by Hanna Lindon
Sussex has one of the oldest and most active mineral societies in the country. Hanna Lindon delves into a fascinating new world of crystals and cryolite.
Hidden away behind a glorious old house deep in the Mid Sussex countryside is an intriguing private museum. On first glance it looks like just another outhouse, but step inside and you’re confronted with a glittering beauty pageant of colourful minerals. It’s a geological cave of wonders, with each precious exhibit carefully labelled and laid out under soft lighting, but you don’t have to be a scientist to be blown away by the aesthetic splendour of this sparkling display.
This magical collection belongs to a member of the Sussex Mineral and Lapidary Society (SMLS). Established in 1972, it’s now the biggest regional mineral club in the UK with an active programme of lectures, field trips and events – including the annual mineral and fossil show in Haywards Heath each November, which attracts visitors from all over the country.
Nick Hawes, who has collected minerals and fossils for over thirty years, is the current Chairman. Members of the society come from across a range of backgrounds – the only thing they all have in common is a fascination with minerals. “People think we must all be knowledgeable engineers and scientists,” says John Pearce, a prominent member of the club, “but we just share a general enthusiasm. There’s quite a spectrum of reasons why people are interested in minerals, so the society attracts an incredibly diverse group of people.”
The official definition of a mineral is incredibly broad. Minerals are the building blocks of rocks and are naturally occurring chemical compounds with a hard, crystalline structure. Most of us associate the term with crystals such as quartz and pyrite, but it actually encompasses a far wider range of materials. Most 21st century technology is dependent on the elements contained within minerals; from aluminium and copper to barium and the so-called rare earth elements.
“Without minerals, we wouldn’t have the modern world,” says Nick. “Everything around us is made up of products that come from minerals.”
Some of the SMLS’s members are interested in how minerals are formed, but for many the fascination is largely aesthetic. Browsing member’s incredible collections, it’s easy to see the appeal. There are translucent crystals that change colour in the light, sparkling metallic towers and cake-like rocks in pastel colours that look almost good enough to eat. These glittering creations have something magically ethereal about them.
Beautiful specimens tend to be secondary minerals, where a deposit close to the surface has been chemically combined with carbon dioxide, oxygen and water to create much more interesting and colourful minerals.
“The interest of a mineral deposit will largely depend on the elements that were in that deposit,” explains Nick. “So Cornwall, for example, is famous for having copper, tin and arsenic mines. If some of those things are mixed up then you might get a lovely blue copper arsenate mineral, which is the kind of stuff that collectors are interested in.”
The sedimentary geology of Sussex doesn’t lend itself to the creation of aesthetically impressive minerals – so why does the area have one of Britain’s leading mineral societies? John’s theory is that many of the SMLS’s members begin with an interest in fossils. From here, it’s a natural step on to becoming a collector of minerals.
One of the SMLS’s main focuses is mineral collecting. Although it’s rare for members to have a private museum, several give over varying portions of their houses to their collections. Trevor Devon, the Society’s current treasurer, has one solution to the need for display space. He’s particularly interested in micro-minerals, which only reveal their beauty under a microscope – hundreds of specimens fit into a small cabinet. Other members have different specialities with bigger display needs.
“There’s a thing I call the collecting mentality,” says Trevor. “It’s something you see in a lot of people, and it can be anything from collecting coins or antiques to stamp collecting. There are a lot of collectors in the club and many of us collect more than minerals.”
One of the difficulties faced by the society is that there are only a small number of places in the UK where mineral collection is both permitted and possible. SMLS gets around this by organising foreign trips almost every year, visiting a huge range of far flung locations from Siberia and the Faroe Islands to Portugal, India and North America.
“One of the things that marks our club out is the ability and ambition to organise overseas trips,” explains Nick. “We call it geotourism. Some trips tend to be mineral collecting only, mostly going to remote places and visiting old mines, but on others we bring our families along and enjoy plenty of social and cultural stuff as well. The advantage of collecting is that you get to see places that no tourists would ever usually visit.”
The society organises UK trips as well. In the past, members have visited the Isle of Skye, the Isle of Sheppey, Cornwall and Weardale. Many have built large collections and enter their best pieces in competitions or in displays at small international mineral shows.
SEARCHING FOR HIDDEN GEMS
Mineral collection isn’t all about curating. Tracking down beautiful specimens can be adventurous, challenging and extremely hard work.
“We search around cliffs to find rocks that have been blown off in winter storms,” says John. “But we also go into quarries and down old mines. Sometimes you find yourself squeezing through a hideous collapse because you know that there’s good stuff on the other side. You might find yourself in the dark with a headlamp and it’s wet, steamy, mucky… still, if you know that there’s a wall of lovely crystals in there that nobody has ever got to, then you have the pay-off.”
Nick describes several occasions when he’s trekked for miles across rough moorland carrying a rucksack full of rocks. “The irony is that when you go to all that effort you’ll often find the best specimens in the car park where they’ve been dropped by previous collectors,” he laughs.
There are a few places – such as Weardale, east of the Pennines – where specimens are mined to be sold on, but most collectors are in the business of tracking down their own samples. This is more difficult than it sounds. Beautiful complex minerals are rarely found just lying about. They grow in hard rocks, which have to be opened up using sledgehammers and chisels. The process of extraction can damage specimens and render them valueless.
“We’ve all had that tragedy when you’ve spent two hours trying to get a crystal out of a cavity without it breaking and failed,” says Nick. “It’s a skill – you need to know where to hit and how hard to hit. You tend to break five to find one.”
Collectors, he says, are looking for a natural aesthetic. Enthusiasts might be interested in the association between particular minerals in a specimen, but mainly it’s a question of whether it would appeal to a layperson. The major considerations are shape, colour, lustre and all round degree of perfection and beauty.
THE ART OF LAPIDARY
Lapidary is a small but important strand of SMLS’s membership interest. John says that the term can confuse prospective members, who tend to make the association with butterflies, but it actually refers to the art of cutting and polishing minerals. Lapidary is an ancient and specialist craft – early humans used it to chisel tools from stone and create personal adornments.
Lapidarists use a number of different techniques. The most basic is tumbling, which involves placing a rough stone in a revolving barrel together with increasingly fine abrasives until the stone is well polished. Cabbing, using diamond laps attached to a lapidary machine, is another popular beginner method, while more complicated techniques such as faceting and carving are more commonly used by professionals.
There are only a few societies in the UK involved with lapidary and SMLS is one. “Only a small number of our members actually work minerals, but it’s important enough to include “lapidary” in the club title,” says Nick.
CAMARADERIE BETWEEN COLLECTORS
The society’s most important function is to bring like-minded people together. A monthly programme of lectures and meetings runs at Haywards Heath’s Methodist Church and speakers are usually prominent figures from the world of mineralogy. Past talks have come from members of the Natural History Museum’s Mineralogy department as well as from professors at major British universities. SMLS lectures span a huge range of subjects, discussing melting minerals and volcanic disasters as well as mining the ocean and curating a personal collection.
“Because our society has been around for over 40 years and collected in so many places, we can attract some really good speakers to the club,” says Trevor. “Nobody will turn down an invitation, which means we run an excellent programme of talks.”
The SMLS’s packed schedule of events doesn’t just include lectures and long-distance trips. There are also regular day-long specimen-hunting expeditions – fascinating Sussex locations include Newhaven, where dedicated enthusiasts can sometimes find samples of the rare mineral aluminite hidden among the chalk, and Plumpton Plain for needles of columnar calcite. The society’s biggest annual event, however, is the Sussex Mineral and Fossil Show.
“This year the show will run on Saturday 18th November,” says Nick. “It’s a collector event based at Clair Hall in Haywards Heath, and we’d argue that it’s the best one-day show in the country.”
Around 60 dealers descend on Haywards Heath for the high-profile show. Highlights include a themed competition, this year on the subject of minerals from one UK county, a programme of talks, and an exhibition of minerals from Oxford Museum of Natural History.
“It’s a must-visit for anybody interested in natural history as well as being a great family day out,” Nick explains. “We have three different talks, with one always aimed at children, and there are plenty of kids’ activities such as panning for real gold and searching for crystals or fossils in sand. We also have an ultraviolet (UV) mineral display, which showcases specimens that only show their true colours under UV light.”
The show is a perfect chance to see specimens from spectacular collections that would normally be confined to private homes.
If you see yourself as a prospective mineral collector or lapidarist, the best way to connect with the SMLS is to attend one of the society’s meetings. These are generally held at 7.30pm on the first Friday of every month at the Haywards Heath Methodist Church, but check www.smls.online for further details. If the minerals don’t tempt you, then the social element might.
“We’re incredibly social,” says Nick. “We enjoy good food, drink and good company as well as getting outdoors. An interest like this really binds people together – you can meet people from Germany or South America, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from because you immediately have common ground.”
With one of the country’s foremost mineral and lapidary societies on the doorstep, perhaps it’s time to pick up a new hobby.