Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Maryland Wulfenite

We print this article here as I wrote it for the Spring, 2011 edition of Justin Zzyzx's quarterly publication the Vug, which is also available in print with this addition entirely devoted to the mineralogy of Maryland. Both sites are in the public domain, so posting it here as well should help to create the awareness of Maryland's minerals sought by both publications.

Though little recognized for its wealth of approximately 250 mineral species, the state of Maryland boasts its share of mineralogical anachronisms. One of the most interesting is a singular and unique find of wulfenite from the year 1975 at a Lehigh Cement Company owned crushed stone quarry near Union Bridge in Carroll County. Extracting from the Wakefield Marble of Maryland’s piedmont, the quarry remains open today, its operations much expanded. For many years, it has been totally off limits to any and all collectors.

Maryland wulfenite’s bright yellow colour visually distinguishes it from the better known East Coast wulfenites, namely the reddish orange crystals of former lead producing sites near Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and the orange crystals from the Pre-Revolutionary Manham lead workings at Loudville, Massachusetts.

Drusy colourless and sometimes-yellow stained calcite nearly always accompanies Maryland’s usually tabular tetragonal wulfenite wulfenite crystals. Though visible to the naked eye, they rarely measure more than a few millimeters, the largest known being about a centimeter in length. Nearly always, they are best appreciated with magnification. Similarly sized colourless crystals of cerussite frequently accompany them.

The late George Brewer, a schoolteacher from Columbia, Maryland, discovered and extracted all of Maryland’s known wulfenite bearing material. Since meeting an untimely death about 30 years ago, his name has become legend to seasoned field collectors in the region. They recall that he usually collected alone during the summers when school was not in session.

John S. White, who was Curator in Charge of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History Division of Mineralogy from 1964 to 1991, had more to say:

I knew George very well. When I lived in Bowie, he used to come often to my home and show me things that he had collected, or just to visit and talk about minerals. In my view he was the best collector in the state of Maryland that I have ever known. He was always turning up amazing things and he had a knack for gaining official access to quarries where collecting was prohibited. He probably found more new species for quarries in the area than any other collector, and he also found several species new to the science. I am sure there would have been a mineral named for him if he had not died at such an early age. Perhaps the most exciting discovery that George made was that of the mineral goosecreekite. He found the very first specimen at the Goose Creek quarry in Loudon County, suspected that it was a new species, and it turned out to be just that. It was subsequently named and described in 1980 using the material that he collected (Dunn, et. al, Canadian Mineralogist, vol. 18, pp. 323-327).

Word has it among the relatively few who are even cognizant of Maryland wulfenite that every known specimen was once part of single rock. August “Andy” Dietz, an Ashland, Virginia dealer and collector who acquired from Brewer several flats of wulfenite bearing material, adds perspective: He recalls:

From what George implied about the wulfenites, they were in an exposed seam in a corner of the quarry that was probably three to four feet long and a couple offeet wide. George was only able to extract what was loose from the blast but he seemed to think he got all that was available to get. The next time he went he
said the area had been blasted away.

Brewer never found any more. Nor did Dietz, when he later collected there with the renowned Maryland collector Fred Parker. For sure this crushed stone quarry at Union Bridge is not typical of a locality where wulfenite would be likely to occur. Nor is any other locality in the state. The Union Bridge wulfenites are a scarce anachronism to be considered a Maryland classic.

Monday, April 18, 2011

State Line Serpentine Walks

On a relatively rare recent beautiful spring day with no commitments beyond getting from Baltimore to Wilmington, Delaware by nightfall, I opted for heading up Route 1 at midday with time to briefly explore two accessible serpentine barrens along the way: Rock Springs and Chrome Barren Reserve,both in Pennsylvania. The trail through Rock Springs heads north from State Line Road west of Route 222.

In natural history circles, these barrens are touted less for minerals than the very rare plants that thrive in their unique environment. The soil, which is low in nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorous,but rich in magnesium and chromium, is nutritionally inhospitable to much vegetation otherwise indigenous to the area, but welcoming to other rarer plant species. Think serpentine aster, glade spurge, fameflower, lyre-leaved rock cress, prairie dropseed, and arrow-feather. Not seeing much growing that seemed unusual, perhaps April 14 was a bit early in the spring. There weren't many rocks to look at either.

The only interesting rocks I observed comprised roadfill for the Rock Springs parking lot shown in our title picture. They had it all over what rocks I'd spied in the barrens. They had been quarried from the ultramafic rocks beneath the earth at barrens similar to these. Among them was the antigorite in the picture at left, with portions sufficiently translucent and gemmy to refer to as williamsite.

The 340 acre Chrome Barrens Preserve, 59 of which the Nature Conservancy and Chester County Commissioners permanently protect, was my next destination. The main trail here detoured into brambles and dead ends and was difficult to follow. Much of the Chrome Barrens Preserve is deciduous forest. The most accessible rocks were in small alluvial deposits amidst occasional erosion along the trail. I felt justified in taking the chromite in serpentine pictured at left after reading how specifically the sign shown at right exludes rocks or minerals from what must not be damaged or removed

Such a beautiful day to be out in nature, but other locations would have appealed to me more. The day's schedule had been quickly conceived the night before. Realizing that this route to Wilmington passed through Chester County, I would have stayed up later the night before with The Mines and Minerals of Chester County, Pennsylvania by Ronald A. Sloto,2009. This 470 page labor of love has it all in terms of being thorough and specific. It will be my guide next opportunity to so linger when headed in a similar direction.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Simkev Minerals: The Only Enterprise of its Kind

Maureen Campeau, pictured above, is CEO of Simkev Minerals, which she describes as "our niche." She believes Simkev to be the world's only full time business enterprise that caters exclusively to the definitive product of this visually spectacular and joyously myopic mineralogical venue. A definition from late Neal Yedlin, perhaps the most renowned micromounter ever, is quoted in Quintin Wight's The Complete Book of Micromounting, Tucson, 1993, as follows:

Micromount: a natural mineral specimen , preferably in distinct crystals, mounted, properly labeled, and requiring magnification for meaningful observation.

Since many, if not most, of the approximately 4400 known mineral species require magnification to be meaningfully observed or appreciated, the micromount aficionado likely owns a significantly greater number of different species than most mineral collectors. Of no less significance, micromounts typically enjoy immunity to the dings and imperfections borne by the vast majority of hand specimens. Even better, they cost less and usurp minimal space. A binocular or trinocular microscope and a viable light source are all that's required.

A micromount specimen must be small enough to be fit within the confines of the approximately one square inch base of a two piece plastic micromount display case that's usually 3/4 of an inch to an inch in height. While many micromount collectors prefer to mount their own pieces, much of the material they are likely to be seeking has already been mounted.

Maureen's partner, Rodney Lee, who founded the business over 30 years ago (1979), mounts approximately 85 per cent of the Simkev specimens. Maureen mounts the remaining 15 per cent when time permits. Rod then photographs a sample specimen through a binocular scope attached with an adapter to his Canon Rebel, then writes up the locality and a brief visual description. All locations are verified prior to being labeled by Maureen.

While the Internet accounts for most sales, established customers not privy to the Internet receive printed mailings heralding new inventory. Maureen noted that these mailings receive an amazingly high 95 per cent response rate. She describes her clientele as "nearly all men, about 50 per cent European-American, and the rest international.”

Maureen, who is responsible for the business end of the operation, likes to think of herself more as "chief cook and bottle washer," than CEO. She is the person who responds to all email inquires, invoicing, order processing and mailings. If you have a question that needs addressing, she will get the answer or find someone who can. Recently, she became more active in (personal) sales, and marketing in the United States as well as Canada. In the past year she attended the East Coast Gem and Mineral Show in West Springfield, Massachusetts last August, actively worked the Baltimore Mineral Society's Desautels Micromount Symposium in Elkridge, Maryland, this past October, schmoozed for two weeks in February at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, and most recently worked the Atlantic Coast Micromount Symposium April 1 and 2. The Rochester (NY) Mineralogical Symposium April 15, 16, and 17 is next.

More conventional mineral dealers and serious field collectors provide most of the minerals that Rodney trims into mounts. Acquiring inventory can be a challenge but Simkev prides itself in selecting only that material that is aesthetic and reasonable to purchase for resale. Rod and Maureen do their best to acquire new and rare material at a reasonable price. It is important that all specimens have visual appeal even if it only becomes apparent under the scope. "A lot of what we get are three inch rocks that either Rod or I will trim down," notes Maureen.

Working with a tabletop trimmer, Rod and Maureen separate and isolate pieces that best display the crystals in matrix. They try to make sure that most specimens have at least three quarters of an inch of matrix with each specimen. Crystals in matrix look much better than an individual crystal alone. Sometimes they have no choice, but in most cases the three-quarter inch rule applies. Rod uses mineral tack to mount all but the tiniest and most fragile specimens, which he glues to a cork pedestal that he affixes to the micromount case base. The only exceptions are occasional mounts to be considered "vintage" or with such added-value provenance as to have previously been mounted by or from collections of those with legendary stature among micromounters.

As for pricing, Maureen notes two factors: "The first consideration," she says, "is what we paid. The second is rarity and aesthetics.” In the past year, she and Rodney have sold over ten thousand mounts encompassing over 600 species. The highest price they ever charged was $75.00, which represents only three or four specimens in those ten thousand mounts. Many, perhaps most, sell for as little as $8.00. "What's most important, regardless of price" Maureen emphasizes, "is quality---and, of course customer service." Simkev prides themselves on quality and service.

Many times Maureen can receive a request for specimens in the morning and the "pretties" are on the way to a new home that same afternoon.