12 Tips for Displaying Your Mineral Specimens

12 Tips for Displaying Your Mineral Specimens

How you display your collection speaks volumes about how you feel about it and about its fundamental value. A collection that is stored in a murky basement in cardboard boxes is not nearly as impressive as a visually delightful exhibit of brightly lit crystals and minerals. This is especially important when showing your specimens to those who aren't collectors and don't "get it." It is especially rewarding when such people react with exclamations of "Wow!" "Oooh!" and "Aaah!" when they are introduced to the extraordinary world of fine minerals.

What makes a mineral display successful and effective? There is no single answer. Because each person's budget and taste is different, every collector must decide how best to display his or her collection. Whatever course you take, here are some suggestions that will help you make your display as good as it can be.

1. Choose a suitable location
It's best to stick to a dry, well-ventilated area because moisture can ruin your minerals. Specimens should be kept out of direct sunlight, which can cause colors to fade. If your collection is valuable, security should also be a consideration, which may include locked cases, locked doors, and an alarm system.

The clean, dry room above makes a far more suitable area for a mineral display than the dark, dingy basement below.

2. Select attractive display cases
At big mineral and gem shows, dealers often rent black cabinets with LED lighting to show their minerals to their best possible advantage. Unfortunately, cases like these can cost upwards of $5,000. So most collectors have to compromise, choosing display cases that fit their budgets. Inexpensive alternatives include antique china cabinets, gun cabinets, old curio cabinets, glass-topped shadow box tables, barrister's bookcases, glass display cases from a store (often with fluorescent lighting), and store-bought glass curio cabinets. (For example, for $65, IKEA's "Detolf" cabinet has 4 glass sides, 4 internal shelves, and a light at the top.) Or, if you have the time, skills and equipment, you could build your own cases.

Ideally, a display cabinet will have several important features. These include:
* an attractive, non-obtrusive exterior that matches the surroundings
* glass doors to let you admire the specimens without opening the cabinet
* doors that seal tightly to keep out dust
* internal cabinet lighting
* well-spaced shelves to accommodate the size of the specimens
* mirror backing, because it doubles the amount of light and shows off the back sides
* a locking door

These display cabinets in Mike Walters' showroom show off the specimens perfectly.

3. Provide good lighting
Displaying your collection in a dark, unlit cabinet is little better than keeping it in cardboard boxes. Good lighting will make a good collection look great. Of course the type of light bulbs you use makes a huge difference. The ideal is a light source that matches sunlight at noon, which is 5000 to 5400º Kelvin (K). Here are the color temperatures of some typical light sources:

* 100 watt incandescent bulbs are between 2700ºK and 3000ºK.
* Warm fluorescent tubes are between 3000ºK and 3500ºK.
* Cool fluorescent tubes are around 4100ºK.
* LED lighting strips, which are now inexpensive and widely available, come in warm white (around 3000ºK), pure white or natural white (4500ºK to 5000ºK), and cool white (6500ºK or above).

The variations between the different types of bulbs are really significant, so the way you will perceive the color of your specimens under each type of light is affected dramatically. I strongly recommend using lights that are as close to natural sunlight as you can afford. The new LED strips, which come with adhesive backing, are an affordable way to retrofit old cabinets with state of the art lighting.

In this display cabinet, LED spotlights backlight the vivianite crystals, showing off their emerald green color.

4. Pick your favorite pieces
The size and number of pieces you want to display will determine how you set it up. If you have a large collection, you will probably want to separate your best specimens from your reference specimens, geological samples, personally collected specimens, etc. Your finest pieces - often the most aesthetic pieces - should be on display. Elements to consider in choosing fine display specimens include interesting composition, good crystal form, vivid colors, bright luster, and freedom from damage. If you have a large collection, you may need multiple display cases to exhibit it properly. You may even want to devote an entire room in your house to your display, rather than just having a case in the living room.

This 4.8" turquoise blue Kelly Mine botryoidal smithsonite speicmen is one of my favorites.

5. Create an informative arrangement
There are many ways to sort and arrange your specimens, and one goal is to make the display educational as well as attractive. How you organize your specimens will be a reflection of your collection's focus and of your specific interests. For example, if you have a sub-collection of wulfenite from Arizona, you could devote a portion of your display to some of these pieces. Or, you may want to showcase a suite of minerals from a single mine. You might want to organize your display by chemical or Dana classification (e.g., natural elements, sulfates, halides, oxides, carbonates, etc.), by mineral species, by mine, by geographic region, by geological environment, or by country. The possibilities are endless.

The minerals on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are organized by Dana classification.

6. Consider color and contrast
Vivid colors are one of the most appealing aspects of a fine mineral specimen. Bright colors catch the eye and make a high-impact visual impression. So, minerals with bright, highly saturated, intense colors are naturally more pleasing than white, black, or gray minerals. Use color to lead your eye to the minerals, and contrast to set them off from each other. Light colored specimens alternated with more brightly colored ones add visual interest and enhance the brightness of the colors.

7. Use unobtrusive stands
Stands are an elegant, attractive way to display your mineral specimens to best advantage. Clear acrylic display stands are a great way to raise your specimens up off the shelf so they look like they are floating, and the stand seems to disappear. Most importantly, they allow you to set up each specimen to show off its best side and most attractive features at the optimal angle. We offer several types of stand, depending on the size and shape of the specimen. These include 3-peg stands, polished acrylic squares with mineral tack, and plate stands, all in a variety of sizes. Click here to see all of our stands.

A 1.9" water clear gem Herkimer diamond quartz cluster sits nicely on this small 2" 3-peg stand

8. Incorporate accurate display labels
Labels identify what each species is and where it came from, so the viewer knows what they are looking at. Too much information, such as the chemical formula, the provenance of the specimen, and notes about the piece are usually too much to include in a good display. Label size is an issue, as large labels tend to obscure the specimens. Around 2.5" x 1.5" is small enough so it is not overpowering, but not so small that the information is tiny and hard to read. Because I don't like to have my labels lying down where they can be damaged or misplaced, I like to put my labels in acrylic label holders. These hold the card upright, at about a 70º angle. Click here to see our listing for the label holders.

The label on this colorful rhodochrosite crystal gives all the pertinenet information.

9. Avoid crowding
Exercise restraint in the number of pieces in your display to reduce crowding. Leaving a 2" space between cabinet-sized (3-4") specimens allows the viewer to focus on and enjoy each specimen alone. Larger specimens usually require more space around them; smaller ones a little less. I have been guilty of squeezing everything on a shelf a little closer together so I can get just one more piece in. I don't recommend this!

As beautiful and colorful as these Rowley Mine wulfenite and mimetite specimens are, the case is badly overcrowded.

10. Display each specimen's best angle
Like movie stars, mineral specimens look their best when viewed from a certain angle. Study each piece to find the optimal viewpoint then arrange it on the stand so it displays that side. Display stands allow you to turn and tilt each specimen so it is showing its best display side and angle.

The viewpoint above shows off this afghanite specimen to best advantage, compared with the viewpoint below.

11. Weed out your display
Go through your collection and weed out the junk every so often. Your collecting tastes will probably change as you learn more about crystals and minerals, and your display should reflect this new level of understanding and appreciation. If you have begun to upgrade your collection with higher quality specimens, you will want to remove the pieces that are below your new standards, and showcase the new ones. Or, that suite of minerals you have on display from a certain mine may no longer hold your interest, and you can decide to use the space in a different way.

Diana Schlegel of Crystal Classics removes a specimen from her display.

12. Learn from other collections
Next time you visit a fellow collector's home, look at how they have displayed their collection. Do the same when visiting mineral shows and mineral museums. Ask yourself, what parts of these exhibits look best to you and how could you use these display tactics in your own collection? Your display may probably never look as good as one in a mineral museum, but each idea you glean can add a new dimension to your own exhibit.

Mineral collectors admiring a dealer's display cases at the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show.