On the Rocks: Women’s Mineral Retreat

The Women’s Mineral Retreat group hard at work searching for topaz on the Dorris Family Topaz Claim, Topaz Mountain, Teller Co., Colorado (COURTENAY MANOS)

By Bob Jones

The annual gem and mineral event in Tucson, Arizona attracts people from all over the world who share an interest in gems and minerals. Every possible aspect of our science and hobby is represented during February. A major purpose and benefit of this annual event are for people with common interests to come together to converse, connect, be inspired, and learn from one another.

Decades ago, museum curators created a formal curators’ organization so they could share common problems, ideas, techniques, and successes, among other things. In the late 1960s, a group of us met at George and Dick Bideaux’s home in Tucson during the show and formed Friends of Mineralogy, a group organized to promote mineral education and create regional mineral books. Ours is one of many collector groups to have formed as a result of the show. One of the new organizations, the Women’s Mineral Retreat, has also emerged in this way, and it is a very dynamic and growing group.

Forging New Paths

Melissa Jones, member of the Women’s Mineral Retreat group, shows off a fine quartz specimen she dug at Hallelujah Junction. (GAIL SPANN)

What’s interesting is these earlier organizations were often comprised of men. That’s why I am so pleased to describe the role and purpose of the Women’s Mineral Retreat. Although not the formal name, I simply refer to this group as “Lady Rockhounds.”

Currently, membership is around 50 mineral and gem collectors and diggers. They are wives, sisters, daughters of miners, collectors, and dealers, and many of whom have been active in the hobby for years. The ladies are involved in mineral magazines, clubs, museums, writing, mineral photography, selling, and other aspects of the hobby. It is a great opportunity for me to discuss and applaud this special group of women who have organized, go into the field to collect, and have a great time while getting to know each other, away from shows and business.

For years, women have played an important and equal role within the hobby. Yet, for too long, mineral collecting, and mineral dealing have appeared to be largely a male activity.

Historically, the belief was women were bad luck underground. In some states, they were actually prohibited by law to work the mines. It was not long ago that myth was laid to rest, and women finally could work alongside male miners underground. Fortunately, the hobby has been more progressive, and their achievements in the hobby are being recognized more widely.

Women at the Helm

During my decades of collecting, I’ve had the great fortune to work with and recognize many women within the hobby. Just in my limited sphere and lifetime, many women have been important to the hobby. Think of Helen Rice, who helped establish the Rocky Mountain Federation of Mineral Societies and established the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals with her husband Richard. Or, how about Shirley Leeson and Izzie Burns, both of whom worked tirelessly to promote and protect the hobby, by working with federal agencies to preserve collecting areas and rights.

Furthermore, some of the top mineral shows in this country are run by Laura Delano and her team. Also, Gloria Staebler heads up Lithographie, which produces a fine range of published works. My favorite wholesale mineral dealer was Susie Davis in Tucson, who probably handled more Arizona and Mexico minerals than anyone else while encouraging field collectors like this writer. We have all learned from the writings of June Culp Zeitner, and there’s the fine work of Pansy Kraus and now, Merle White, editors of Lapidary Journal, as well as the superb work by Marie Huizing, editor of Rocks and Minerals. I also hold Lynn Varon in special regard for her work with me on Rock & Gem. Plus, Cristi Cramer and Gail Spann are talented staff photographers for Mineralogical Record magazine, and Gail also volunteers as a docent at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Earlier this year, we lost one of the great leaders in the American and Eastern Federation of Mineralogical Societies, Carolyn Weinberger. I readily admit Carolyn served as one of my important mentors, along with Dr. John Sinkankas.

And it is an absolute truth to me that the business, hobby, and science of minerals is all the better for the countless women who have contributed, participated in and made major contributions. Who hasn’t read and enjoyed the work of all these women, benefited from their leadership, contributions, and participation in our hobby?

I truly believe our mineral hobby has always been devoid of any form of prejudice. Everyone is welcome, and anyone who loves minerals can participate, regardless of financial standing, education, gender, sexual orientation, or other differences that seem to affect other activities. Among all hobbies, mineral collecting has always been universally accepting of those with a common interest in collecting, learning, and promoting minerals and all activities related to the science of mineralogy.

New Group and New Movement

With this introduction, I want to share with you this newly

This superb amethyst scepter crystal was dug by Jan Greenstone during the Women’s Mineral Retreat field trip to the Hallelujah Junction mine. (JAN GREENSTONE)

organized group, which is a movement I admire and encourage. Like any good movement, it starts with an idea and the actions of those who think it is worth doing. It started as conversations among several collectors with common interests, and as they got to know one another the idea of field collecting together was born, and the Women’s Mineral Retreat was started.

This group welcomes women in the gem and mineral industry, collectors, dealers, miners, editors, teachers, jewelers to join. During a retreat, members organize trips into the field to collect together at a productive location somewhere in the U.S. and also visit a nearby museum or institution. The trips are as much about learning as they are about socializing and field collecting. The trips are well planned out and usually last about three days. The time of year varies, as mining seasons are different depending on location. Attendance on collecting trips is optional but limited by how many collectors each mining operation can handle at any given time.

In its first three years, the group has already successfully collected at Topaz Mountain Gem Mine in Colorado, which is owned and operated by the Dorris Family, the Oceanview Pegmatite mine in Pala, California, owned and operated by Jeff Swanger, and Hallelujah Junction, quartz locality, Peterson Mountain, Nevada, owned by Paul Geffner and partners. Nothing of major significance was unearthed at the Topaz mine, but collectors had a blast digging side by side until the threat of thunderstorms forced them to call it a day. In Pala, Jeff gave the group a tour of the pegmatite mine grounds, noting the historic site where George Kunz discovered the first specimen of the mineral later named kunzite. They also had the opportunity to tour under the ground. No one found any significant specimens, although everyone found small examples of tourmaline or a chunk of sparkly purple lepidolite.

Hallelujah Junction turned out to be a very fruitful adventure for everyone. The days and weeks before the visit mining there had been eventful. Large smoky quartz scepters were being encountered almost daily. There had even been a few amethyst specimens mined out. The members of the group were very excited to dig here.

Exciting Excursions

Within the first 15 minutes of digging, there were shrieks of excitement. “Look what I found!” followed by cheers from the other women. Melissa Jones, one of the organizers, hit a pocket not long into the day, which had to be extracted with a saw. Jan Greenspan pulled out a sweet “Neapolitan,” a clear, smoky and amethyst layered scepter head. Dawn Boushelle collected a beautiful dark smoky “celestial” crystal about the size of a small watermelon. Gail Spann found several excellent looking quartz scepter specimens. No one left empty-handed. With the ladies and crew having such a great time, they were invited back the next day and dug with the same enthusiasm.

The group’s members have been given the royal treatment when visiting various institutions as well. They were given a “behind the scenes” tour of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science led by Larry Havens. At the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), in Carlsbad, California, Kate Donovan led the group. They were also able to tour the WM Keck Museum in Reno, and Neil and Cami Prenn were gracious enough to allow the group to view their mineral collection. What a treat!

The group also enjoyed a two-day dig in October of 2019, at the famous Blanchard Mine, located in Socorro, New Mexico and operated by Ray DeMark. The Blanchard area was first mined for lead but is recognized by collectors primarily for its pastel-colored blue and purple fluorite. It has also produced well-crystallized specimens of galena, linarite, barite, gypsum, brochantite, anglesite and quartz.

The participants of the Women’s Mineral Retreat also toured the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, led by tour guides Virgil Leuth and Kelsey McNamara. This University has an astounding collection and the staff there is very helpful. The tour included the opportunity to see how mineral analysis is done.

Having collected at the Blanchard mine in the past myself, I know how rewarding this trip would be. Fluorite is abundant and some of the uncommon lead minerals exist there as well.

Serves to Inspire

The Women’s Mineral Retreat group enjoys a delightful dinner together. (MELISSA JONES)

I believe we will see even more of these types of groups and activities develop across the world, with the Women’s Mineral Retreat serving as the source of inspiration. It could very well be what the hobby needs to revitalize itself a bit.

And just a bit of advice for my fellow collectors who are men, by inviting the women in our lives to share our passion, it cannot but help make the hobby more universally inclusive and an even stronger area of interest for families to share.

For more information about the Women’s Mineral Retreats, visit the group’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/shecandigit, or email Kathy Waisman, one of the group’s organizers, at kathwaisman@gmail.com, and be sure to include Women’s Mineral Retreat in the subject line.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Melissa Jones for her assistance and valuable input in writing this column.


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