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May-June 2013

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In Memoriam: Edward Roy Swoboda (1917–2013)

It was a warm, sunny afternoon for the annual pre-Tucson party at the Stewart Lithia mine, in California. (Before the days of the crazed month-long Tucson we know today, everyone gathered first in Laguna Beach and then went on to Pala, in Fallbrook, for these two great parties.) The view across the hills was beautiful, but the view I was taking in while sitting on a rock was far more interesting and awe-inspiring. Within the large group scattered across the mine property were the greatest names in mineralogy and gemology—the likes of Sinkankas, Desautels, Bariand, Embrey, Bancroft, Keller, Pough, Becker, Wild, Liddicoat, Gübelin, and so many more. My eyes fell upon a man somewhat off to the side who seemed as bemused as I was. I raised my glass to Ed Swoboda and smiled. The smile and toast were returned as he spread his arm out as if to say “look at this group.” I don't think he ever did realize how much a part of the word greatest applied to him.

And the Legend Begins

Ed was born 30 November 1917 in Oakland, California. His father, Henry Swoboda, was a telephone engineer for the Central Oil Company. His mother, Wilma, was a storekeeper. His younger sister, Marie, passed away in 2007. Before he was a teenager, the collecting instinct had kicked in and he was always after his father to take him on field trips to collect minerals. Ed may have inadvertently been one of our first metaphysical gurus—those rocks “spoke” to him and must have told him to “go forth young man and explore.” And that he did.

In the early 1930s, he met up with a kindred soul named Peter Bancroft. Ed's parents had a little vacation cabin in Rincon, smack dab in the middle of gem pegmatite country. Together Ed and Bancroft explored central California and just about every pegmatite in San Diego County. For two weeks every summer, without fail, they could be found digging for benitoite and neptunite in the county. They did this for about five or six years and were very successful. Ed was also attending classes at Long Beach Junior College (now Long Beach State College) but dropped out in 1937 when his wanderlust took precedence—he was off to Brazil and the mineralogical treasure trove waiting there. As a young man, he had saved his earnings from working in a grocery store ($27 per week) and traveled in his Model A to New Orleans, where he boarded a steamer bound for Rio de Janeiro. This was in the latter part of the 1930s when such a trip was a major undertaking in itself. His family, now living in Long Beach, realized that Ed was marching to a very different drummer; they bid him a fond goodbye and wished him success.

Ed was still in Brazil when the United States entered World War II in 1941. Ed received the news via BBC radio, and when he returned to Rio de Janeiro from the jungle, he reported to the U.S. Embassy there, expecting to be immediately transported back to the States for military training. However, the mineralogical gods must have been watching his back: he was instead assigned to accompany William Pecora and his team of U.S. geologists to search for strategic minerals for the war effort, quartz being of special interest. By this time Ed was fluent in Portuguese, making him an especially good guide. (Pecora later became director of the U.S. Geological Survey and then Under Secretary of the Department of the Interior. The mineral pecoraite is named after him. They were friends until Pecora's death in 1972.)

During Ed's time in Brazil, Dr. Frederick H. Pough from the American Museum of Natural History, showed up to study Brazilian minerals. Ed showed Pough the pale yellow-green lustrous crystals he had been mining for about six months. Thinking the crystals might be chrysoberyl, Pough took some back with him, and the mineral brazilianite was born in 1945. It was Pough who showed Ed a small quartz twin from around Joaquim Felicio and suggested that he check it out. Probably the largest and finest Japan-law quartz twin ever found (now in the Rock Currier collection) was a result of Ed's mining in the area.

When Ed returned to the United States he established a jewelry company. From 1956 to 1985 Swoboda Jewelry thrived, with his jewelry featured at Saks Fifth Avenue, Gumps, Harrods of London, Neiman Marcus, and others, as well as in showrooms in Los Angeles, New York, and Dallas. Nancy Reagan commissioned Ed's company to make his famous gemstone trees as gifts to governors attending the 1966 Governor's Conference, and he was a favorite of many Hollywood stars. The shop employed twelve people, and Nate Waxman (hired as a young man by Ed) was a partner until they parted in the late 1970s.

Although the business was successful for many years at the LaPeer Drive location in Beverly Hills, the most successful of all was the fortunate hiring of two sisters from Korea. One of those sisters was the beautiful Kum Ja, and when Kum Ja's husband died, all of those at the shop looked after her, including Ed. The working relationship blossomed into romance, and they were married for forty-eight years!

The pegmatites of San Diego County were like a magnet for Ed—he bought the Stewart Lithia mine. He also owned the Queen and the Pala Chief mines. Talk about a pegmatite overload! Ed and Bill Larson first met at the Del Mar Fair where Bill was competing in the thumbnail mineral competition. Ed was a judge that particular year (1968) and did not award the prize to Larson, who had won it the previous three years. This naturally led to the two of them meeting, and in a manner of minutes plans were starting to be made. Larson was an active field collector in the county and knew all the players of the day. It was a good fit for them to eventually come together to form Pala Properties International. The company went on to acquire the famous Himalaya mine, and the county was a hub of specimen mining activity.

Who among collectors can ever forget the excitement of seeing the “blue caps” up-close and personal or the famous “Candelabra” (now so prominent at the National Museum of Natural History)? It's probably safe to say that every fine tourmaline coming out of San Diego County during those years had the name Swoboda attached to its provenance.

His passion for mining did not end with his San Diego County adventures—there were also the San Francisco mine wulfenites, jeremejevites, the early dioptase specimens from then French Equatorial Africa, the famous Brazil quartz twins and phantom crystals, the benitoites and neptunites, and probably dozens more that I don't know about.

His personal collection of mineral pseudomorphs certainly set the standard for what this type of collection should be. He sold this collection some years ago, and his worldwide mineral collection was purchased by Perkin Sams of Midland, Texas. Much of that collection is now at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Ed and Kum Ja have two beautiful children, Bryan and Sumiya, and four grandchildren. And, yes, a few of those grandchildren like to collect minerals. We all know Bryan from his company, Blue Cap Productions (www.bluecapproductions.com), and the marvelous videos he makes chronicling mineral personalities and shows.

Ed loved all things that nature had to offer, and a good portion of his wonderful shell collection (several shells have been named after him) was donated to the Lyman Museum in Hilo, Hawaii. Ed and Kum Ja were making plans to move to Hawaii; they loved the Islands, and I'm certain that Ed would have been puttering around to find something to interest him in that vast natural setting.

One highlight of the events in Tucson 2012 was the extraordinary video Bryan produced of his father. Fittingly, Ed was awarded the first American Mineral Heritage Award at the Sunday evening Westward Look gathering. The committee formed to select the recipient had no dissenters about awarding it to Ed. Something for all of us to anticipate is a video series of Ed interviewed by Brian Kosnar during a two-day period, which Bryan is putting together. We will all discover just how much this gentle man filled his life with a passion few of us will ever know.

My forty-plus years in the mineral business have afforded me an opportunity to meet some fascinating and extraordinary mineral personalities. Ed Swoboda will remain on that list—right at the top where he belongs. Ed's ashes were scattered at one of his favorite places. His was a long, boisterous, adventurous journey beginning as a young collector and ending softly and quietly with those he loved.

Farewell? No, the legend lives on. Caça feliz, meu amigo (Happy hunting, my friend).

Dona Leicht and her husband, Wayne, have owned and operated Kristalle in Laguna Beach, California, since 1971.

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