Becoming a Rock Collector

Woman collecting stones in jam jar, close up.
Dougal Waters/Getty Images

I like to collect rocks, and so do many other people I know. While you can purchase rock collecting starter kits, rock collecting is a great free activity. It's a fun excuse to go out into nature, many rock collectors like to travel to different places in order to collect different types of rocks. Some rock collectors like to learn all about the rocks they collect, while some base their collection on looks.

What kind of collector are you?

The Rock Collecting Types

I think of a rock collector as someone who compiles rock and mineral specimens as an end in itself. Rock collectors come in a couple of models:

  • The rockhound is the most familiar: someone who enjoys hunting for unusual, rare or valuable minerals in organized group trips to mines. Rockhounds swap specimens with other collectors and may sell small amounts of material. Some tend to acquire piles of "bulk rough" that they may process later, but others may maintain exquisite cabinets of fine mounted minerals. They are hobbyists who may graduate to become dealers.
  • The lapidary collects rocks to make things with them. I would include jewelers in this category too: people who cut crystals and gemstones into jewelry making. They are hobbyists who may graduate to become artisans.

That said, some people collect rocks as a means to an end. I don't call them rock collectors, although they certainly care about rocks:

  • Geologists do study and collect rocks, but they aren't rock collectors. Their collections have scientific or professional, not personal purposes.
  • Mineral dealers aren't rock collectors, even if they dig up their own material. Their collections are for sale, not for pleasure.

Starting a Rock Collection

You don't need to have been a coin (or stamp) collector to become a rock collector.

But I was, and one personal rule I kept was to collect only rocks that I've found myself. To me, the virtue in this is that I've documented each stone and its context. It means that each of my stones is connected to an experience in the field. Each rock represents something I learned and stands as a reminder of somewhere I've been.

Building a Rock Collection

My collection stays relatively small. That's because I'm a careful selector. You might call my practice, seeking a type specimen for each place I visit a single rock that displays the geological features of the site in miniature. There are other ways I can expand my collection as well.

I could trade rocks with other collectors like many people do. But then I would need to take more rock back from my trips. This can have negative effects on the environment. I've visited more than one outcrop that has been harvested out of existence, and I don't want to contribute to that problem. Besides, if no trading partner is interested the collecting has been a waste.

In some locations, rock collecting is forbidden. I've learned I can collect the forbidden or unfeasible, thanks to the camera. Photographing a rock and then leaving it behind allows me to collect without collecting.

Photography protects the environment and gives me ample room at home to display the rocks I truly love.

A word about the rock and mineral photos on the Web and on my site: Rock photos are generally good examples of the rock types you'll see in the field. The same is not true for minerals, however. Mineral photos tend to favor spectacular specimens. I try as much as possible to avoid that approach in my mineral galleries because for me the point is to learn minerals from typical specimens, the way that students of rocks encounter them.

Rock Collectors versus Mineral Collectors

Rock collectors and mineral collectors are two different kinds of rockhound. Although both seek specimens that are good examples of their type, good rocks and good minerals never occur together. A good rock specimen contains all the right minerals in due proportion, but a good mineral specimen is always out of proportion for its rock type.

Rock collectors are generally limited to whatever they can find or trade for because there is no market for rock specimens (except for educational starter collections). Little more is involved than trimming a hand specimen and recording where it was found. Mineral collectors, however, can shop for all kinds of rarities in rock shops and mineral shows; indeed, you can amass a great mineral collection without getting your hands dirty at all. And a major part of the hobby happens at home in the cleaning, mounting and displaying of mineral specimens.