Nevertheless, I believe that today we are living in history's foremost golden age of mineral collecting. Never before have so many fine mineral specimens from such a wide proliferation of worldwide sources been so readily available at such reasonable prices. Today, using a 'silver pick' (money), you can easily find every possible mineral at every price range on the internet or at a mineral show. Sales of these fabulous specimens have turned what was once considered a hobby into a passion for a multitude of new collectors. And, selling these pieces has become a real, full-time profession for thousands of people worldwide. Some trace the beginnings of today's golden age to the middle of the 20th century, but I think it truly began with the transformation of mineral shows into big business (as opposed to local club shows) followed by the explosion of the internet in the early 2000s. Where could you go in the "good old days" and see a football field-sized tent set up with literally tens of thousands of nice specimens laid out on a sea of tables at often bargain prices from remote corners of the world?
Today's seemingly endless supply of fine mineral specimens from around the world has made this the golden age of mineral collecting. This phenomenon has been fueled by many factors, including these:
1. Mineral shows have become big business
Years ago, mineral shows were put on by local clubs. There were a few hundred of these small shows, each drawing perhaps a thousand visitors. Today there are a host of big mineral shows at premiere locations, organized by professional promoters. The Tucson Show is said to bring over a million visitors to southern Arizona, and the Denver Show is not far behind. The biggest events include the Marty Zinn shows (3 locations in Tucson, the East Coast Show, 2 West Coast shows, 2 Denver shows); the Eons Expo shows (the Coliseum show in Denver, the NY/NJ Show, and the 22nd St. Show in Tucson); the Tucson Gem & Mineral Society (the 4 day Main Show at the Expo center); plus a string of satellite shows in Tucson along the I-10.
2. The Internet and e-commerce have revolutionized mineral selling
Ebay was invented in 1964 by Pierre Omidyar, and went public with an IPO in 1998. Today, there are almost 250,000 mineral and crystal specimens on eBay alone. Ebay auctions opened the door to mineral sellers who wanted to sell on the internet, and led to the birth of thousands of websites and specialized auction sites that make up today's booming internet mineral business.
3. Escalating globalization has opened new opportunities
Globalization is the process of international integration arising from the interchange of world views, products, ideas, and other aspects of culture. Globalization is marked by the development of an increasingly integrated global economy characterized especially by free trade and free flow of capital. The mineral market has benefitted greatly from the easy availability of fine mineral specimens from around the world, as well as from the proliferation of buying customers in far flung countries.
4. Mining has increased to meet the high demand for mineral resources
Demand for mineral commodities such as lead, copper, iron, gold, silver, zinc, etc. has grown exponentially as countries around the world buy the raw materials to grow their economies. As new mines are opened (and older ones re-opened), the opportunity to find collectible minerals grows, too.
5. The financial incentives for mineral dealers have grown
Everyone knows that overall, mineral prices have increased - dramatically so since the 1990s. This meant that it became possible for thousands of dealers to sell specimens and make money - especially in conjunction with the advent of eBay and easy access to websites.
6. Miners are better trained
Miners who are used to mining ore with dynamite and bucket loaders are not usually prepared to collect and handle a fine mineral specimen. For example, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Chinese mineral specimens were often dirt cheap, but unfortunately they typically had broken crystals, obvious damage, and distracting bruises. This kind of damage was inevitable when the miners simply threw the specimens in a burlap sack, carried them out on their shoulders, and unceremoniously dumped them out of the bag. Chinese mineral dealers quickly learned the importance of pristine specimens, and taught itinerate miners to be more careful by paying more for undamaged specimens
7. More specimen mining operations have been opened at prime localities
In the early 1990s, Brian Lees and a group of investors re-opened the Sweet Home Mine in Ouray, CO. Their highly professional mining operation produced rhodochrosite specimens that not only paid for the million-dollar-a-year mining costs, but returned a nice profit as well. Others have followed in Lees' footsteps, and today, professional and semi-professional specimen mining operations have brought us world-class specimens such as orpiment from the Meikle Mine in Nevada; gem tourmaline from Mt. Mica, ME; benitoite from The Dallas Gem Mine in CA; amazonite and smoky quartz from Park Co., CO; and tourmaline from Pala, CA - to name just a few. One of these miners commented that the top 10 pieces out of 1000 can be sold to high-end collectors at prices which basically subsidize the whole operation and also allow them to pass on lesser specimens at fairly reasonable prices to many other collectors.
8. More collectors than ever before have been attracted by widespread publicity
Rhodochrosite specimens selling for over $1 million made great headlines in the 1990s, and with the explosion of high-priced specimens from myriad localities, media coverage of mineral collecting took a big uptick. This publicity drew many new people to mineral collecting, most of them interested in just building a collection, and relatively few like the old hard core folks who collected their own rough, and cut and polished it themselves.
9. New markets for mineral specimens have emerged
For example, as capitalism fueled China's economic growth, a moneyed middle class emerged and many became interested in mineral collecting. What had only been a hobby for the wealthy elite has spread to the newly rich. Some of these people are buying fine mineral specimens as a way to show off their new-found wealth, while others are just satisfying their interest in fine mineral specimens.
10. High quality mineral photography is now cheap and easy
The first consumer-level digital cameras that could download to a home computer were introduced in 1994 (the .3MP Apple QuickTake 100 sold for $750). Since then, digital cameras have become ubiquitous. Higher and higher megapixel counts for images improved the quality of digital photos dramatically, and put what had been expensive tools for the professional in the hands of anyone with a few hundred dollars. Today, a good 24MP camera can be had for under $600. Also, the emergence of photo manipulation software such as Photoshop, which would run on basic home computers, introduced new techniques for refining images. Now, professional level pictures can be created inexpensively by anyone with a serious interest.
11. Elite investors have entered the mineral marketplace
In the early 2000s, the rapid escalation of prices for "world quality" specimens drew the attention of investors, especially when the stock market tanked and investors were looking for alternatives. The super-rich, elite 1% began to buy top-quality specimens, not because they were interested in mineral collecting, but primarily as investments. Buying from the elite dealers who catered to this class of customers, they wanted specimens they could turn around and sell in 3 or 4 years at a handsome profit. And more recently, auction houses have entered the scene, pushing prices for prmiere quality pieces even higher. While this has driven up prices for the finest specimens, it has also contributed greatly to the preservation of fine minerals and to the continuation of our hobby.
12. People interested in metaphysics have enlarged the hobby
The mineral world has been greatly enriched by people with all kinds of beliefs who are now buying crystals. The resulting increase in demand provides strong impetus (and financing) for more specimen mining, which means we all have a broader range of choices amongst more and finer specimens. This is a good thing for mineral collectors of all persuasions - regardless of what you think about these people's beliefs.