Monday, April 25, 2016

The Houston Fine Mineral Show 2016

We got back from Houston last night with lots of new, awesome specimens, and as always we had a great time finding them!  The 2016 Houston Fine Mineral Show was quite a bit smaller than the 2015 show.  It only used up 1 floor of the hotel whereas last year it was 2 floors.  This meant that there was a lot less to choose from, so it actually took us the full three days to spend our budget.  This was the first time we've ever gone to a mineral show and didn't have to worry about blowing out budget because it was a little challenging finding enough specimens to spend all of our money.  We eventually, did, but it took some work.

We came back from the show with more "fine" specimens than ever before, and the majority of them were fluorites - most from Illinois.  We also found some outstanding azurites, and a few other miscellaneous specimens including two very unique prehnite on garnet specimens.  Nobody has ever seen anything like these, so we're excited to get them prepped and photographed to put up for sale.

As always we spent time with a lot of our friends that we've made in the business including Blake and Courtney Barnett, Krystal Dorris and her mom, Alex Amiel and Jordan Root, etc.  Saturday night a group of us went out for sushi, and I got everyone hooked on the Nigori Sake which is cold, unfiltered sake that tastes almost nothing like regular sake.

There was a lot of talk about where the show will be next year.  The rumors were that it would be moving to either Austin, Dallas, or The Woodlands which is basically a suburb of Houston.  From talking to people it seems that there's a lot of resistance to moving it to Dallas for various reasons.  Many people were curious about Austin.  The logic is that mineral collectors from Dallas and Houston have about the same distance drive, but many people question whether this matters.  Of course we would love it to be in Austin since we live here, but the Houston location has been great for us because my parents live right down the road, so we get free and close lodging.  Hopefully it will stay where it is, and the show will grow again, but we'll see what happens.

In all, the Houston Fine Mineral show is an extremely good show.  It's small, but everything is very high quality, and very expensive;  sometimes inexplicably expensive.  Some people visiting the show just look at it as a trip to a museum.  It's a little hard to find rocks for the kids, but that's not what this show is about.   It's mostly for collectors and other dealers to buy and trade.  Wherever the show ends up next year we will certainly return.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Why We Love the Mineral Business So Much!

Most people have no idea that the Fine Mineral Collecting sub-culture even exists.  Sure, everyone has been to a rock shop at least once in their lives, and who hasn't picked up a rock and taken it home?  But the average person has no idea that there is anything even called a "Fine Mineral" - to them it's all amethyst geodes and polished spheres.  Jan and I were lucky enough to have stumbled upon this industry thanks to a friend of ours who said we should go to the Tucson Gem & Mineral show because he knew we had a vague interest in fossils and nice jewelry.  We took him up on that suggestion not knowing the chain reaction of events that it would set in place.

We immediately fell in love with mineral collecting, and the people involved with it.  We had no intention of getting into the mineral business and becoming dealers, but things moved very quickly after our first Tucson show, and here we are today.  Just two weeks ago I announced that I was retiring from the Video Game business and selling my company because I wanted to focus entirely on Greenstone Fine Mineralia.  I had been in the video game business my entire life, and my company, Pangea Software, has been around for almost three decades, so making such huge career change was no easy decision.  I know that the fine mineral trade will never be as lucrative as the software industry, but life isn't just about making money, and at my age I felt like it was time to focus on something new that my wife and I could do together.

So, why do we love the mineral trade so much?  Well lots of reasons:

REASON #1:  LIFE IS A GIANT TREASURE HUNT

We go to every mineral show that we can, but not to sell; to buy.  The thrill of the hunt really motivates us, and we can spend 5 straight days from 9am to closing doing nothing but walking around looking at rocks.  Most people find that hard to imagine, and it is hard to explain, but we get so focused on our treasure hunting at these shows that we often forget to eat or take a break.  Every vendor at every show has something different, and you never know what special treasure is hiding in a cardboard flat under a table.  We have found several incredible specimens that way.  Most recently in Tucson we found the most beautiful and exquisite prehnite-epidote specimen either of us had ever seen  hiding in a flat.  We still talk about the thrill we had finding that one!


REASON #2:  THE PEOPLE

With very few rare exceptions everyone we have met in the mineral trade has been incredibly friendly, informative, helpful, and inviting to us.  Everyone knows everyone, and everyone is happy to work with each other.  We find really enlightening!  If there's any competition going on you wouldn't know it because all of the various dealers are happy to help each other out.  Some of that is simply because there's a huge amount of inter-dealer trading that goes on, but also because the type of people this business appeals to just have that sort of personality.

The big shows like Tucson are giant melting pots of people from around the world.  Nobody talks politics - it's all just people with a common interest having a good time.  Going to Tucson is like getting a glimpse of what the world would be like if everybody just got along and was nice to each other.  We really enjoy talking with our friends that we've made from Pakistan to Australia to Mali to Brazil.  I don't think there's a country on earth that isn't represented at the large shows.


REASON #3:  IT'S ART

The way I try to explain the Fine Mineral business to my friends is that it's Fine Art without all the snobbery.  A lot of people assume that the Fine Mineral trade is just a bunch of crystal worshiping hippies, so I try to explain to them that there is virtually none of that.  It's all about the science, beauty, and investment potential of the specimens.  Nobody ever talks about magic unicorns!

The minerals and fossils that we have in our collection are spread around our house.  Most of them reside in a single, large, lighted display case in our living room, but many pieces, especially the larger ones, are displayed as art in different rooms.  While you tend to see the same species of minerals everywhere you go, the variety among them is endless. We're always trying to find something that speaks to us, and has that kind of appeal that only art can have.

A lot of the mineral and fossil specimens are the kinds of things that anybody can appreciate.  If it's shiny and colorful most people will be drawn to it, but then there are the things that take a more refined appreciation.  The longer we are in this business the more we are finding that we really like certain things which earlier we would have had no interest in or appreciation for.


REASON #4:  THE DEALING

Part of the fun of finding and buying a new specimen is the wheeling and dealing that goes along with it.  Jan is best at this since she's been in sales most of her career.  Most dealers are willing to make us good deals on the specimens that we buy, but even the ones that stay firm on their prices are usually fun to negotiate with.  It's all part of the experience and getting to know people.

In many ways this business is the Wild West because there's no pricing manual that says what a specimen should cost.  You can find a rock on a table under a tent outside for $200, and that same exact rock on a $8 acrylic base in a nice display case in a hotel can be $2000.  Beauty (and apparently value) is in the eye of the beholder.  This makes it easier to negotiate pricing.  We have a pretty good idea of what we can sell things for, so we try to negotiate purchase prices around that.  Some dealers with a wealthier clientele are able to charge 10x for a specimen compared with what we could sell it for, so we have to alway tell ourselves when it's time to just walk away from a deal.  Sometimes, however, we fall in love with a specimen which means we end up paying too much, or when we get it back home we put too high of a price tag on it because we don't want anyone to take it away from us.


REASON #5:  ROAD TRIP!

Many of you may be familiar with the video clip from "Big Bang Theory" where they're in the car headed to Tucson.... "Rock Show, Rock Show, Rock Shoooooooowww!!!".  That's how Jan and I feel every time we head out to one.  We live in Austin which is a good central location for many of the big shows.  It's a relatively easy half-day drive to either Tucson or Denver, and the various other shows in Texas are pretty easy to get to.  We really like our drives to Tucson and Denver, however.  Not the most exciting scenery, but there's something strange about waking up in Texas and being somewhere totally different in our own car in time for dinner.  Being able to drive the Jeep to the major shows really cuts down on expenses too because we never have to ship our purchases, and we don't have to worry about transportation when we get to where we're going.


REASON #6:  LEARNING SOMETHING NEW

In my early 40's I was pretty convinced that there was nothing new to discover in life.  I had pretty much done it all, or so I had thought, and I was having a hard time finding a hobby or anything new that really interested me.  I had been through my travel-the-world phase, my sports car phase, my outdoor adventure phase, etc.  Then this came along and I found a new interest that really gave me something to focus on.  We are continuing to learn new things every day, and that keeps things fresh and exciting.  We're constantly meeting new people and making new friends, and the rotating art exhibit in our house gives us something to appreciate at the end of every day.


In summary, we love this business!  We love the rocks, we love the people, we love the adventure of it all!  Some day we'd like to get into the mines and do our own digging.  Unfortunately, there's not much of that in Texas (at least anything worth the trouble), but eventually we hope to do some traveling out of the state to some places where we can try to find some treasures that aren't already mounted on an acrylic base.




Wednesday, January 6, 2016

3D Printed Mineral Display Bases

When you see fine mineral specimens on display they're typically sitting on a clear acrylic block into which someone has routed out a cavity for the specimen to set into.  These can make a $100 specimen look like $1000, and they add a lot of value to the item.  Last year I started thinking about using a 3D Printer to create custom bases for our specimens, so I did a lot of research on the topic, and concluded that the reason that nobody had done it yet was that 3D printers were still a long way from prime-time.  The speed, quality, and reliability of the 3D printers out there is quite sub-par, and is really only useful for people tinkering around.  That being said, there is a new generation of 3D printers on the horizon which look like they will finally make this a possibility, and we're hoping some of them hit the market later in 2016.

After much brainstorming I've figured out all of the steps necessary to make this all work:

STEP 1:  Create a 3D Mesh of the Specimen's Bottom


There are new technologies out there which can allow you to create a 3D model of an object without the use of expensive laser scanners.  One such technology only requires a handful of photographs of the object from any digital camera.  Using Memento from Autodesk, you can photograph your specimen, drop the photos into the Memento application, and then wait for the Autodesk servers to work their magic on them.  A short time later a very high-resolution, and highly accurate 3D mesh will be sent back to you.  From here you can export it as a data file such as .obj or .stl, and this file can then be imported into any 3D modeling application.  As of this writing, Memento is 100% free!  You can create all the 3D meshes you want for $0.00, so forget about having to buy a $20,000 laser scanner.

One problem that this technology shares with traditional scanning methods, however, is that it tends to have problems with objects that are shiny or transparent, and mineral specimens have a nasty habit of being both.  So, a common solution is to make an impression of the specimen in some sort of molding compound.  If you've ever been to a podiatrist then you're probably familiar with the compression foam that they use to make an impression of your feet.  This stuff works great with minerals too!  You simply push the specimen into the foam to make a negative impression of it.  Then you can photograph this impression and have Memento generate a 3D mesh from that.  This is the same basic method that orthotics companies use when your podiatrist sends them that foam impression of your foot:  they scan it into a computer, and then that scan is used to construct a custom orthotic that fits your foot perfectly.  We're essentially doing the same thing here.

One important thing to keep in mind, however, is that Memento has no idea what the size of the specimen in the photos is anymore than it knows the size of a person in a photograph.  It needs a frame of reference.  So, a simple solution is to buy a 1cm scale cubes and include it in the photos.  When you get the mesh from Memento there is an option to set the scale.  You select two points on the mesh and tell it what the distance is, so you'd simply select a corner of the cube and then another corner and tell it that the distance is 1cm.  Memento will then scale the entire mesh to fit that size, and it should be extremely accurate.

Since there may be a little fluctuation in the scaling and printing of the object wiggle the specimen around in the compression foam (if you're using that method) to give it some margin.  You don't want a glove-tight fit, but rather just a fraction of a millimeter of breathing room.
Add your photos to Memento.  The more the better!
Then wait a while for Memento to work its magic

When complete, you should see a 3D model which you can now export

STEP 2:  Construct the Base in 3D Modeling Software

I'll be honest, this step is not for the faint at heart.  Using 3D modeling software is something that takes a long time to learn.  I've been at it for almost 30 years, and I'm still learning new techniques.

The 3D modeler I recommend is Blender.  It's free, well supported, and does everything you'd ever need to create unique display base designs.  Blender can import the mesh that Memento generated in Step 1.  From there you simply construct your base around it.  I won't go into the details since it's a complex process, but the short version is that you build the base geometry, and then use boolean operations to carve the specimen's description/locality text into it.  The same boolean operations are then used to apply the imported mesh into the base model.

There are some caveats that you need to keep in mind when modeling for a 3D print, mainly that your final model needs to be air-tight.  No holes or overlapping parts.  There is a lot of information on the internet about how to build a proper model for 3D printing.

Import the model into Blender
Build the 3D printable model of the base in Blender.

STEP 3:  Print It!

Once you have the model all you have to do is save the file and send it to the 3D printer.  There might be some final touchup, but that's really all there is too it.  If you did everything right earlier (got the scale of the mesh correct) then the printed 3D model should be a perfect fit for your specimen.

However, this is where things get more theoretical than practical.  As I mentioned in the intro, current 3D printer technology basically sucks.  There are two basic types of 3D printers:  ones that ooze out extruded molten plastic to slowly build a 3D object layer by layer, and ones that use a projection system and UV light to instantly harden a liquid polymer layer by layer.  The extruded plastic printers are notoriously slow, unreliable, and the final prints are not particularly accurate and have rough edges.  They're terrible at doing sharp angles.  The polymer printers (also known as stereo lithography - STL printers), tend to be faster, more reliable, and have much better detail and accuracy, so this is the type of 3D printer you'd want to use.  The main issue is that STL printers are very expensive, the photopolymers are expensive, and certain parts need regular replacing.  They're a little faster than extruded plastic printers, but they can still take hours to print simple, small objects.

What's on the horizon will likely make things a whole lot better.  There are new STL printer technologies that have been demonstrated which will reduce printing times from hours to minutes.  Carbon3D recently got $100 million in funding from Google, and their printer could show great promise.


PATENT ISSUES


As far as I know, nobody has specifically patented a method for making mineral specimen bases with a 3D printer.  However, there is a patent for a process for milling acrylic bases from a 3D computer model, and it does share some of the steps outlined above.    You can see the patent here, and make your own decisions.  I'm not a patent attorney, or any sort of patent expert.  Their patent involves using a 3D laser scanner, and a milling machine to create the bases, whereas the process I've described does not require a scanner, and uses a 3D printer to create not just the cradle for the mineral specimen to sit in, but the entire base including the text from scratch.  It's fundamentally different, but you should check with a patent attorney to be sure.

With all that being said, I should point out that the patent doesn't patent the actual bases.  People have been milling & routing acrylic bases for mineral specimens since the dawn of time.  It also doesn't seem to patent the individual steps, since everything from scanning a mold to modeling the object in 3D to milling it with a CNC router is all very common.  Going back to my podiatrist example from earlier, the mold-scan-create method has been used for decades in the orthotics industry, so this patent doesn't actually create anything new.  What it does do, however, is patent a specific series of steps to create a specific product for a specific use, and since I'm not an attorney I really don't know how much of that specific series of steps have to be different in order for a competing method to not infringe upon that patent.





Welcome to the Greenstone Fine Mineralia Blog!

Greenstone Fine Mineralia was founded in 2015 after my wife and I went to the Tucson Gem & Mineral show.  We were there for a week, and we had such a blast!  Nothing could have prepared us for the sheer size of it, and it got us really interested in the mineral trade.  We quickly realized that this was going to be a very expensive hobby, so rather than just blow all our hard earned money on rocks that would sit on a shelf, we decided to form a company so that we could actively trade in the business.  In addition, we started making glass & wood lighted display cases for ourselves which we wanted to sell as well.  Long story short, we've gone from 0 to 60 in less than a year, and we've met a lot of really nice people, and learned a lot about an industry we never thought in a million years we'd be in!

Our main focus is in unique mineral specimens.  We typically like to buy and sell the ones which are different from everything else out there, so we're always keeping an eye out for anything that makes us say "I've never seen anything like that before!"  We chose the name "Mineralia" because we also wanted to focus on other things like our lighted display cases which are ephemera related to the mineral business.  We're hoping to expand that into other things like custom bases as well.

So, in our blog we will post interesting stories or information about the mineral business.  We hope you enjoy it!