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How to Safely Handle Your Mineral Specimens

How to Safely Handle Your Mineral Specimens
An amethyst specimen in the palm of a hand

A mineral and rock collection usually spends most of its time on display or in storage, but sometimes it is necessary to move your specimens – or you just want to pick them up and admire them! I decided to write this guide to help people understand how to treat their collections with proper care when doing so.

When handling a mineral or rock specimen, it is best practice to wear disposable nitrile gloves, and avoid placing undue stress on fragile portions of the sample. If possible, pick the specimen up by its mount, base, or rock matrix and then place it in the palm of your hand for transport and examination.

Every item will have its own unique demands for safe handling. It is important to understand your collection and the best way to treat each specimen if you need to pick them up or transport them.

How to Handle Rock & Mineral Specimens

Do You REALLY Need To?

The very first thing you should ask yourself before handling your specimens is: “Is this necessary?” It can be very tempting to pick up and examine your pieces – after all, you spent a lot of time and energy collecting them!

Unfortunately, the fact is that every time you pick up a sample you run the risk of damaging it, either physically or chemically. Make sure that you have a good reason for handling your specimens, and that you are willing to accept the risk that comes with it.

One very important note: if the sample isn’t yours, make sure to ask permission from the owner before handling it! This is especially true in rock shops and at mineral shows.

Always ask permission! If looking at someone else’s collection, ask the owner if it’s okay to handle a specimen and respect their wishes.

Clean Your Hands!

After you have decided to handle your sample, you’ll want to prepare your hands. the best thing to do is to wear a pair of tight-fitting disposable nitrile gloves. These will protect the specimen from the oils and dirt on your hands while providing a good deal of non-slip grip.

If you don’t have nitrile gloves then the next best thing to do is just to wash your hands very thoroughly. The idea is just to remove as much excess oil, dirt, and moisture from your skin to avoid contaminating the sample.

If you fail to wear gloves and/or wash your hands before handling your mineral specimens you may later notice that they have lost some of their luster or even show distinct fingerprints on the crystal faces. Many minerals will react to the moisture and oil on our skin and will be permanently altered without the proper precautions.

It is also wise to wash your hands after handling any rock or mineral samples. Some minerals are toxic and can leave residue on your fingers, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Be Gentle

Physical damage from clumsy handling is the most obvious (and yet the most common) cause of damage when picking up your samples. Make sure to exercise caution when picking up any piece of your collection – it’s always a tradgedy when a piece is broken due to carelessness.

Rock samples in particular are easy to think of as durable and resilient, but many can be easily broken if pressure is applied just right (or wrong!) Rocks are very strong in compression but will easily break if enough shear stress or tension is applied.

If your specimen is in a box or securely mounted on a base it is always best to use that to pick up the sample. This avoids direct contact with the minerals in the sample and reduces the chance of breakage.

If the sample is not in a box or on a mount, you want to pick up each piece where it is strongest and most solid. Many mineral specimens are embedded in a rock matrix that is useful for this purpose. Holding it by the matrix will avoid contact with the more fragile and sensitive crystals.

In general, you want to provide as much support to the fragile portions of the sample as possible. After lifting the piece, place it in the palm of your hand (if it will fit). This will provide as much surface area as possible for the sample to rest on, reducing the amount of stress you’re putting on it.

Passing Between People

It is natural to want to show off your collection to fellow enthusiasts or to anyone admiring your collection. This is one of the most common times us collectors will handle our specimens – and allow others to do so as well.

In general I would advise against offering people a chance to pick your samples, but if they ask and you’re comfortable with it then it’s best to know how to go about it safely.

If your friend is an experienced collector themselves then chances are they will know how to treat your items with respect. However if you’d rather be on the safe side or they are inexperienced then the process will be a bit different.

Ask your friend to stand with one or both hands flat out in front of them, palm up. You can then pick up whatever pieces they are interested in and place them gently in their hands. When they are done, just take it back and place it back with your collection. This will likely make them feel more comfortable because they aren’t responsible for moving anything.

When passing a sample between two people, always have one person hold still with their palms out to receive the item while the other is responsible for moving the piece. This will ensure that there are no accidental bumps or drops.

When passing a sample between two people, have one person hold still with their palms out while the other is responsible for moving the piece.

What About Large Pieces?

The instructions above are mostly for small hand samples that are easily transported by one person. Larger samples require a bit more care and, in some cases, more equipment.

Having more than one person available is always a good idea when moving large samples. This reduces the chances of dropping the piece, and also increases the amount of contact points which reduces the pressure applied to any one point.

Usually when large collection items are handled it is for transportation purposes – not examination or enjoyment. In general, you’ll want to provide as much support as possible and keep it in its most stable orientation. Strapping the items to a pallet or dolly is often a good idea, but take care not to strap the ties down to tight.

If a large piece is elongated, such as a tall geode, it is generally a good idea to move it upright. Rocks are stronger in compression, so upright will be the strongest configuration. If laid on its side the sample will be subjected to more shear stress and increase the chances of breakage.

Special Care for Radioactive Specimens

It is fairly uncommon to run across dangerously radioactive samples in a collection, and if you do they will almost assuredly be well marked and protected. Some collectors even specialize in these types of items.

These samples are pretty specialized and should be thoroughly researched, but in general just keep in mind the standard ‘time-distance-shielding’ rules. Limit the time you are exposed, try to remain physically distant as much as possible, and wear protective equipment if necessary.

These samples aren’t just dangerous due to their radiation, but also poison gas and dust that they commonly emit. Avoid being in an enclosed area with these samples without the proper protective equipment.

Radioactive specimens are usually not anything to worry about for the casual collector, but make sure you know what you’re dealing with and do your research. Anyone who deals in these items will likely know how to handle each specimen safely, so listen to their guidance and you’ll be just fine.