Discover The New Art of
By Robin Jay & Kyla Coker, Graduate Gemologist & Geologist
View some of the specimens from the Arkenstone Gallery of Fine Minerals:[print_gllr id=10963]
An exclusive interview with Dr. Robert Lavinsky, scientist and proprietor of The Arkenstone Gallery of Fine Minerals in Dallas, who has pioneered the transformation of breathtaking multimillion-year-old minerals as an Art Class.
Since walking away from the science research lab, molecular biologist and mineral expert Dr. Rob Lavinsky has singlehandedly reinvented and impacted the mineral collecting world as it emerges from a hobby to an Art Class.
Not only has his work been recognized by the scientific community, his business has brought the beauty of nature’s art—
precious minerals—into the hands of people who have never before had the opportunity to experience it except by seeing in the world’s major museums.
Dr. Lavinsky’s personality is vibrant, genuine, and passionate, with the sort of confident intensity that comes alongside natural brilliance. As a child, he was a book-smart “science nerd.” He still is. But he’s incredibly business-savvy, too; he learned how to trade minerals at the age of 12.
The Art of Mining Minerals
A modern Indiana Jones type, he has a host of adventures to his name, each one recounting travels across the globe in search of the finest minerals. He also has some of the best runners on the ground to be his eyes and ears in remote countries and mines all over the world, including Madagascar, Brazil, India, Australia, Pakistan, Russia, China, Canada, and Italy. They provide him with up-to-the-minute details on the best new finds. With just one photo, he might exchange millions of dollars for minerals and crystals that just emerged from a remote mine. Once, he dropped everything and hopped a plane to Australia to compete with the Melbourne Casino for the right to purchase the largest gold nugget in private hands and came away with it after a handshake and a drink.
These minerals and crystals that Dr. Lavinsky trades are kept in their natural form and are more valuable and rare without being cut into gemstones. Tanzanite, aquamarine, emerald, ruby, sapphire, tourmaline, garnet, and quartz—all relatively familiar gemstone names. But, rarely are they seen in their pure natural form exactly as they came out of the earth except in major museums, such as the Smithsonian or Dallas’s Perot Museum, both of which have many of his specimens on loan or exhibit.
Rob established the first high-level online presence for the mineral collecting world in the mid 1990s, catapulting his business into the first truly worldwide dealership in the trade. His website helped drive the growth of the trade in fine minerals as it educated people around the world. This eventually led to the creation of a large art gallery display of crystals (10,000 sq. feet) in Dallas and a smaller gallery in Shanghai, China. Today, as with any collectible art, people collect minerals for many focuses, including their favorite countries of origin (as does Rob with his China collection), historical locations, chemistry and science, size or simply color.
But his first job was simply to help the local mineral dealer in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, while in junior high school. By the age of 14, he was setting up swap tables at local mineral shows where they allowed unofficial dealers to trade in marked “monopoly money” and spend the earnings with the real show dealers.
He simultaneously built his mineral collection as he built his business acumen, never imagining that one day it would be his full-time occupation, livelihood, and passion. He went on to study at Rice University before completing his doctoral studies in molecular biology and cancer research at the University of California at San Diego—always buying and selling minerals on the side (publishing his thesis in Nature). Over time, the minerals took off as much or more than lab work, so he turned in his petri dishes to enjoy dealing in the beautiful crystals every day.
Rob began his personal collection of Chinese minerals nearly 20 years ago even before the market realized how underappreciated Chinese mineral specimens were at the time; and now has the world’s largest quality Chinese mineral collection. He also published his book “Crystalline Treasures: The Mineral Heritage of China,” in 2013 and the Chinese government has since asked him to help educate them on minerals through this book and talks given in China. They republished his book in Chinese and have distributed it to communities in rural China and through the Ministry of Land and Resources. With their new understanding of minerals and the economic value they can bring to miners, their mission is to educate and empower rural mining communities to more sustainably harvest minerals for longer-term gain.
In fact, mineral mining exemplifies the term “fair trade” as you might normally think of it for agriculture. Dr. Lavinsky has educated miners around the world in order for them to be able to look for pieces that have value and preserve them for collectors so that all parties benefit. One mineral in specific, stibnite, is mined as the primary ore of antimony. When it is crushed, it would be worth a few dollars per kilo. Instead of crushing it, the mineral as a specimen can be worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The tragedy is that most minerals over human history have been found and crushed to make products ranging from steel flux to eyeliner, iPhones, and gemstones. “I have to get miners to deal on a more local and personal level and to appreciate what they are mining, collect it more carefully, and then sell it to me. I have to actually educate miners in developing countries to value their minerals in order to preserve them from going to the crusher or being cut into gems for human baubles,” says Dr. Lavinsky.
Part of the challenge is that the crystals are fragile and hard to find and must be extracted more slowly for the specimen trade than would occur with the bulk and brutal mining activity that characterizes most economic mining. But, in part through Dr. Lavinsky’s efforts, these rural miners have learned the value of their unique natural resources, and how to carefully extract their true value over time. As a result, he has empowered and changed communities around the world as most mining for specimens today occurs in remote or developing nations where mining
is not as heavily mechanized.
Minerals have an inherent magnetic quality, drawing one into their raw, natural beauty while creating a connection to the earth. These crystals are nature’s true art form, revealing a brand-new world of awe, wonder and appreciation—and investment. Fine minerals are an asset class that is only increasing in value as proven by the growth of the market and the success of recent auctions by Heritage Auctions in Dallas. The investment lies in the rarity and the beauty of these natural treasures that makes them each unique works of art.
A small handful of museums have extensive mineral collections, including the Smithsonian Institution, Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, American Natural History Museum in New York City, and Houston Museum of Natural Science. With the lack of extensive funding, these museums directly rely on private collectors to donate their pieces for display and work actively with the collecting community, as in other art fields.
But, aside from these museums, few people are exposed to the opportunity to enjoy or even collect these minerals. Dr. Lavinsky wants to change this.
Mineral Treasures accessible to the public
Art and history museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution, offer us all a place to share in a sense of wonder at the accumulated treasures of the ages. Whatever museum you are in, you are looking at the labors of love of countless people who saved and preserved art and cultural goods over uncounted years. When we walk in the door, from the moment we enter we are aware that somebody (ourselves or others with more means, perhaps) can “buy this stuff.” And yet, despite this shared sense of awe and wonder at the history and the value, how few people actually get this sense of realization when they walk into a natural history or science museum? After all, where can you see anything OLDER and presumably more rare than in a natural history museum with fossils dated to hundreds of millions of years ago? Some of them are truly beautiful, as natural works of art preserved forever in stone. But mineral specimens and gems were also formed in the depths of the earth that long ago, and yet almost nobody gazes on them with the same awe and wonder as they look at fossils or manmade art except, interestingly, children too young to be told otherwise. Did you know that the Smithsonian was actually founded by the gift of the natural history collections, including MINERALS, from James Smithson of the British Empire? He was disillusioned with his home country at the time and their museum situation, and decided to bequeath his life’s treasure hunting to the new country of the USA. The core of his donations was his minerals and fossils. Thus, the Smithsonian itself was born of a mineral collector’s love for nature and desire to share it. The mineral Smithsonite was later named in his honor.
This modern-day pioneer has created an intricate spiderweb of connections across the globe — from mine to market —and has no intention of stopping as this asset class continues its rapid growth. Rob’s business, The Arkenstone, has recently held its first exhibition in Florida in Palm Beach (media hosted by South Florida Opulence), and will be a participant in the December Palm Beach Arts Show.
“There is admittedly a huge inertia barrier to entering a new field as young as ours, and without trends of documented prices in the auction market. At the same time, though, that makes it MORE of a challenge and a hunt, and offers the thrill of acquiring “sleepers” and values on pieces you could not get on comparable items in the real Art World out there. I have staked my own life and livelihood on that certainty. Our Van Goghs cost a fraction of what other fields of Art can value their treasures at, and we have the added bonus of having new Van Goghs we can chase after that come out of the ground each year. To me, our field offers the chance to own something significant, especially at the current price points, compared to almost any other field of art one might collect which offers the collector the same visceral thrills of handling a 3-dimensional, unique object. However, first people must see and be inspired by the beauty. Investment comes next. Welcome to my world!”
Mineral Explorers Launches on PBS-TV
In 2013, he was recognized for his efforts to educate and expand the appreciation of minerals, his contributions to museums through philanthropic donations, and his sourcing of mineral specimens for scientific projects when the newly discovered mineral species Lavinskyite (from South Africa) was named in his honor. He also helped produce and stars in cameo in the recently released PBS television series “Mineral Explorers”, which has been picked up for a second season by PBS this year.
Stay tuned for quarterly articles about Dr. Lavinsky’s adventures and the exquisite and exciting business of minerals.