In the early days of rockhounding in America it seemed like there was an endless abundance of wonderful agates and jaspers. The hobby of making cabochons grew so large that it was second only to woodworking as the most popular hobby in the US. During that time the great agate discoveries were exploited freely and many were quickly exhausted. Beautiful material was usually cut into slabs and the slabs were used to produce cabochons. It is still possible to find slabs that were set aside by collectors or were never cut into cabochons but it was uncommon to cut a rock in half and polish the face. Toward the end of that period I was making my living cutting cabochons but I was also a collector and a painter and when I saw a slab that was highly artistic I rarely cut it into cabs, it went into my slab collection.
Those who wish to collect the fine early materials should recognize that for the moment it is still possible to collect fine slabs and they offer many advantages to a collector. They are easy to store and display and they are reasonably priced given their rarity and beauty. Slabs and half nodule specimens can be combined in a display with the heavier specimens in the foreground and slabs mounted on stands above and behind them.
A few dealers at today’s rock shows still offer fine polished slabs of the rare early materials but it is not often that one sees a specimen of great beauty that is a saw cut rock with a polished face.
Precision polishing of a flat surface requires special equipment and knowledge and that may have further lessened the interest in flat lapping during the cabochon era.
On my way back from the Agate EXPO 2016 show in Wisconsin I began making inquiries about other shows since I had everything ready. I contacted the vendor manager and he told me that a dealer I’ve known in Tucson over the years, Tom Wooden, was retiring and his booth was available. I took it and when I arrived at the show I realized it was perfect.
The show including setup day lasts only four days which gives me as many shopping and socializing days as I want, it turned out to be a great show. There were more serious local agate fans than in Wisconsin although the 2016 Agate EXPO was attended by many of the worlds executive collectors. The Denver show was inexpensive and much closer to Tucson. I’m saying all this because I plan to be at the show as long as the creek don’t rise. Please come see this great show for yourself in 2017!
TheGemShop.com is the place for great accounts of his many mining operations. I was involved in mining with Gene Mueller for a month in six different years.
He did a lot of mining by himself using heavy equipment in remote places which is more than just risky. In the evenings we generally had a fire and a lot of our talk related to mining. We talked a bit about our families and friends and other miners and various agate deposits. We avoided the areas where we might have disagreed for the most part since I’m an old hippie, for better or worse, and he strikes me as more patriarchal. My life was always in his hands under these conditions and I’m still here so well done, Gene, thank you. I was there for the adventure, I was a cab cutter then and so I never bought much, a pound of rock will cut lots of cabs and my income came from jewelers who were craftspeople.
The internet made it possible for me to become a specimen dealer many years later and as a lifelong collector it suits my temperament much better.
Gene told me how he got started with his life in the rock world. While he was still in college studying painting he went with another guy to Mexico just for travel, they went down the highway toward Ciudad Chihuahua. In Villa Ahumada near the Laguna area he noticed a fine agate specimen by the cash register of a restaurant. He didn’t have enough money to buy it so he talked his fellow traveler out of his wristwatch and made the trade. He bought his friend a new watch when they got home and his painting career ended there. He has worked tirelessly to make a good living for his family while following his love of mining and appreciation of great agates and jaspers and he is as tough as a two dollar steak. A good man.
A big factor in the value of an agate, jaspers, and thundereggs is fashion.
Between 1950 and 1980 there was such an abundance of fine agate coming out of the ground in the US and Mexico that the supply seemed endless. People made a hobby of digging up agates or getting them at shows or at the hundreds of rock shops all over the country. Slabs of this material were used to create cabochons that were worth ten or twenty dollars which was a good profit from a top quality slab or a pound of Laguna rough, either of which might cost less than $5! A half nodule of beautiful agate had little value so good rough was usually cut into slabs. Now, cabs are almost worthless because of mass manufacturing, mostly in the Orient, and half nodules have become very expensive, so this represents a great change in taste and value. The large quantity of slabs left over from the earlier days are inexpensive in comparison to the value half nodules.
If you consider the agates from antiquity very few had flat surfaces. Modern lapidary equipment makes it possible to flat lap an agate so that the pattern in the stone is presented as if looking at a painting and that is now the style. In earlier times a domed surface was considered more desirable because the cutter could bring out the pattern and remove blemishes and thus create a piece that would be seen as the art of the lapidary. Sawing a rock in half and polishing the surface is a craft that requires great skill but little art. Agates that are cut according to the current taste have greater value, at least for the moment.
I cut the specimen below from a chip I picked up while I was working at the Morrisonite deposit. It had damage around the edge and the piece was thin. By doming it I was able to remove the damage and also save the pattern. The price would go up if it had the same pattern with a flat surface.
Another factor that affects price is the condition of the specimen itself. If the face of the agate has a crack, even a tiny one, or a chip on the edge or even a flake off the back the value of the specimen is less. Even minor flaws in the condition of the agate will affect the price. Other factors are the size of the piece and how it sits. A specimen that has to have an elaborate support is less desirable. A small specimen is difficult to appreciate but a large piece shows off the details of its pattern, size does matter. A specimen which has little contrast and is dark is rarely as valuable as an agate which has striking colors and pattern.
There are factors that depend on the life the agate has led such as having been in a famous collection or played a role in history. Some collectors desire specimens which have been featured in publications or major exhibits.
As everyone knows, from a dealer on the street to a graduate from the Harvard Business School, the main factor is supply and demand. If a material floods the market prices will drop and rarity will usually enhances value. Since agates are a surface phenomenon once a good deposit is located it is usually not long before it is worked out. Of course if social or political forces stop production or the source is very large and widely distributed it may be around for a long time. When a type of agate rough is no longer coming to market the price is sure to shoot up.
As with paintings aesthetics are very important. If viewers are struck by the art, the beauty and the elegance of an agate it can bring a fantastic price… the value of an agate is whatever buyers are willing to pay in order to add it to their collection and most collectors are very sensitive to beauty.
The agate below is very valuable because it is at the top of all the above criteria, you can go down the list and each criteria has been met in spades.
I look forward to hearing your comments on this topic, as a dealer I don’t set the prices, ultimately you decide.
In 2012 the Celebration of Agates in Minnesota gave me the chance to talk about plume agates and to show examples of some fine specimens from six different states in the western US.
To see fine plume agate slabs from my collection you should visit The Slab Shop.
To see the plume agate cabochons I have for sale please visit The Cabochon Shop. The Jewelry Shop is the place to shop for antique agate jewelry. There are rings and pendants set with Priday Plume cabochons.