When I first collected rocks and minerals in the late 1980s there was no internet or on-line ordering. Of course one could mail order specimens, but I never considered that option. I acquired specimens sporadically, either at annual rock & gem shows, or as birthday/holiday gifts, or whenever I happened to be in the vicinity of a speciality shop. When I re-entered the hobby a few years ago I pored over the local rock & gem shops, buying a specimen or two every few weeks. As I began to specialize and move to a more systematic approach to collecting I grew to favour on-line purchasing. While there isn’t the immediacy of buying a specimen in person from a shop, I have found that price and selection is far better when one obtains minerals on-line. Some collectors feel that on-line specimens are typically overpriced or that selection is inadequate. While personally collecting crystals out of the earth might be more satisfying than acquiring a specimen from a website, I maintain that on-line purchasing is much more advantageous than buying in person.
With everyone’s friend the Internet it is ridiculously easy to obtain specimens of all sorts with just a few clicks of a mouse or taps on a mobile device. There are many mineral retail websites out there, but for me there are only about five sites that I follow closely and buy from on a regular basis. When considering purchasing from a on-line dealer one should consider the following website criteria…
A Return Policy
It has been my experience that sales at a rock & gem shows or at speciality shops are usually final, although it may be possible to return a specimen for some reason and usually only at the dealer’s discretion. Naturally it behooves any collector to personally examine a prospective purchase, so buyer beware..! I expect that some stores that sell crystals for metaphysical purposes may accept returns, if the buyer bought a crystal on some trial basis to see if its “aura” or “vibration” was just right, perhaps. (I don’t mean to be dismissive of the metaphysics associated with crystals, or the so-called “New Age” sort of thing. While I am mostly an empirical rationalist, I must concede one should always be open to theories/ideas that may be based on criteria outside of our realm of experience. I plan on writing a post specifically about my thoughts on crystals and metaphysics…)
As for mineral websites it’s usually the case that any reputable dealer will have a sound policy in place for the return of purchased merchandise should it be necessary. It’s just good business, especially as it is usually not possible for the buyer to personally inspect the specimen(s) before purchase. The return policy should be explained somewhere on the site, such as under the FAQ, for example. In the case of a specimen being returned due to damage incurred in transit the dealer should cover the cost of return shipping. I have noticed that some on-line dealers will allow the return of a specimen for any reason, perhaps because the buyer didn’t like the colour in person, wrong size, or whatever. Customers can certainly be fickle, but in the case of a return due to some aesthetic reason then the customer should pay for the return shipping. There may also be a restocking fee. Being in Canada and ordering from mostly US dealers, I would really only return a mineral that had been damaged… I’ve ordered many minerals on-line and so far I have only had one specimen arrive damaged, a large cluster of Romanian Stibnite. The seller was most accommodating, but due process had to be followed. I had to photograph the damage (a single 2 cm crystal that had snapped off) and send the pictures to the dealer. A claim was made through to the US postal service, with the dealer corroborating my report and photographic evidence. Two months later I was compensated from USP the total cost of the specimen plus its shipping, and I did not have to return the specimen to the seller.
Obviously good selection is a plus, whether one specializes only in tourmalines and beryls, or only minerals from a specific locality, or of a certain colour, or whatever else it is that floats a collector’s boat. Most websites often feature the “classic hits” from the mineralogical world, those “textbook examples” from classic localities: Smithsonite from the Kelly Mine in New Mexico, Cinnabar from Tongren in China, Vanadinite from Mibladen in Morocco, and so on. As collectors we become familiar with these classics and gain some basis for comparison between sellers and their material. It can be difficult to develop this sense of familiarity with species that are considered very rare. Specimens of this type may seldom be available unless the dealer specializes in scarce minerals, such as catering to systematic collectors. Aside from varieties of species or localities, selection also applies to specimen aesthetics, condition, and price. Does the dealer carry a range of specimens with well defined crystals that are “textbook examples” of the species? Are there several representatives of a given species that demonstrate a range of habit, lustre, or colour? Is damage present? Is there a range of prices for several examples of the same kind of specimens? A dealer may typically have a number of specimens of the same species and locality with a sliding scale of cost; the larger or sharper the crystal(s) then the higher the price, as a general rule. This allows a buyer to obtain a representative of that species from that locality to fit her or his budget accordingly.
Selection can be quite excellent at rock & gem shows such as the very famous Tuscon Gem and Mineral Show that features about 250 dealers annually. As most shows are presented once a year that leaves a rather small window to experience this kind of variety unless one is travelling on a show circuit. Many websites are extensions of dealers’ shops; one can still visit their stores in person and peruse their selection as advertised. But shopping in person at even a well stocked shop remains something of a singular experience, while the internet readily affords one the opportunity to browse a number of dealers for greater selection and compare prices.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if mineral collectors could be obtain specimens for free, like some kind of government service such as health care? To be sure, we collectors prefer to pay as little as possible for a rock that piques our interest, or at the very least we savour the feeling that we “got a deal.” Whether the purchase is in person or on-line, dealers’ prices tend to be rather subjective. I find that comparative shopping between several other websites for the same sort of specimen is a good way to gauge whether a price is reasonable or not. At times I have seen a wide disparity in price between dealers for the same kind of specimens from the same find. Some dealers’ prices are higher because they bought their material at a correspondingly high wholesale price. Other dealers feel they can charge what they want based on their own subjective ideas of aesthetics or quality: what they feel a given specimen should be worth. The general rule is that the dealer will likely charge whatever the dealer believes she or he can get, hopefully with an eye to competitive pricing with other dealers. Then there are dealers out there who only sell specimens of a certain price range, say from $500.00 or $1000.00 USD and up. Apparently all pieces being sold at Wilensky Minerals start at $25000.00 USD and go up from there.
I am strongly of the opinion that collectors should only purchase specimens that are free of damage. I’m sure most dealers would prefer to sell undamaged specimens as well, but that would be unrealistic. Among collectors there is often a range of tolerances as to what might be acceptable levels of damage: some don’t really care, others don’t mind some chipping, and so on. I favour websites where the dealer is able to remark on the condition of a specimen in its general description. John Betts is wonderful at this, almost every specimen posted on his site is described in detail including comments about condition. “No damage” are among my favourite words, but remarks of this kind really only apply to specimens that exhibit well defined crystals. Granular, powdery, or massive specimens tend to be exempt from this level of scrutiny, unless one drags out the electron microscope… In any case I always prefer a dealer who is forthcoming about specimen condition, even if I have to email him or her specifically to inquire about it.
Organization & Website Design
It’s always nice to visit a mineral dealer’s website (or any site for that matter) that is really nicely designed with a unique visual style and really sharp photos. One can often get a sense of the dealer’s sense of aesthetics just by looking at how much work and thought went into their website. Is it easy to find the kind specimens you’re looking for? Are the specimens posted with details other than price, such as locality, dimensions, and history? Is it easy purchase a specimen through the site? What are the payment options? Some dealers organize their specimens geographically, with advertised minerals listed only by country. I find it’s easier when minerals are listed alphabetically by species. Regardless of how a dealer’s website is designed it should really have a good interface and be easy to navigate through. Ideally every specimen should represented with detailed descriptions (including locality, chemical formula, dimensions, history, and condition) and accompanied with really good photos from several angles. Some websites, like Excalibur Minerals or Shannon & Sons Minerals, don’t really post photos of their specimens for sale. (I can excuse this as these sites in particular boast thousands of specimens and appear to cater to systematic collectors or collectors of otherwise extremely rare species. Many of these unusual species are not necessarily “photogenic” but may instead appear as a powdery substance in a vial or some some insignificant-looking crust resembling dried snot on a rock…) The photos at John Betts’ site or at Marin Minerals are gorgeous, and there are a number of other sites where the dealers exercise a great deal of care and skill in photographing their specimens for sale. The dealer at Mineral Movies takes many pictures in sequence so as to create an animated 360 degree rotation of each specimen. Another consideration is how often the websites are updated with new specimens. Every Tuesday morning at about 11:30 EST John Betts posts a new update of about 60 to 100 or so new mineral specimens for sale; and every Tuesday morning I am right there on-line at his site, poised to buy anything that strikes my fancy the second the update goes through. Dakota Matrix usually puts through an update every Thursday as well as “The Daily 5” which are five new mineral specimens posted at some unannounced time during weekdays. It should also be easy to find the new additions on a dealer’s site. I’ve visited some sites where new a new update is mentioned, only to be frustrated by not being able to easily find the newly listed specimens.
I feel I should also mention something about mineral auctions. I’ve never liked auction sites such as e-Bay et al. I like being able to buy something outright without having to enter into some bidding war which really only benefits the seller. Prices at auctions are always determined by the buyers; some sellers may be thoroughly unscrupulous or just ignorant, while the photos and descriptions posted on-line are often inaccurate. All too often buyers come away with hard-won specimens that were inadequately described on-line and grossly overpaid for. It just seems underhanded to me. While there may be some deals to be had out there, either on some dealer’s auction site or even e-Bay, I think it’s easier to just buy from a reliable seller outright.
While I still can’t resist going into a rock & gem shop or exhibition I remain a steadfast connoisseur of mineral specimens acquired on-line. To me the selection found on the internet is unparalleled and I can do comparative shopping with ease. The only thing I don’t like about on-line purchasing is waiting for the package to arrive. Getting minerals in the mail from over the border into Canada usually takes about at least two weeks to arrive, while orders from Canadian dealers may only take three days. At any rate it can never be too soon for my treasures to arrive.