Micromounts

All science is either physics or stamp collecting -- Ernest Rutherford

What is a micromount?

A micromount is a mineral specimen that requires magnification for proper appreciation, permanently mounted and labelled.

What is micromounting?

Micromounting is a hobby wherein the practitioners collect micromounts. Some people get confused (and even huffy) by thinking that mineral collecting is science. The world is much simpler (and more fun!) when you realize it is just a hobby. This isn't to say that mineral collectors cannot sometimes contribute to science (such as it is), but that isn't what it is really all about.

What is a Micromounter?

A micromounter is an artisan. There is a true skill and art to making fine micromounts. A good micromounter balances the art of making mounts with an appreciation for the minerals. It is, after all, all about the minerals, and mounting is done to preserve the specimen and allow it to be safely handled and studied.

Some people study and collect micro minerals, not making permanent mounts or trimming material to fit in a certain size of box. This is perfectly fine. Such people often like to call themselves "micro mineral collectors" to make it clear that they are not making permanent mounts.

Why collect micromounts?

You would be surprised how many spectacular crystals and beautiful sights are hidden on many seemingly ordinary specimens.
Here are some strong arguments in favor of micromouting:

  1. Look through a microscope! Take a look at some good micro material and you will be amazed. Find a friendly micromounter and ask him or her to show you some nice things. (The next best thing would be to look at some good photographs taken through the microscope).
  2. Check the prices on some quality specimens at the next mineral show you attend. As I am writing this, I have just spent several days wandering around the Tucson Show, and I can tell you that my entire budget for the show would not suffice to make a down payment on many of the larger pieces.
  3. Make a list of places where you can go and expect to be able to collect good larger specimens. Excellent micro material can be collected at locations that yield nothing at all to people collecting larger pieces.

This is not universally true, but I have noticed that many serious collectors of micro minerals become respectable mineralogists in ways that collectors of larger pieces seldom do. Conversely, many serious collectors of larger minerals end up acquiring a microscope (Dick Bideaux owned one), even if they do not become micromounters.

Is micromounting for me?

Micromounting is not for everyone. It appeals to the kind of person who is a bit of a tinkerer and enjoys working with their hands. It also appeals to the serious mineralogist, as the micromounter soon finds him or herself involved with rare minerals, and will appreciate a good background in crystallography. I particularly liked the following article on the 1998 Tucson Micromount Symposium, where the author calls micromounters, "arguably the truest connoisseurs and appreciators of rocks".

What kind of microscope do I need?

You don't want a high powered biological microscope intended for use with transmitted light, but rather a low power stereo microscope (with two eyepieces). You want the kind of thing suited for looking at insects and flowers (and minerals!). The most useful magnification are low powers (10 or 15), with the option to switch to higher power as needed. The scope I use the most is a zoom scope offering a range of powers from 10 to 30. Higher powers are handy on occasion, but require a really good light (and quality optics) to be useful.

I provide some notes on various microscopes which are hardly comprehensive, but may be useful.

Buying a microscope can be an obstacle to some folks, but it really shouldn't be. Even if you are not a micromounter, if you are a serious mineral collector, you need a microscope. A quite good microscope can be purchased for less than what many quality larger mineral specimens sell for these days. (Depending on how you look at this, this is either tragic or wonderful). Some snooping around on Ebay and careful bidding can fetch a person a perfectly fine microscope for less than $300, perhaps much less if you are patient and lucky.

The next purchase, and every bit as important as the microscope itself is a high quality illuminator.

I have some notes on microscope illuminators that you may want to read.

The micromounting culture

Many mineral clubs have micromounting interest groups (I get together with the Tucson Gem and Mineral Clubs micro group, which meets once a month). These get togethers are a sharing of knowledge, enthusiasm, and material. A great virtue of the "micromounting culture" is that it is a tradition to share material. Many get-togethers involve giving away material, lots of trading, or sales at ridiculously low prices.

Many parts of the country have a seminar or symposium one a year. Tucson has a one day event on Friday during the Tucson main show. There is one in southern california in January, just a week or two before the Tucson show (those of us who live nearby, prefer it two weeks before, so we can rest up for Tucson, those who live farther away, would prefer to have them close together, so they can travel and attend both events). The Northern California group has an excellent event in the summer (3 days), and the Baltimore group has another 3 day event (and may be the group that originated the concept). The Tucson event is the only one day seminar, and people complain that there isn't enough time for talking and swapping, with most of the time given to lectures.

The micromounting world has a hall of fame. I have had the chance to meet several of these people, and I can simply say that it is worth it to make their acquaintance. This is their passion, and if you show a real interest, they will be eager to help and share, and they have a lot to offer. As much as anything, many were elected to the hall of fame because of their helpful and generous attitudes.

Shopping for micro material

Having just spent a lot of time wandering around the 2008 Tucson Show, I have several tips to offer. First of all, many dealers won't have a clue when you tell them you are looking for micromount material. You will get a much better response if you ask for rare minerals, and this will usually lead you to what you are looking for.

Beware that some dealers who offer micro material think that any crumbs that fall off a larger specimen are "micromounts". Avoid these people. There are other dealers who understand what quality micromount material is.

Buying micro material is a very nice contrast to other parts of the mineral world where big money changes hands and things are getting increasingly insane. The flip side to this is that prices below some level do not encourage dealers to handle micro material. Be willing to pay a decent price for what you get and make it worth a dealers while to do business and spend time with you. Also realize that some dealers love minerals and will be delighted to find someone interested in unusual species.

Making mounts

Neal Yedlin wrote the original micromounting column in the Mineralogical Record Magazine. He said that a micromount is a mineral specimen requiring magnification for proper appreciation, permanently mounted and labelled. I have noticed that some people who are enthused about micro minerals are reluctant or even strongly opposed to permanent mounting. I am a little baffled by this, perhaps because I understand the ravages of time. Mounting and labelling will preserve these little treasures, first of all for the mounter to enjoy in months and years to come (just a few years accumulation of dust, or a few years lapse of memory can cause real and tragic loss). To mount is to preserve!

It recently seems to have become "in vogue" to not make permanent mounts, but instead to simply perch specimens on a dab of "mineral tack" in some kind of box. These can hardly be called permanent mounts and would thus fall short of Yedlins definition of a micromount. This kind of thing may have its place for temporary storage (but the tack can leave a mess and hinder the ultimate preparation of a permanent mount). This should just be called what it is: lazy! and is not to be emulated. Good micros are too fragile, too ephemeral, and deserve to be preserved. That is what permanent labelling and mounting is all about.

How to do it

Here is an outline of the steps involved (many of which are links to essays and information on the topic of interest).

Closing words

Neal Yedlin always ended his columns with the following exhortation:
Buy and use a good mineral book!
Here are a couple of good books to get started with:

The Complete Guide to Micromounts by Milton L. Speckels, 1965, Gembooks, 97 pages. --- This is the little pink book that got everything started (so to speak), now out of print, but you may get lucky and find a used copy.

The Complete Book of Micromounting by Quintin Wight, 1993, First Edition, Mineralogical Record Press, 283 pages --- This book was begun by Neal Yedlin (1908-1977), continued by Paul Desautels (1920-1991) and finished by Quintin Wight. It is by far the best and most up to date thing available in English, although books on micromounting are said to be available in German, French, and Italian.


Some links:

Supplies


Feedback? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's Mineralogy Info / tom@mmto.org