Monday, October 31, 2011

A First Rate Appalachian Mineral Vacation

It began on a rainy Oct. 19, 2011, the only day for the next eight of anything less than picture postcard perfect weather. First stop was Harrisonburg, Virginia, to see the great James Madison University Mineral Museum. On display there are some of the greatest Virginia minerals known to exist (note the Amherst County amethyst at left), much of Elmwood Tennessee's finest, a Franklin/Sterling Hill fluorescent room, and an amazing selection of worldwide minerals. Nearby, I overheard heard two men who had recently entered the museum discussing a pair of smithsonites that Peter Via of Roanoke, Virginia had donated. Shown at right, these two different coloured smithsonites were collected at the same particularly noteworthy locality, namely the San Antonio El Grande Mine in Chihuahua, Mexico. Having just finished gawking at them and with plans to visit Mr. Via the next day and see his collection, I could not restrain myself from barging in. Turned out I was interrupting the Museum's legendary curator, Dr. Lance Kearns, as he was escorting the renowned collector Frank Hissong on a tour. They couldn't have been nicer, and we enjoyed a conversation touching upon subjects that hopefully Mineral Bliss will be in a position to cover in future posts.

I didn't really know what to expect when visiting Peter Via the following day in Roanoke. My friend John White had helped to arrange this meeting. On the other hand, I should have known. After all, it was John who had  pulled similar strings on my behalf a year ago for a visit to meet Jack Halpern and view his collection in San Francisco. And once again, I found myself in the company of another unique, gracious, and genuinely
interesting collector who had put together one of the premier private assemblages of minerals on the planet. Though with endless stories to share that were often embellished with a sense of humor leaning toward the wild side, Peter rarely attends mineral shows, even Tucson. He prefers to deal more privately, often purchasing specimens of such fragility and value as to require hand delivery. What a privilege to interact with such a collector and view the treasures he's accumulated over a lifetime. Labels don't accompany the specimens filling his intricately illuminated display cases, and some pieces were spectacular enough to occasionally belie my visual perception regarding their species. Upon complimenting Peter on the "cadmium smithsonite" at right, he had to inform me that in fact, it was Mexican mimetite.

I spent the night in Floyd, Virgina, enjoying a rootsy hotbed for Appalachian music then climbed nearby Buffalo Mountain the next day before heading on to Asheville, North Carolina. Included among my activites there was a visit the Colburn Earth Sciences Museum at Pack Place in the heart of town. Along with plenty of impressive mineral specimens, many of the Colburn's systematically organized worldwide specimens and even a few pieces in a separate North Carolina suite could have passed for study pieces compared to much that I'd seen at James Madison University and in Peter Via 's collection. Fine with me: The Colburn is far more conducive to learning about and understanding the earth sciences than most such museums, and I applaud them for this. But darnit, I've written to the Colburn as well as mentioned here in Mineral Bliss that what is pictured at right is NOT cacoxinite. It's goethite! Someone once suggested to me that making the correction could prove sensitive to the the (anonymous) donor. Heaven help me if I'm wrong.

Upon leaving Asheville, my next stop was Corundum Knob in Clay County, North Carolina, where I managed to actually dig up and break open a rock with a bleb of near-gem-quality ruby in it . This was probably sheer luck. I've since learned that the best technique for finding ruby here is to inspect the surface of boulders with a laserlike ultraviolet light, and break up any that show spots of fluorescence.

My next stop was Gatlinburg to spend the night prior to taking the delightful 2.3 mile hike to Alum Cave Bluff in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is the type and only locality on earth known to have yielded the rare earth microminerals coskrenite, levinsonite, and zugshunstite. Don't expect to go there and find any. I can pretty much attest that such an effort would prove fruitless and can assure that anyone attempting to do so without a special permit would be subject to federal prosecution.

After fortunately falling asleep back in Gatlinburg while watching my home team Baltimore Ravens worst game ever on Monday Night Football, it was time to begin heading homeward. I stopped along the way to climb Mt. Pisgah, and then put in at Asheville after dining at Curate, this city's new first rate and very cosmopolitan tapas bar.

Thereafter my plan had been to return to Baltimore with a detour into Pittsylvania County,Virginia to check out a site at Coles Hill near Chatham, Virginia, where 119 million pounds of uranium are said to lie beneath the ground. My excitement over this jaunt had diminished somewhat after reading on the Internet that finding any collectible uranium bearing mineral specimens thereabouts would be most unlikely.

More intriguing was the blessing of another postcard autumn day along a route that just happened to pass directly by Grandfather Mountain. I wonder now what John White must have thought when he was helping me line up my visit with Peter Via. Why had I overlooked Grandfather Mountain when boasting to him about all the other mineral spots in this part of the country that were on my itinerary? John knows that I know he played a major role in putting together the mineral display at the highly regarded nature museum there.

Misinformed prejudgment on my part had perceived Grandfather Mountain to be akin to a tourist theme park. I really should have known that Grandfather Mountain offers some of the most interesting and exhilarating hiking in the Appalachians, while its nature museum displays, largely through John's efforts, what obviously are numerous best of species North Carolina minerals. One good example is the amethyst at left from the Reel Mine at Iron Station in Lincoln County, North Carolina. And for those such as myself who just as much crave some of the rarer if less visually spectacular minerals, the bikitaite at right should prove to be a mindblow. Is it conceivable to anyone that a larger or finer example of this species could ever have been unearthed? Hopefully, in the future, with input from John, who at present is in Munich, Mineral Bliss will provide its readers with a lot more regarding this fascinating museum.

With a bit of time remaining to hike, I drove on from the Nature Museum to the Black Rock Parking Area and from there hiked the half mile trail up to Grandfather Mountain's Mile High Swinging Bridge. The view from here is amazing. About 15 miles off in the distance was a peak that for many years I'd viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway with awe and mystification. A ranger informed me that this was Table Rock and provided me with directions to the base of the trail leading to its pinnacle. With yet another consecutive day of perfect weather predicted, the opportunity for that delightful and easier than expected climb added a final extra wonderful day to one of the best vacations of my life.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Largest Native Maryland Faceted Gemstone in Existence

Editor's note:

Jeff Nagy very kindly provided the stones that are pictured in this post for me to photograph and followed through by forwarding what is to follow. The narrative begins with a basic bulleted description of a cut stone from smoky quartz that he believes to be the largest faceted gemstone cut from Maryland material. His name for it is the "The Clarksville Sultan, "and here is his story. JWS


by Jeff Nagy.


  • Faceting – William Nagy (Rockville, Maryland – Member of the GLMSMC)

  • Gem Material – Smoky Quartz (root beer color, Medium Saturation)

  • Origin of Rough – Clarksville, Maryland

  • 71 facets + 18 girdle facets for a total of 89 facets

  • Weight – 72.5 carats

  • Dimensions – 29.82 mm x 23.36 mm x 18.70 mm.

  • Style – Modified Rectangular Cushion Cut

  • Name of Cut – “The Sultans Seat”

  • li>Designer – John Bailey

    After a few years of investigative work, culminating in 1988, noted Maryland mineral collector Fred Parker, was able to pinpoint the source of fine euhedral quartz crystals reported in the 1930’s by Ostrander and Price in their book, “Minerals of Maryland.” Within a short time of the re-discovery, however, Fred found the site being prepared for a housing development. Fred observed the progress of grading and patiently waited. His persistence paid off when the bulldozers uncovered the unmistaken outline of a decomposing, kaolinized pegmatite. Fred approached the site foreman and asked for permission to dig. Since the machines were leaving this area for a few weeks to concentrate on another section of the site, he was given permission. The rest is history. For the next few weeks, Fred was able to extract dozens of fine euhedral crystals, some root beer colored, some clear, of varying sizes and clarity. A few were the size of Coke Bottles. They are considered to be some of the finest quartz crystal specimens to have ever been found on the east coast.

    Fast forward to the summer of 2008, when I purchased a number of Maryland specimens from Fred’s collection, including a few of the coveted quartz crystals from the 1988 Clarksville find. I brought them home and examined each one carefully. As a faceter, I began to consider cutting one of the smaller crystals. I chose one that was promising; a root-beer colored crystal of approximately 400 carats, terminated on one end. It appeared to be almost flawless. The more I looked at it, the more I hesitated. I just couldn’t bring myself to cut it. So for the next three years it sat on a shelf in my shop.

    By the end of July, 2011, I had finally decided to take the plunge and commit to, what a fellow collector termed, “the act of barbarity.” In that three year interval my father, William Nagy, had become a gemstone faceter, learning the basics from Jim Perkins in Jim’s Ohio studio. So I decided to have dad cut the stone. In mid-August I visited my father, showed him the rough, and specified how I wanted the crystal cut. The center section was to yield the largest stone, a modified cushion cut. The terminated end was to be a round brilliant, executed in whatever variant my father wanted. The other end, where it looked like the crystal had been attached while it was growing, was left to the discretion of my father. By August 31st, dad had finished all three cuts. The results were amazing.

    The largest of the three, which I have named “The Clarksville Sultan,” is what I believe to be, the largest faceted gemstone in existence cut from native Maryland Material. It is a John Bailey design called “The Sultan’s Seat.” Details directions for cutting this design can be found on John Bailey’s website: It is a modified rectangular cushion cut, which John describes as “not quite an OMNI, but cuts a bit similarly.” It is comprised of 71 facets plus 18 girdle facets, for a total of 89 facets. There are two versions available; one with a keel pavilion, the other an apex pavilion. I opted for the apex pavilion. It was cut on a Facetron machine.

    The workmanship and artistry of the cut is outstanding, with meet-points dead on. The final polish was first done with a Raytech Last-Lap and 100K diamond powder in lamp oil, and then finished-off with a blue Ultra-Lap. The polish is exceptionally fine. It measures 29.82 mm x 23.36 mm x 18.70 mm, and weighs 72.5 carats. The stone is of a rich, light root-beer color with medium color saturation. As the crown facets were being cut one small feather was found. However, it is positioned in a section of the stone where it is not readily noticeable and does not detract from the appearance or performance of the stone, which is quite bright and flashy.

    The second gemstone is a round brilliant, 14.5 carats in weight, measures 16.9 mm, and exhibits the same rich color of its larger brother. The faceting and polish is superb; the final polish accomplished using a blue Ultra-Lap.

    The third stone, a smaller version of “The Sultan’s Seat,” weighs 3.0 carats. Its color is very light brown, not having the deep, rich color of the two larger stones. It measures 7.9 mm x 10.1 mm. The final polish was done with a blue Ultra-lap.

    My father, William Nagy, was taught to facet by Master-Faceter Jim Perkins. Dad’s expertise, patience, and artistry are exhibited in this distinctive gemstone. While not exceptionally large as gemstones go, it does however represent the untapped potential of a State that is not known for producing quality pieces such as this. There is more to come.

    Tuesday, October 4, 2011

    The Desautels Symposium and the Micromounters Hall of Fame

    Our title picture shows but a minute portion of the classic (best in the world) vintage micromount display that John Ebner brings down from New Jersey the first weekend of October each year to the M.H.A's Cal Pierson Conference Center in Elkridge, Maryland. It is the venue for the Baltimore Mineral Society's annual Desautels Micromount Symposium. This 55th annual occurrence of world's first and longest- lived annual micromount symposium celebrated its 55th year between 7:30 PM on Sept. 30, 2011, and 2 PM Sunday, Oct. 2. Sponsored and produced since inception by the Baltimore Mineral Society, the event attracts micromount aficionados from around the globe for a weekend of fellowship, trading, purchasing, and presentations that include inducting new members into the Micromounters Hall of Fame.

    Inductees not only own substantial micromount collections, they must for at least 15 years have been among the " loudest for the longest, demonstrated generosity, and helped others." Quintin Wight, perennial master of ceremonies for Micromounters Hall of Fame inductions, speaks these words each year when describing what it takes to be considered for selection. Perhaps no one else on earth more personifies these criteria than Quintin Wight himself. Hailing from Canada, he is a 1990 inductee who regularly travels the globe with his wife Willow to participate in micromount conferences and symposia. Each year, Quintin reports on these events in a major article in Rocks and Minerals. He also authored the hardcover and glossy Complete Book of Micromounting, published in 1993 by Mineralogical Record.

    Since any attempt to even briefly describe the essence of John Ebner's collection would at the very least merit it's own post, we limit photographic coverage in our title picture to one little corner of it bearing the original Hall of Fame plaque from the late and legendary micromounter Paul Seel's 1981 induction. The micromount collection Seel accumulated is one of the greatest in the world. Upon his death in 1982, he bequeathed the entire collection, which notably included a vast array of diamonds from nearly every locality on earth, to the curatorship of James W. Hurlbut at the Denver Museum of Natural History and Science. In addition to overseeing the Seel collection Mr. Hurlbut has been an active fixture in the mineralogical community since 1947 as a speaker, author, and director of field trips. The youngish looking for age 90 inductee is shown at left next to Quintin Wight upon receiving his Hall of Fame plaque.

    Also inducted and pictured at right receiving from Quintin a similar plaque, is Dr. R. Peter Richards. Among other pursuits, Dr. Richards is a prolific author of articles in Rocks and Minerals and Mineralogical Record. Although by profession a senior research scientist at Heidelberg University's National Center for Water Quality Research laboratory, he is highly trained in and spends much of his time studying mineralogy focusing in particular on crystal morphology, a topic of paramount interest to micromounters. Among his better known accomplishments was conversion of the crystal drawing application known as SHAPE for use on the Macintosh computer.

    As dictated by tradition, this past spring the Board of the Baltimore Mineral Society, upon review of numerous letters of recommendation previously submitted to Quintin Wight, selected two new future Micromount Hall of Famers for induction at its 2012 symposium. One of those chosen, Arnold G. Hampson, of Dolores, Colorado, unfortunately passed away soon thereafter without learning of his selection, which will be presented posthumously. The other future Hall of Famer was New Zealander, Rod Martin, a major player in the international community of micromounters who also publishes and researches prolifically.

    Subsequent to their inductions, both Jim Hurlbut and Pete Richards treated the crowd to presentations about subjects on which they're considered experts. The former spoke on the extensive (primarily gold) mining operations in Colorado's Breckingridge District. He illustrated his talk with maps as well images portraying native gold specimens of mind-boggling size and substance. Pete Richards' presentation featured crystals formed in recent years by a year long shale fire that started in talus along the banks of the Huron River near Cleveland, Ohio. Highlights were photographs of sal ammoniac crystals showing a range of habits diverse almost beyond comprehension. Pete also showed other fascinating shale-fire-created crystals of other materials with slightly different molecular arrangements that he suggested should qualify for approval as minerals.

    The next day, Sunday, from 9 AM until about noon, attendees continued to socialize, to trade, to purchase mounts from busy dealers whose tables lined the main hallway, as well as peruse and help themselves to the myriad mostly unmounted rocks bearing micromount potential remaining at giveaway tables in a side room. Dan Behnke, one of the world's pre-eminent photographers of micromounts then gave the final presentation, which focused on the Clark Mine in Keweenah County, Michigan.

    Before leaving, the crowd was treated to a buffet lunch as they had been both the day before (Saturday) as well as Friday evening. Most will probably be back to the Pierson Center during early next spring for the Atlantic Micromounters' Conference, an event that's very similar to the Desautels Symposium except without the Hall of Fame inductions.