Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Public Exhibit of Maryland Minerals

The likes of this Maryland mineral display at Howard County Community College was a long time coming. To thank for it, we have Ed Goldberg, an avid field collector from Reisterstown, who during the day works as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice.

For nearly two decades, ever since becoming frustrated over not having a place to show his young daughter the kinds of minerals they could collect in Maryland, Ed has doggedly pursued one avenue after another regarding the need for a display of Maryland minerals. Among entities he has approached have been the Maryland Geological Survey, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, The Maryland Academy of Sciences, the State House, The Tawes Building, and the Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. For various reasons, ranging from budgetary concerns to indifference, they all turned him down.

Here's Goldberg's contention: "For a state that prides itself on its geographical and geological diversity, to not display what it's made of is a travesty." He also feels strongly about the need for more young people to be aware of the subject. "What we have here in Maryland are legislators and policy makers who say we've lagged in the sciences and that to get more people---kids in particular---involved is critical. Well here you go. Just about all kids like rocks."

Turning him on to the possibilities at Howard County Community College was an old college buddy, its Board of Trustees' Past President Roger Caplan. Mr. Caplan suggested that Ed contact an administrator at HCCC, who suggested he speak with two physical sciences instructors, Jennifer Stott and Sharon Lyon. Both instructors proved to be extremely enthusiastic, and it just so happened that there was a display case at the Science and Technology Building that was built into the wall and empty.

Now filled with minerals that Ed donated from his personal collection, it's the first thing to meet one's eye upon entering the Science and Technology Building on Howard County Community College's main Little Patuxent Parkway Campus. The minerals therein, all collected by Ed himself, are a diverse sampling of Maryland's mineral wealth. Among the highlights are a killer actinolite specimen from Soldiers Delight; barite and siderite from Frostburg; chalcopyrite and bornite from Mineral Hill; galena from the Mountain View Lead Mine; Goethite from Oregon Ridge, Vesuvianite from the Fannie Frost Quarry; and calcite (including a purple niobium stained rhomb) from the Medford Redland Genstar Quarry.

In association with the Baltimore Mineral Society (for which he is director of field trips), Ed donated the display to posthumously honor two close mineral friends: Herb Corbett and Jack Nelson. Both made significant contributions toward raising the awareness among young people regarding the earth sciences and mineralogy in particular. Herb , a past president of the Baltimore Mineral Society was a friend and mentor to Ed as a child. Jack Nelson was a close friend from the Gem, Lapidary, and Mineral Society of Montgomery County with whom Ed frequently collected.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sitting in with the Master

The above image relates to what proved to be the highlight of my month-long excursion to Tucson last February where among other things, Mineral Bliss was launched. I took the picture during the hour I spent hanging out one-on-one with Jeff Scovil in his temporary studio at Inn Suites Hotel. While the idea of starting up Mineral Bliss had been on my mind, it was here that I made the decision to actually move forward. An experience like this was too great to pass by.

Though not one to pass judgment, I doubt that many in mineralogical circles would dispute the contention that Jeff Scovil is the world's premier photographer of minerals. He is certainly the best known and most acclaimed. A recipient of the 2007 Carnegie Mineralogical Award, his work is everywhere in just about every issue of Rocks and Minerals, Mineralogical Record, and the mineral and lapidary magazines of France, Germany, Spain, Poland, and Russia, as well as in numerous books about minerals. The posters for most of the larger shows around the world(including eleven for the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show) bear his work, and he's photographed the collections of scores of museums in the US and around the world. He also authored the book Photographing Minerals, Fossils, and Lapidary Materials. You can purchase it at his web site .

I got into his studio shortly after wandering into a room adjoining it where a sign read "Scovil Photography: Come in,." After expressing my interest in mineral photography to one of Jeff's associates, he escorted me into the studio to watch the master at work and fire away with as many questions as my heart desired. Not only did Jeff happily respond to all of them, he enthusiastically elaborated on his answers in a manner that encouraged further discourse of a no holds barred nature.

Not that he should have reason to be concerned about competition from an amateur whose parameters were still pretty much limited to the confines of a "Studio in a Box" kit purchased on eBay. While eager to learn as much as possible, my immediate goal was to be able write this feature with a degree of literacy regarding his equipment and the myriad ways that he manipulates light to balance reflection with detail. At this point, it became clear to me that such descriptions are better left to photographers and those who write regularly on the subject.

Simply put, he worked with strobe lighting and used reflectors and props of endless sizes shapes and materials. Having made the transition from film to digital only a couple of years ago, he relied on a large computer monitor to check his work. His credo is "get it right in the camera." When the tiniest speck of dust appeared in an image on that computer screen, he returned to the work table, manually removed the dust, and shot again.

While photography combines art, science, and skill, becoming a great photographer of minerals must surely require an additional ingredient, namely a sensibility relating to their uniqueness and detail. By the time I left, it seemed clear to me that Jeff Scovil's mind-boggling level of experience with photographing minerals has served to elevate that sensibility to the point that it could be the essence of his prowess.

Of all that we discussed, what most surprised me were the fees that Jeff charges, be it for producing images of one or more minerals on CD at a show for a collector, or for a day's work. A Scovil Photography image is almost certain to elevate the cache and potential price of just about any specimen, all the more should the picture end up being published somewhere. Compared to other kinds of photographic services for which I'm familiar with the fees, Scovil Photography's prices were a true bargain.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Franklin, North Carolina

In the environs of Franklin, North Carolina, numerous spots exist where the soil abundantly yields crystals of ruby, sapphire, garnet and beryl. Consequently, gem mining opportunities for tourists are everywhere. Mostly they play the game lined up beside flumes of running water in which they sieve gem-bearing reddish dirt that's purchased by the bucketful. At a few of the spots, customers are given the opportunity to pan in creek beds or dig at the actual mines. Though the mines themselves have long ceased commercial production, plenty of rubies, sapphires, beryl crystals and garnets are present. That's because usually the dirt in the buckets, in some cases the dirt in the actual stream beds, and sometimes even the mine dumps themselves has been "enriched" or "salted" with crude gems imported from the other side of the world. Personally, I confess to having "mined" at a couple of these places in years gone by. The thrill was akin to playing the slots.

At a few spots, customers can sluice and sometimes dig with assurance from management that the dirt in question has not been salted. While the gem "pickin's" are likely leaner, it makes the mining experience itself a bit more realistic, even if a backhoe has scattered naturally occurring gem material from its original resting place in the interest of rendering the soil more accessible and easier to dig. During the drive home from my recent New Orleans trip, I checked out three such operations, namely Mason's Ruby and Sapphire Mine, the Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine, and the Sheffield Mine.

Mason's Ruby and Sapphire mine is open from 8 a.m. to 5 pm and charges $30 for as much digging as a customer wishes to undertake in the course of a day. At a pavilion adjacent to the flume, customers are given shovels with empty buckets they can carry to the mine and fill with dirt to bring back to the flume and sluice as often as time permits. An associate at Mason's named Judy told me that she'd never observed a hard-working customer who in the course of a day failed to uncover at least one legitimate gem to bring home. She boasted that the biggest find so far in 2009 had been a 73 carat sapphire.

From Mason's, I drove eight more miles through the Smoky's to another allegedly unsalted operation, the Cherokee Ruby and Sapphire Mine. Unfortunately it was closed, perhaps because severe weather was predicted. Just a couple miles from the Cherokee Mine, I detoured up a steep and windy road leading to a parking lot. Below was the Sheffield Mine, which is pictured at left. In addition to offering salted buckets, customers here can dig at the actual mine, which like at Mason's and Cherokee, is touted to be unsalted.

Were it not that flooding torrential rains were expected to begin any minute, my personal choice for prospecting would have been a non-commercial locality, namely a stream where alluvial corundum washes down from the closed and inaccessible Corundum Hill Mine. The 47 pound ruby pictured at the beginning of this feature is from this mine. The site is highly recommended in Richard James Jacquot, Jr.'s Rock, Gem, and Mineral Collecting Sites in Western North Carolina. Parking is available near a bridge over the Cullasaja River. About 300 yards east from here, a feeder stream empties into the river from the mountain above after flowing through the inaccessible site of the long closed Corundum Hill Mine. It's supposed to be a good spot for panning.

However, I believe that the bad weather served me even better by encouraging a visit to "downtown" Franklin as opposed to trying to collect at any of these sites. In Franklin I first checked out the Ruby City Gem Store and its museum. Ruby City claims to be the largest mineral and gem store in North Carolina. It also houses a museum of gems and minerals, from both nearby and various worldwide localities.

Just around the corner from Ruby City is the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum, to which an all too short visit highlighted my day. Occupying the the building that formerly housed the Macon County Jail, the museum is operated as a public service by volunteers from the Gem and Mineral Society of Franklin, North Carolina. I refer to my time there as "all too short" after making it to only two of eight exhibit-filled rooms prior to the 4 p.m. closing hour. The first housed among other local gems and minerals the 47 pound ruby from Corundum Hill, which I spent most of my time there photographing. The next room I visited displayed several minerals from each of the 50 states. Being from Maryland and responsible for the Maryland Minerals website, it interested me that our state was represented by specimens of coalingite, prehnite, and picrolite, all from Hunting Hill. With 15 minutes remaining, rather than try to dart through additional rooms, including an international gem and mineral room, fossil room, fluorescent room, Indian artifacts room, and glass room, I opted instead to chat with the two Franklin Gem & Mineral Society volunteers who were working that day, John and Mary. This proved to be time well spent.

They shared with me a perspective about the Franklin area gem scene that far surpassed what I'd been able to infer from Jacquot's Rock, Gem, and Mineral Collecting Sites in Western North Carolina or rushing by a few of the spots mentioned therein. From John and Mary I heard the stories behind some of these places and how the local landscape has changed over the years. More important, John was kind enough to provide me with information that could ultimately lead to the opportunity to dig in least one unspoiled site far removed from the tourist circuit. It's been tested just enough to demonstrate that rubies and sapphires are present and very likely plentiful.

Already, I'm booked in the area the last weekend of July for the Bele Chere Festival in Asheville and the 43rd Annual Macon County Gemboree in Franklin, sponsored by the Franklin Gem & Mineral Society and the Franklin Chamber of Commerce. Now it appears as if this weekend could also include a guided excursion to that site. I look most forward to the prospect that this could happen.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Allah Cooper, Ray, and Redmond

All too short on knowledge about any of the above named collecting meccas and with minimal available time, I simply located and quickly crawled over the dumps of all three during a motor trip to New Orleans the last week of April. The pleasure of being there meant as much as the few minerals that made it home.

The Allah Cooper (Valzinco) Mine dumps came first, about five miles northeast of the town of Mineral in Louisa County, Virginia. Awareness of this locality in mineralogical circles has increased recently after significant pyromorphite finds and the more recent identifcation of five species never before reported thereabouts as covered by Lance E. Kearns and Michael D. Dunn in the August, 2008 Mineral News. These minerals include hemimorphite, wavellite, vanadinite, vauquelinite, and mottramite, the latter three being microscopically present along with pyromorphite in the specimen pictured at left. Considerable mining went on in this part of Virginia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First gold and silver were mined, later lead and zinc, thereafter copper and iron. For sure, numerous spots in the general area could entice collectors. To locate and access more than one was well beyond the scope of my time frame.

After asking around, it didn't take me long to learn of a rockpile---very likely the biggest and easiest to access--- along Contrary Creek a hundred yards or so west of the bridge where Route 522 crosses it about five miles north of Mineral, Virgina. Just south of the bridge is a spur that's convenient for pulling off and parking. Less than an hour of crawling about, rock hammer in hand, proved sufficient for uncovering plenty of pyrite, chalcopyrite, and malachite. I departed with a couple small rocks and limited confidence that additional time would have enabled me to find any of the secondary lead minerals that have received so much attention. Even so, I'll be eager to return in the future with whose knowledge of the area is more substantial.

En route the following day to Asheville, North Carolina, with Richard James Jacquot's Rock, Gem, and Mineral Collecting Sites in Western North Carolina, I detoured to the dumps of Ray Mica Mine in Yancey County near Burnsville. The Ray Mine has a well-earned reputation for yielding green beryl crystals that occur in an ubiquitous white feldspar dominated pegmatite matrix. I found no beryl, but after busting up a number of rocks, managed to bag a slightly interesting cluster of small curving schorl crystals. When returning to my car, I encountered a collector who said he'd been here for three days and found "a little." He noted that some parts of these dumps yielded more beryl than others and very kindly offered to show me where they were. If not for a temporarily unstable right hip, I'd have taken him up on the offer and once again trudged a quarter mile uphill through the woods. This collector also boasted of some nocturnal success shining an LED flashlight over gravel beneath the tiny stream running through the dumps. According to the Jacquot book, had he also shined a short wave ultra-violet light over the dumps, an additional reward could have been plentiful massive white apatite flourescing a bright orange plus with luck a bit of pink zoisite (thulite), which is also fluorescent. Jacquot noted that aquamarine occurred at the Ray Mine, but implied that it was far less common than other types of beryl. A week later, while driving home from New Orleans, I couldn't resist buying a rock bearing aquamarine from the Ray Mine for $7.50 at the gem shop of the Switzerland Inn in Little Switzerland, along the Blue Ridge Parkway between Asheville and Blowing Rock. The specimen is pictured at right.

By evening, I'd made it to the Days Inn in the heart of downtown Asheville. Of all the happening towns in the eastern United States, Asheville has long been my favorite for a night out enjoying food and music. As for dinner in downtown Asheville, my top pick is the cutting edge fusion of Californian and Mexican cuisine---along with killer margaritas---at Limones, 13 Eagle Street. For listening to and sometimes dancing to hot jazz or blues in the midst of a diverse crowd, I've long considered Tressa's, just a few blocks north from Limone's at 28 Broadway Street, to be as good as such a scene gets anywhere.

Were it not for a late evening at Tressa's, I'd have made it to the Redmond Mine in Haywood County a little earlier the next day. No problem, since the dumps here are tiny, and no way I'd venture underground into the shaft across the dirt road and with my bad hip and no flashlight after a month of heavy rainfall into water said to have been two feet deep during the past years' drought. According to Jacquot, the walls inside this shaft bear "dark blue azurite, malachite, and white cerussite crystals up to 1/2 inch long." I was perfectly happy keeping to the dumps and had the good fortune of collecting the piece pictured at right of azurite with chrysocolla and cerussite on quartz and limonite. Particularly intriguing was how similar it appeared to a specimen of "chrysocolla and cerussite on limonite and quartz" that's pictured in the book A Rockhounding Guide to North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, by Michael Streeter, which I discovered and purchased near the end of my trip. Both books note that micro crystals of pyromorphite occur in some of the quartz boulders located about a hundred yards up a steep trail from the left of the mine shaft. With my walking stick as a crutch I hoisted myself up there with the little rock hammer in my other hand. Sure enough the quartz boulders awaited, but would require a sledge hammer to attack, which my hip condition under no circumstances would allow.

Same time next year, I'll be heading south to New Orleans for Jazzfest for the 22nd time. Unless other mineralogical diversions along the way prove more promising, I'll return to all three of these localities with a bit more knowledge and hopefully a new right hip.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Some Fred Parker Collection Highlights

As I was photographing his collection last week, Fred Parker asked me: "What Maryland locality would you most like to visit?" Overwhelmed at first, I pulled a blank. With time since to reflect, however, and after photographing the above pictured calcite along with the wulfenite at left and the malachite at right, I'd probably name the Portland Cement Quarry in Carroll County. Fred shared with me that collector/dealer Andy Dietz of Ashland, Virginia collected the calcite beneath our title in a large pocket he and Andy worked there in 100 degree heat during July, 1997. The wulfenite is part of a one time find in the mid-1970's when the late George Brewer uncovered a rock bearing the only wulfenite ever reported from Maryland. And while quite a few specimens with acicular sprays of malachite have been collected at the Portland Quarry over the years, the piece pictured at right with chalcopyrite stands out.

Mineral specimens of historical significance especially appeal to Fred. The malachite at left from the long defunct Liberty Copper Mine in Frederick County, once graced the 19th century T-Bouve collection and later the late John Marshall's collection, from which Fred acquired it. With help from Photoshop, the label painted and scripted on the reverse side of this piece appears at the bottom right in the photograph. Ostrander and Price's 1940 Minerals of Maryland refers to the "haydenite"at right from Jones Falls in Baltimore City as "a variety of chabazite." It's eponymous with the early 19th Century mineralogist Horace Hayden, while Mindat lists "haydenite" as "a synonym of chabazite. If the specimen at right could be one of the earliest significant chabazite specimens in existence, Fred Parker's recent chabazite find at Hunting Hill Quarry in Montgomery County should rank among the latest. That occurrence lifts the number of different minerals its serpentinite-rodingite has yielded to 69. It and numerous other Hunting Hill specimens will be covered in a later Mineral Bliss post.

In Carroll County, not far from the Portland Cement Quarry in Union Bridge, the LaFarge (Redland Genstar) Quarry in Medford is another modern day classic Maryland locality. The turquoise colored aurichalcite pictured at left is one of the only specimens of aurichalcite collected in Maryland I've ever seen. Even more uncommon are the pink micro-crystals of lanthanite pictured at right. Mindat has yet to note an occurrence of this extremely rare neodymium mineral in the United States, even though the United States National Museum analyzed it approximately 25 years ago and confirmed the lanthanite identification. Collected at Medford in 1970 in a single rock, the 10x photograph at right shows micro-crystals from one of the seven pieces---all that exist--- into which the rock was broken. More plentiful at Medford are lavender calcite crystals such as pictured beneath the aurcichalcite. I also found a crystal like this a couple years ago, though it was nowhere near as appealing.

Fred Parker's Maryland collection also includes gold from Carroll County. Numerous papers have been written about the gold mined during past centuries in Montgomery County. Occurrences in Carroll County, however, are practically unknown. The gold pictured at left was collected at the Maryland Gold Mine in Montgomery County. The specimen at right, from near Sykesville in Carroll County, was self-collected by Fred Parker.

And finally, anyone who knows Fred Parker's mineralogical background could likely have a querie at this point: "Why not more about Hunting Hill?" Not only did Fred author what is probably the most comprehensive and up to date article about the minerals of this quarry (Mineralogical Record, September, 2005), his collection includes many of the most diverse, and "best of species ever found there" assortment of Hunting Hill material in existence. Mineral Bliss looks forward to "scratching the surface" on some of the most intriguing of these pieces in a later post.