Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alfredo Petrov: One of a Kind

When asked where he lives, Alfredo Petrov answers "kind of out of my suitcase," and likes to joke that he personally has kept American Airlines out of bankruptcy. " He adds: "I have my rocks, my microscopes, and my clothes scattered about homes on four continents." This makes sense for someone who deals minerals at 16 shows every year (three in Japan, two in Europe, and eleven in the United States). In addition to these shows, Alfredo and partner Frank deWit operate a mineral travel business that escorts collectors on trips to such destinations as Bolivia, Greenland, Portugal, Morocco, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and Japan.

Alfredo was born in Great Britain of a Russian father and German mother. He attended high school in Ethiopia where, as the only white student among 800 who were black, remembers himself as having been "kind of like the school pet." He began college in Beirut, Lebanon, because of its proximity to Ethiopia and ended up in the U.S., graduating with a degree in geology from San Diego State. Among other places he has since lived and worked are Japan, where he worked as a translator, and in Peekskill, New York, working as an assistant to Tony Nikischer of Mineral News. At all the shows around the world where he sets up shop, the sign announcing his presence reads, "Alfredo Petrov: Bolivia." That is where he was living and working as a geologist for the Bolivian government when he first began selling minerals internationally.

Most of the world's phosphophyllite, which numerous credible dealers refer to as "the Holy Grail of minerals," comes from Boliva, and Alfredo believes that he's supplied more than half of of all that's hit the market over the past several years. The Holy Grail tag attached itself at the end of the 1990's, when phosphophyllite had become all but extinct at the only major locality that produced it, namely the Unificado Mine in Cerro Rico near Potosi. In more recent years, after acquiring specimens from two new Bolivian localities, Alfredo became the man to see for it. He quickly points out, however, that these newer localities never produce specimens as gemmy as those from the original locality

Alfredo credits Rock Currier for bringing him to Tucson and getting him started as a mineral dealer. "Rock Currier," he says "did more than anyone to internationalize the major shows. The big shows didn't use to be international then like they are now. Then, in the late 1970's, he (Rock) started finding people in Third World countries, taught them how to be mineral dealers, and brought them here."

Most of the minerals Alfredo sells (about 80 per cent, he says) are to other dealers who resell them in stores, and on the Internet. Without exception, the selection is eclectic, diverse, and dominated by specimens that are rare and/or for one reason or another unusual. Many he has either field collected himself or obtained at shows in different parts of the world. Those at left, for instance are from Japan. The labels are in Alfredo's distinctive handwriting and come in different shapes, colors, and sizes.

Alfredo is also an avid micromounter and writes for numerous publications including Rocks and Minerals, Mineralogical Record, Mineral News, and Lapis. He is also a major player at Mindat. More than anything, he's one of a kind.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Rusty James: King of Ajoite and Papagoite

Cornerstone Minerals is a rock and gem shop at the corner of Lexington and Walnut in the heart of Asheville, North Carolina. It sells a variety of minerals, fossils, home decor, jewelry and metaphysical merchandise. At first glance it appears to be a tourist shop, but behind the scenes and in the back are several cases of far more notable minerals and fossils. They are the inventory of two additional and more specialized businesses: Throwin' Stones and Sacred Earth. Each year during the first two weeks of February, the two enterprises share space at the Tucson City Center Hotel (formerly Inn Suites) at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. It is mobbed with serious and seasoned high-end mineral collectors.

The principal item attracting this crowd is the extensive selection of quartz crystals bearing inclusions of the rare and the colorful copper silicates ajoite and papagoite. Such crystals occur exclusively at a single locality in the world, namely an open pit mine in Messina, Limpopo Province, South Africa. Otherwise, the New Cornelia Mine near Ajo in Pinal County, Arizona is the type locality and was long the only locality for both ajoite and papagoite. Even at the New Cornelia Mine, the two minerals are rare, and rather than as inclusions in quartz crystals, both minerals occur in micro-crystals on matrix. They are easily differentiated by color; ajoite is sky blue, papagoite is bright blue. Their presence inside quartz crystals at Messina turned up sporadically between 1970 and 1991. Mineralogists around the world were amazed at an occurrence both so unlikely and so aesthetically pleasing. However, between 1991 and 2007, no new material was uncovered. Dealers horded much of what was available and brought limited quantities to market each year as prices increased at about ten per cent annually.

Then, unexpectedly in 2007, hand digging in a different and relatively shallow part of the mine caused several tunnels to collapse to reveal more included crystals. This area of the mine had been worked for copper in the 1950's before the identification of ajoite and papagoite in quartz crystals. Apparently the miners had encountered the included quartz crystals, but ignored them and dug deeper to reach ore that was richer and readily extractable. They left behind several pockets where the clarity and concentrations of ajoite and papagoite in the crystals therein had rarely been observed in the finds from several decades before.

Rusty James, who owns Throwin' Stones with his wife Nicole, could at first seem an unlikely persona for being a major player in the distribution of such crystals. He quickly refers to himself as a "musical artist" who plays exotic percussion and notes that Nicole is a visual artist. Rusty grew up in Rockville, Maryland, mostly unaware that Hunting Hill even existed. He later moved to Florida. After a trip to India, he "fell in love with stones." A perception that people in Florida"were only interested in fossils" was one reason for moving to Asheville. Its location was more central to his network of family and friends , plus it was a place with "more history and inherent interest regarding minerals."

Soon after Throwin' Stones opened, Rusty purchased a collection with 40 specimens of papagoite included quartz crystals just as they were becoming nearly extinct on the market. He surmises his profit on that purchase to have been approximately one thousand per cent over a five year span of selling them slowly. Since then, he's been to Messina four times to purchase crystals from the owner of the mine. During his most recent visit this past December, he believes he became the first American to be given permission to dig.

The conditions are brutal. With the crystals occurring in small pockets and veins in brecciated quartz, Rusty says it's possible to work all day in temperatures as high as 115 F, while contending with bugs, snakes, and scorpions, only to find a few broken pieces with small spots of color. Once extracted, many of the crystals bear a thick crust that can require not only multiple cleanings with oxalic and sometimes hydrofluoric acid, but also extensive manual work including using an air abrasive or high-power water spray.

The Messina crystals comprise approximately 20 per cent of Throwin' Stones' business. While Rusty doesn't get all of the material coming out of Messina, he believes that he is the source for the vast majority of the the "best" crystals on the market. He also mentions that the quality of most of the crystals being mined today is far superior to those collected between the 1970's and the 1990's. However, because of high operating costs and low yield, he voices concerns over how much longer the mine will continue to produce. He says that the mineralized zones are small and that they run deep into the ground at an angle that could preclude mining the crystals for much longer. In the near future he anticipates that the supply could dry up, leaving the market once again to rely on diminishing amounts of stockpiled material for which prices will continue to rise.

Rusty can keep you posted. You can contact him at "omrhythm at hotmail dot com."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Maryland's Good Old Days Recalled in Tucson

Dr. Joseph F. Schreiber, Jr. is one of but a few collectors still around who enjoyed the kind of pickings that were available in Maryland during the first half of the last century. Such collectors who became geologists were mostly lured to a myriad other locations around the country or the world. Many, regardless of vocation, have passed on. Dr. Schreiber and his wife Doris have been living for the past 50 years in Tucson. That is when he joined the Department of Geology faculty at the University of Arizona in 1959. He retired, more or less, in 1992.

The permanent move out west actually came about after thirteen years. After serving in the U.S. Navy for 35 months during World War II, he used the G.I. Bill to earn his B.A. (1948) and M. A.(1950) degrees in Geology from the Johns Hopkins University. Summer jobs with the U.S. Geological Survey in New Mexico and petroleum geology field studies in the Rockies and West Texas added to his academic experience. In 1951, he worked at the Chesapeake Bay Institute in a combined study of the waters and bottom sediments of the Bay. The expertise learned in the bay studies led to a Doctoral Program at the University of Utah where his research was on the sedimentary record of Great Salt Lake. "But all along," says Dr. Schreiber " I kept up an interest in mineral collecting." The time in Utah allowed for "classic" collecting opportunities in that state as well as Colorado.

Similarly attractive collecting opportunities came up when he served on the geology faculty at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater from 1955-1959. The father of one of his students operated a small lead-zinc mine in the Tri-State district of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. Whenever they struck a highly mineralized area, Dr. Schreiber was contacted so as to be on site to collect some of the beautifully crystallized minerals. Another bonus was helping to run the summer geology field camp located near Canon City, Colorado. Some weekends were spent with smaller groups of students collecting from some of the famous localities in central Colorado. What could have been better?

The permanent move "out west" came about when he, wife Doris, and two small daughters moved to Tucson. He was now in a rapidly growing soft rock (stratigraphy and sedimentology) program. The University of Arizona also had one of the best "ore deposit geology" programs in the U.S. Once again he was active in the summer geology field camp. What could have been even better?

Even so, after having experienced the best of so many great localities throughout the American West, Dr. Schreiber makes a point of referring to Maryland as "beautifully situated with igneous and sedimentary rocks and their metamorphosed equivalents, particularly where gneiss and metagabbros are present."

His interest in mineralogy and mineral collecting began in 1938 at the Natural History Society of Maryland as a member of the Junior Division. Charles "Charlie" Ostrander, who authored "Minerals of Maryland" in 1940 (still my personal Maryland Bible), was his mentor. Dr. Schreiber began collecting in the Baltimore area where he and other mineral collecting friends could travel on the Baltimore Transit street cars. Before the Woodberry Quarry dumps in the Jones Falls Valley gave way to progress, he recalls the collecting as having been "great!" From nearby, a street car ran north on Falls Road to points from which both the Bare Hills Copper mine dumps as well as the Bare Hills Chrome pits were but a short hike away. The vial of magnetite crystals from the former locality pictured in a vial at right are the largest I've ever seen from that locality. In the vicinity of the chrome pits, he recalls finding the best variety of minerals when combing the surrounding serpentine barrens, many of which remain accessible today.

Localities further north in Baltimore County were reached by car. A favorite was the Harry T. Campbell Quarry, now the Texas LaFarge Quarry, in Texas, MD. This is where he collected a specimen of wernerite, a mineral long considered to be an uncommon prize amongst Maryland collectors. It shows more attractively than any other Maryland wernerite I've had the privilege of seeing and is pictured at left.

The youthful Dr. Schreiber and his cronies were able to experience numerous still active quarries in a manner that collectors today could only dream about. If blasting were to happen on a Friday, the quarry was usually available to collectors on the weekends. Such a quarry was the long closed and inaccessible Gunpowder Quarry, which produced the almandine garnet pictured at right. The quarry workers would sometimes leave baskets of garnets that popped out of the gneiss left at their change shack. Dr. Schreiber also collected the allanite in gneiss (left) at the Gunpowder Quarry. Although allanite has been reported from various Maryland localities, this is the first piece I've seen and had an opportunity to photograph.

West of the Baltimore area in Carroll and Frederick Counties, Dr. Schreiber also got to visit many of the dumps and openings on private land where, mostly in the 1800's, copper and other metals were mined. The landowners became their friends and welcomed them. Many of these spots have since been built or paved over. Where possibilities for collecting remain, a much smaller percentage of landowners are as willing to so readily accommodate today.

The minerals pictured in this post are among the very few that Dr. Schreiber has kept since retiring. Most specimens were added years ago to the teaching collections and the University of Arizona Mineral Museum, which has stored them away. I would love to see and photograph some of them. However, immediately after the opening of a major new exhibit, with limited funding, and with the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show going on, this isn't the time to ask.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tucson Ramblings

Shown above are the Moroccan tents, hardly a highlight of the action in Tucson during these first two weeks of February. About as many dealers from Czechoslovakia, Australia, Russia, Brazil---and even more from China and India--- haul tons of rocks to a variety of Tucson spots every year. I don't understand how most of them make their numbers work. The Moroccans bring the same stuff every year: flats of cerussite with barite, goethite, aragonite, azurite, vanadinite, and plenty of fossils. Though the quality of the specimens in these tents doesn't seem to improve from year to year, the persistence of the dealers endures, and the haggling can be endless if one hangs around. For the wire silver piece at right, I chiseled a Moroccan dealer down from $250 to $80, then walked away. With a bit of tarnish, I would have been less concerned about the possibility that the specimen could be factitious.

This year, as every year, the quantities of pyrite from Peru amethyst from Uruguay, stibnite from China, and Indian zeolites are as ubiquitous as the Moroccan material. These, however, are not the only species that are particularly abundant. This year, for the first time, we're seeing a lot of very aesthetic blue apatite crystals in a calcite matrix from Slyudyanka near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia such as shown at left. The amount of dioptase crystals from Altyn-Tybue kazakhstan like those pictured at right, not to mention the number of dealers selling them is yet more remarkable.

Quite auspiciously, I've scored some uncommon native metals this year at very reasonable prices. One example is native iron (shown at left) from Hungtukun massif, Taymyr Peninsula, Siberia, Russia. My source was Mikhail Anasov, whom I'm confident would not have sold it to me as native iron were it from a meteorite. Even harder to come by is native lead, of which I was fortunate enough to obtain for $20 the specimen pictured at right from Garpenberg, Sweden. And speaking of rare, how about native osmium, specifically the variety "iridosmine," of which 30 or more grains, none much larger than a needle point are mounted on a piece of cork in the microphotograph at left? They were sifted from the Crescent City Beach placers in Del Norte County, California. The dealer who sold them to me has a noteworthy variety of unusual offerings .

I'll be interviewing this dealer on Monday, Feb. 8, for what promises to be a fascinating post. It should be on line before the end of February.