A beginner’s guide to rock, mineral and gem collecting

Starting your own mineral, rock and gem collection isn’t as hard as it seems.
By Angela Heathcote January 19, 2018 Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page

AUSTRALIA’S RICH geology makes it the perfect place to develop a love of collecting minerals, rocks and gemstones. Famed locations such as Lightning Ridge, Cobber Pedy and Broken Hill have, for over a century, provided big yields for even the most amateur fossicker.

But developing your hobby for rock, mineral and gemstone collecting doesn’t exactly start out with huge discoveries of topaz, opal or agate. Instead, Ross Pogson, the Head Mineralogist at the Australian Museum, tells Australian Geographic that it often begins in one’s backyard, where you can slowly build up your collection from scratch.

See more: Top 10 places to fossick for gemstones

Where to start

“Most people who start collecting rocks, minerals and fossils start off by looking where they do their leisure activities like bush walking or walking along the beach,” Ross says.

As the head of mineralogy at the Australian Museum, Ross is often called upon to identify specimens brought to him by curious beginners, who he says, then build up a database in their head.

“They’ll pick up anything that looks unusual, something with a bright colour so it’s good to always be on the lookout.”

However, Ross says that if you’re restricted to the Sydney area or another capital city, it may be difficult for you to unearth the more interesting specimens.

“When I was eight-years-old I got my hands on a field guide to the geology of NSW and I got my father to drive me to different places where you could collect minerals.

“We went to places like Kiama where there are a lot of minerals and volcanic rocks, and in Kangaroo Valley where you can pick up petrified wood and jasper.”

He says that getting your hands on a geological guide specific to your state will give you ideas for new locations.

The tools you’ll need

Starting out, Ross says there are very few tools you’ll need other than a magnifying glass or pocket lens that magnifies up to 10 times.

He added that if you’ve managed to find a decent geological guide that includes mud maps for a particular area, which is a type of diagram that includes designated hotspots, it’s a good idea to bring this along so your quest is more controlled.

Something to hold and package the specimens you find, as well as a pen and paper to label them is helpful.

“I use to carry and egg carton and match boxes for the little minerals.

“It’s also really important to accurately record and label the locality of the mineral.

“We can always work out what the mineral is but not where it’s from.”

See more: 5 top spots to fossick for opals

Identifying your specimens

Here’s where it can get tricky.

You can either take whatever you’ve found to your nearest Museum where there will often be a mineralogist who can help, or you can have a go at it yourself, which Ross says is good in the long term as it helps you develop a personal geological glossary.

“If you look in the basic mineral books or online you’ll find scales of hardness from 1 to 10, with talc being the softest and diamond being the hardest. It’s possible to scratch one mineral against another to work out what its hardness is.”

Another way to identify what type of specimen you have is by conducting what is known in geological terms as the ‘streak test’.

“You can draw the mineral across unglazed, white porcelain which will leave a coloured streak,” Ross advises. “It’s a bit like a detective building up the case from clues.”