Jacob Zonderman: ‘Rockhounds’ and a passion for mineral collecting

I have spent years, and quite a bit of money, building my collection to what it is today. Each time I visited a natural history museum as a kid, I spent my time in the mineral and fossil halls. I would gaze in awe at the beauty that nature has created and wonder how the men who had collected these specimens felt when they first held them in their hands. I wanted to experience that awe firsthand, not just through osmosis.

After every museum visit I left with at least one mineral or fossil specimen. Over the years I have finessed my focus on the quality and type of specimens that I purchase. But that need to go out and collect some myself continued to grow inside me, and I wouldn’t be satisfied until I had satiated that hunger.

We call ourselves rockhounds, individuals who go out into the field to collect mineral specimens, rather than just relying on collectors to find them for us to purchase. The thrill is in the hunt, to find something that has been formed through the millennia, through unimaginable forces, resulting in a creation unique to the nature of our planet. Sometimes all it takes is a shovel, a screen and some water to find what you’re after. But I prefer the hard way — breaking through the rock to eventually free that which I have come to find. It isn’t easy, but the results, when you’re lucky, surmount the struggles that have ensued.

Connecticut has a rich history of minerals and mining going all the way back to the 1600s. Feldspar, mica and beryl were quarried during World War I and World War II for military use in planes and ammunition. The grounds of the Old Newgate Prison in East Granby were originally a source of copper ore decades before the Revolutionary War, while the brownstone collected in Portland was used in buildings located in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C. There were even silver mines located in Seymour, though production was short lived. Connecticut quarries were also major producers of gem beryl and tourmaline specimens, while the extinct Bristol Copper Mine produced some of the finest chalcocite specimens in the world.

On a recent weekend I showcased some of my Connecticut mineral collection, including both specimens I have collected myself and those I have purchased over the years, at the 45th annual New Haven Mineral Club show, held at Amity Regional Middle School in Orange. The club has been a staple of the southern Connecticut mineral and fossil community for 85 years, and is proud to have more than a half dozen former members with minerals named after them, including Fred Pough, who authored one of the most important books in modern minerology, “A Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals.”

Mineral collecting is a hobby that is open to people of all ages and all income levels. I started collecting when I was in preschool, first with tumbled stones and shark teeth, and later specimens that would be worthy of museum display. Local shows such as ours offer specimens for new and experienced collectors alike, from localities across the country and across the globe, in addition to jewelry and decorative pieces. While some of the dealers at local shows can be new to the business, many have years under their belts, acquiring and selling specimens after building a network of sources from miners to other dealers. Their years of experience also gives them the first chance when it comes to the dispersion of both former dealers’ stock, as well as some of the most well-curated personal collections known in the hobby.

Internationally known shows such as the ones hosted in Tucson, Denver and the Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines Show in France give dealers and collectors the chance to acquire some of the finest minerals collected. But the discerning collector doesn’t need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on the trip, let alone on a single specimen, to get that feeling of astonishment at what the ground we live on can produce. Even the most inexpensive and unspectacular specimen has the ability to bring a smile to children and adults alike.