Collecting Natural Wonders
By Dr. Robert Lavinsky
Dr. Lavinsky is a scientist and an operator of fine mineral mines, as well as two museum-style showrooms (in Shanghai and Dallas) of natural mineral crystals from around the world.
Gem crystals are nature’s works of art. They are often breathtakingly beautiful and inspiring, and they are collectible like any other high art. Created over millions of years in the dark depths of the earth, they emerge into the light to bring us pleasure and wonder. But finding them and bringing them out of their original homes can be difficult and dangerous. The journey from the depths of a mine to become part of a treasured collection in a museum or private home, or a centerpiece of fine jewelry, is a long and complex one that can take a year or more. It is a process, and a whole world, really, that many people are unaware of.
To convey a better understanding of the complexities that are involved, I recently helped complete a documentary video, done in conjunction with French National Television and Cartier of Paris, that tells this fascinating story for a well known African gemstone species: Tanzanite. It has been entered in the May 2016 Cannes Film Festival. I believe people should understand where these beautiful objects come from, because surely they will then appreciate them even more, and understand my own passion for them.
These minerals have value for many reasons. In earlier times, they were gifts given and received by royalty and the wealthy upper classes. In the 20th century, collectors like JP Morgan, Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie coveted them. Now, these natural treasures are often crushed to make common products like eyeliner or mobile phones. And, of course, they are fashioned into jewelry. Those of us who love these mesmerizing minerals, however, would prefer to see world-class specimens preserved and displayed in museums and private collections, something that is happening more and more today due to outreach and education.
Each mineral is unique. Consider tanzanite, a breathtaking crystal that exhibits rich tones of sapphire blue, deep violet and warm strawberry red, changing almost magically as the light around it changes. It is found in only one place in the world, the East African country of Tanzania, for which it is named. Eons ago, the precious crystals grew in the depths of the mountain that later was pushed above the earth, and today we know as Mount Kilimanjaro. Given that the mines are up to 1.5km deep in the mountain’s flanks, it is unsurprising that these treasures were not discovered until 1967. Today, the crystals are found in a single deep mine now controlled mostly by a corporate conglomerate with government oversight on the slopes of the Lelatema Mountains. Most are made into jewelry, including an exquisite line by Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels (see photo top right provided by Bob Kane of Fine Gems Intl.). But of course, this unusual and precious mineral is also sought by collectors in its natural and original, dramatic crystalline form. In fact, several natural tanzanite crystals of high quality have recently traded at prices of $1-3 million. These prices are higher than those for record-setting cut gems from the same material – an irony not lost upon those of us who collect the crystals.
People are often surprised to learn that a crystal in its natural form can cost more than a piece of jewelry. Here’s why: An independent miner who harvests a crystal might take it immediately into town in search of the instant reward it can offer. The buyer, however, is likely to pay only for the part of the crystal that will be used in the product to be made from it. But if I am in a mine in Thailand, Madagascar, China or somewhere else in the world and a miner offers me a crystal, I would purchase and pay for the whole object, because I plan to keep it intact. The miner earns more, and I save a precious crystal from being crushed. It is much more common to find broken or damaged crystals from which to cut gemstones. But finding a pristine and aesthetic complete crystal is significantly more difficult, and it is much more challenging to find and remove these intact crystals without harming the natural shape.
Determining the value of colored stones is a complex process. Many variables are in play, including subtleties of color saturation, brightness, and provenance of point of origin. Each crystal is unique, formed tens of millions of years ago through eons of heating and cooling, and there will never be two exactly alike.
Collecting these beautiful objects is a fascinating hobby. It is available to all kinds of people at different economic levels. I myself started collecting “rocks” that sold for a dollar, and I now routinely sell fine mineral specimens that cost $10,000 to $100,000. But an individual who can afford just a few hundred dollars to a few thousand can get something uniquely beautiful in which he or she can take as much pride as a fine painting, and is still worthy of museum displays or philanthropic donations. As with many collections, part of the reward is the joy of the hunt. In the world of minerals, there will always be something new and beautiful to discover each year for any level of collector.