, shown in Figure 11. After treatment and trimming in the lab it was quickly sold to an unnamed buyer but is apparently set to appear at a future mineral show(s). I remember coming across a photograph of this specimen on the internet last year and sending it to Jo but we both thought it was probably a hoax as the aquamarine crystals seemed too big, too many and too blue to be true. The specimen is shown outside the mine entrance in Figure 11b with the aquamarines being notably duller because of dust and oxide coatings prior to lab treatment.

Figure 11 – 80 cm wide, 200 kg

Figure 11b

Bubbling Under

An Honourable Mention goes to the Emperor of China rhodochrosite which was discovered by Collector’s Edge in 2010 at the Wutong Mine in China, about 350 km northwest of Hong Kong. The crystals are of a completely different form to the Sweet Home and KMF ones, being platy and opaque. It is a mighty impressive specimen in the full sense of the word measuring 40 x 60 cm with a largest crystal of 22 cm and weighing in at 63.5 kg. It is shown in Figure 12 below.


And there are quite a few more but that’s it for this article.  

Concluding Remarks

So, are any of these in your world top six? Have you got other ideas of specimens that should have been included? If so, let Jo know and post a photograph and description in MinChat to broaden the discussion. Two final points of interest are that three of these top six specimens have been repaired and accepted as such by the high-end mineral specimen collecting community and two are from our southern Africa region.



Cairncross, B. Beukes, N. and Gutzmer, J. (1997). The Manganese Adventure. Associated Ore and Metal Corporation Limited. Johannesburg.

Staebler, GA and Wilson, WE. Eds. (2008). American Mineral Treasures. Lithographie LLC. Connecticut.

The Mineral Record, May-June 2012. Vol. 43, No.3. (article on the Jonas Mine). Allen Press, Kansas.

The Mineral Record, May-June 2016. Vol. 47, No. 3. (article on the Newmont Azurite) Allen Press, Kansas.

The Mineral Record, January-February 2017. Vol. 48, No.1. N’Chwaning!. Allen Press, Kansas.

The Mineral Record, July-August 2018. Vol. 49, No. 4. (Letters: the Newmont Azurite) Allen Press, Kansas.

The Mineral Record, May-June 2020. Vol. 51, No.3. (editorial: What Does “World Class” Mean?). Allen Press, Kansas.

The Mineral Record, November-December 2020. Vol. 51, No. 6. The King of Kashmir!  Allen Press, Kansas.

Thompson, WA. (2007). Ikons, Classics and Contemporary Masterpieces of Mineralogy. Supplement to The Mineralogical Record, Vol. 38. No. 1. Allen Press, Kansas.

Wilson, WE. and Bartsch, J. (2004) Masterpieces of the Mineral World. Houston Museum of Natural Science.


[1] The “Fair use” doctrine has been assumed regarding copyright and these are photographs of photographs, with some editing. Quality has therefore been compromised to some extent.