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March-April 2016

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Media Reviews

Chroniques de Cristalliers (Chronicles of Crystal Seekers) by Sébastien Khayati. Les Éditions du Piat, Saint-Julien-du-Pinet, France. 224 pages; 2014; €45 (hardbound).

The term cristalliers is dificult to translate into English. A direct translation would be “crystal seekers,” as I have used above, but that has inadvertent connotations of people in robes waving chunks of amethyst and looking for mystical auras. Similarly, “crystal hunter” just doesn't bring the proper image to mind, and “rockhound” is like comparing little Johnny in his Saturday morning violin class to Itzhak Perlman. The Germans have a closer word with strahler, though that, too, requires some explanation. The primary point is that some people treat collecting in a casual manner and, as Daniel Gol, independent prospector and scientific editor of the publication Le Règne Minéral (The Mineral Kingdom) writes in the preface to the book: “D'autres, par contre, y consacrent une part importante de leur vie” (Others, on the other hand, consecrate an important part of their lives to it). One has only to think of the two Swiss strahlers, Franz von Arx and Paul von Känel, who spent much of fourteen years between 1994 and 2008 on a ledge at the 2,500-meter (7,700-foot) level on the Plaggenstock peak in the Alps, driving 50 meters into the granite before they found a big quartz pocket.

That is dedication, and it is why Gol adds: “Ces sortes de super-collecteurs jouissant alors d'une image dans lequelle légende et réalité ont un certaine tendance à se mêler” (These types of super-collectors enjoy, therefore, an image in which legend and reality have a certain tendency to blend). There is a bit of a warning here, in that legend and reality are not guaranteed in this book. Besides that, the preface, which is rather long, does have a second message in that it gets wound up in the difference between those who collect and those who see collecting as despoiling collective heritage. We know that there are collectors who work to save sites; we know that there are collectors who may damage sites, and we know that there are non-collectors who may have political axes to grind. It gets complicated, and Gol tends to wax poetic at times.

The book's author, Sébastien Khayati, is a 37-year-old professional crystal collector and geotechnical engineer who discovered mineralogy in 2000 and began prospecting for mineral samples in 2003. After ten years, he decided that there were events and stories that profoundly marked French Alpine mineral collecting during the past forty years, and which should be provided for public consumption. It is well to note here that some stories are older than the author himself. In his foreword, he makes that clear, saying: “Cet ouvrage ne saurait aspirer à une quelconque exhaustivité, ni même à une parfaite exactitude” (This book cannot aspire to any completeness, nor even to perfect accuracy). They are not necessarily all firsthand stories.

The body of the text is divided into five chapters, each of which has one or more of the “chronicles.” Each chronicle in turn is laid out as a full story, with title page, preamble, body, and conclusion. The first chapter, “Gisements de légende” (Legendary Deposits) has three such stories, the first of which, “The Axinites of Armentier,” recounts the story of two young collectors searching for years to find a lost crevice for axinite on the vast Armentier cliff. Discovered in 1780, axinite (then referred to as schorl) was the Holy Grail of French Alpine collectors. Later, at the end of the nineteenth century, the great cristallier Napoléon Albertazzo reported finding a deposit of axinite on quartz on the Armentier cliff that showed great promise for large pockets and was marked with a date etched into the rock. The two collectors, Roland Chincholle and Alain Estadès, met in 1980 and, having found documentary evidence of this deposit, began looking for the site. The Armentier cliff is not only steep but is also covered with vegetation, and years of searching, including at least one surreptitious blast in the middle of the night that wakened the local village, revealed nothing. Surreptitious is the true word, for they did not want the villagers to know that they were exploring. They found nothing in a close search, but in 1984, while on a day trip to another mine, they happened to look at the cliff from across the Romanche River through binoculars and spotted a previously unseen crevice. The next day they climbed to that spot and found an opening with traces of old work and the date 1788 carved into the local amphibolite. Drilling and hammering through 1985 and into 1986, they finally broke into a great clay-filled pocket that yielded a plethora of fabulous specimens. The specimens were what the locals call “mûr” (ripe) because they were ready for picking from the clay. Roland, the first in, had recovered a large number and was headfirst into the space when the whole thing collapsed on him. Fortunately Alain managed to haul him out by the ankles before he suffocated. Khayati refers to that pocket as the eighth wonder of the world, and the size and quality of the specimens speak for themselves.

I have concentrated on this story, for it is representative of the other nine given in the remaining four chapters. Those chapters are titled “Around Siderite,” “New Wave,” “In Red and Black,” and “Reflections,” and the chronicles they hold have stories of fabulous siderite, pink fluorite, anatase, and faden quartz finds, and the sometimes disturbing scenes of thefts and destruction that have taken place. The aim of the book is to bring all activities of the cristalliers to the surface, and to show what pains they take and what rigors they face in carrying out their searches, and it does that well. In many ways, they are driven people.

The book is in ISO A4 format, which makes it a trifle difficult to hold in comfort, and the heavy clay content of the paper makes it weighty. Still, that clay also makes it possible to print great photographs of the beautiful specimens. There are photographs of localities and people down shafts and adits, but the large pictures are of the minerals. The shots of pink fluorite octahedra on pages 190–192 are spectacular, and there is a fantastic anatase on page 51. Siderite and quartz are covered equally well. One note: Khayati's French is what one might call “ebullient” and in places colloquial. Khayati is aiming for effect, and it shows. It isn't perhaps a quick read, but it is a worthwhile one.

 

From Copperas to Cleanup–The History of Vermont's Elizabeth Copper Mine by Matt Kierstead. Milestone Heritage Consulting, www.milestoneheritage.com. 60 pages; 2014; $15 (softbound).

The Elizabeth mine in South Strafford, Vermont, is not well known among mineral collectors despite being the largest copper mine in New England. It worked a volcanogenic massive sulfide deposit comprised largely of chalcopyrite and pyrrhotite. The mine was operated intermittently for nearly 150 years, from 1809 to 1958, during which it produced about 50,000 tons of copper. The underground workings followed the orebody continuously for 7,800 feet along strike, and the long open cuts to the south extend the mine complex even farther.

Matt Kierstead's book records in detail the history and industrial archaeology of the Elizabeth mine complex. This study was carried out in conjunction with the cleanup of the mine area when it was designated as a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Extensive waste piles from mining and milling were contaminating streams in the area.

Although it was necessary to remediate the problem, there was concern that the history of the mine should be preserved. Kierstead brought together scarce and previously unpublished information about the Elizabeth mine, including photos and interviews with Vermont residents. His company also documented the physical remains of early mine structures at the site during the EPA cleanup operation.

The first part of the book provides a helpful overview of the regional geologic setting of the Elizabeth mine ore deposit. This section is followed by a brief history of copper mining in the United States and a focused discussion of Vermont discoveries. The Vermont copper belt spanned 30 miles and included the Elizabeth mine as well as the Ely mine in Vershire and the Eureka and Union mines in Corinth. The latter two mines were the smallest and ceased operation after World War I.

Kierstead informs us that through the early 1880s, the Elizabeth mine was worked for both copper and “copperas,” the latter being an iron sulfate belonging to the melanterite group. Copperas is not a familiar substance to most people today, but in the past it had many industrial applications. At the Elizabeth mine it was produced by roasting and leaching heaps of iron sulfides.

Later chapters detail the production of copper ore and techniques developed at the Elizabeth mine to enable on-site milling and smelting. The mine output rose during war times, especially during World War II and the Korean War, and recorded its maximum profit in 1955. The copper mining history occupies nearly half of the book and is probably the part that will be of greatest interest to mineral hobbyists.

There are many superb photos of mining in progress, the mine buildings and community, and the miners themselves. They cover a long time span from the 1800s to the most recent mine activity. Sidebars describe the miners' lifestyles, safety issues, smelting techniques, and other topics. The book is further enhanced by detailed maps, panoramas, and cross sections that help the reader visualize the full scope of the Elizabeth mine workings, both at the surface and underground. These graphics and some large photos are nicely presented in a landscape orientation, so the resulting dimensions of the book are 11.0 inches wide and 8.5 inches high. The publication may be hard to fit on shallow bookshelves, but its proportions are compensated by the clarity of the figures.

The final part of the book is notable for showing how the EPA cleanup of the mine site was done in consultation with Vermonters who wanted to preserve the historical legacy of the Elizabeth mine. The mutually supportive effort of concerned parties facilitated the archaeological survey. A few mine structures and foundations were retained despite the extensive remediation needed over most of the property. This book is one of the most interesting and educational results of the project. It provides a vivid comprehensive history of the Elizabeth mine that was lacking until now.

(Note: The entire mine site is on private property, and at this time some parts of it are still subject to final cleanup work. Public access is not available, but an overlook with interpretive signage is planned.)

 

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