As someone who is renewing his somewhat desultory efforts to write a popular book about mineralogy, I’m always interested to find a book that I didn’t previously know about in this rather esoteric genre. I have found several books in recent years that fit into this category, and they nearly always have something interesting to recommend them. It’s particularly pleasant to come across a new title which doesn’t join the long ranks of cheaply produced and largely unsatisfactory field guides and mostly uninspiring coffee table volumes of the past ten to twenty years.
As an example of the impressive volumes from that past, I was unaware that Abrams, a publishing house that I think of more for high-end art books, had published Minerals: Nature’s Fabulous Jewels until I stumbled across a copy a few years ago at Half Price Books. Appearing in the 1974, Minerals, written by Arthur Court and Ian Campbell, features a number of nicely-photographed specimens and interesting, if sometimes sparse, text. Arthur Court, who died in 2015, was a long-time aficionado of minerals and collecting, and Ian Campbell, who died in 1978, held numerous posts, including the directorship of the prestigious California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
Mineralogy titles fall roughly into three distinct categories: hardcore technical, field guides, and coffee table / picture books. Minerals unapologetically appears in the third category (with a resounding thump, no less, as it’s quite weighty). Even forty years later, it is still an enjoyable trip trip through specimens past, and worth adding to the collection of anyone mineralogically-inclined, or any reader who appreciates the beauty and diversity of these too-often unseen products of the natural world.
What is particularly enjoyable about the book is that it presents a snapshot of the state of the field at that time. By this I mean that it highlights which mines and specimens were among the most popular and sought after, and outstanding enough to make their way into a big, pretty picture book. Collectors have long observed that specimens come and go in waves, primarily due to the production of the mines in question. Also, books published in different countries tend to be biased toward local or regional selections, which sometimes results in odd inclusions, if you’ll forgive a slight – and wholly mineralogical – pun. Minerals is no exception, and a quick glance at the list of collections reveals a particular bias: of the ten collections from which these specimens are taken, only two were located outside of California (and those were in Arizona and Nevada). Given the writers’ likely bases of operations in the San Francisco area at the time, this isn’t entirely surprising. Readers might therefore expect a bias toward specimens from the western United States, but this is not entirely the case, as many classic locations in North and South America and Europe are represented.
Following on the heels of works like Paul E. Desautels’ 1968 and 1970 efforts, The Mineral Kingdom and The Gem Kingdom, Minerals does well to present a good number of quality specimens, generally well photographed. Photographing minerals well is suprisingly hard, even with good quality large specimens, and for the most part, it’s done well in this book. Like the first few issues of the legendary folly, Mineral Digest, and the more sober Mineralogical Record, Minerals‘s authors were trying to make the most of static images of objects that are really seen best under varying lights at a variety of angles. These positives are counter-balanced by the times when the photography doesn’t quite live up to the demands placed upon it, the same deficit of most early mineral books. Generally this is a failing of the black-and-white photos, the use of which was a common tactic in a time when color printing was substantially more expensive than it is now. Further, some of the black-and-white photos are rather murky and moodily lit, as though the mineral in the photo were some sort of tantrum-prone model having an off-day. Some of the information given has dated (the number of known mineral species, for example, has grown considerably), but unless you’re relying solely on this book for the sum total of your mineralogical knowledge, those morsels of data which are no longer correct (benitoite, for example, is now known from a few other locales around the world, and not solely from San Benito County, California), nothing in this book will trip you up badly. For more modern versions of the same idea, books like Peter Bancroft’s legendary Gem & Crystal Treasures (which has far more and detailed text), or Gem & Crystal Treasures’s more recent update, Gloria Staebler and Wendell Wilson’s American Mineral Treasures, are useful comparisons.
Deficits of the book also include its organisation, which doesn’t seem to follow any real recognised scheme – certainly not chemical – which can be irritating when most of what one is accustomed to reading in the mineral literature is systematic. If the disorganisation had been used to tell a story (this is the device that I am trying to master in my own work), then this effect might have been understandable. A further problem is that the locality information is sometimes not terribly specific. For example, the only specimen of pyromorphite in the book (No. 125) is simply listed as having come from “Germany.” This should, to my mind, have been a disqualifying factor: country-level localities might be acceptable for a private collection, but not for a book with pretensions to academia.
On the plus side, Minerals gives photographic access to some really choice specimens, including several from the now hard-to-see California Academy of Sciences collection, most of which is now locked away in their basement – stupidly, I must say. It is possible to see a small sample of the collection, if you pay for the special behind the scenes tour, but even then, the selection is of a paltry few – albeit spectacular – representatives of what is, by all accounts, a tremendous collection.
So the book’s usefulness remains of mixed value, some forty years later. On the whole, if your interests tend in this direction, you will want this book as a part of your collection, and should take the time to track a copy down.
Review rewritten from several previous versions by my own hand, 2011-2013.