“You shall mount on it four rows of stones…” I’m reading the bible for what must be the first time in about ten years. Exodus. It’s not technically the bible but scriptures that have been published online. I’m reading the part where Moses receives detailed instructions from God for a breastplate that’s to be made for his brother Aaron. “The first row was a row of ruby, topaz, and emerald; and the second row, a turquoise, a sapphire and a diamond; and the third row, a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row, a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper.” Just over a month ago I visited the Cape Town Gem and Mineral Club in Bothasig for the first time. It’s here that I hear from Maurice about Moses’s divine instructions from God. He has also told me to look up the writings of Pliny which I haven’t gotten around to yet. Maurice Conradie is the longest-standing member of the club which was started in 1962 by Edith and George Swanson with a small gathering of geology enthusiasts and mineral collectors at their El Sombrero restaurant in Newlands in the southern suburbs. George was an American prospector, which explains the mystery of a restaurant in Cape Town in the 1960s with the name ‘El Sombrero’.
Maurice didn’t make it to the first meeting but he was at the second. Today, the club hosts an open day every first Saturday of the month. The first time I go is the beginning of September.
Trestle tables are laden with a vast and visually stunning array of gemstones. Display aids range from the makeshift (old beer boxes) to custom-made mounts. There is manganese from the Kalahari, shark teeth fossils from Morocco, desert roses from Namibia; rough and sparkly druzy stones catching the light and quartz smoothed down so well you can see right through it. Patterned agate warms in the sun. Some stones look like soft toffee, or chewed and discarded bubblegum. Neon rocks look graffitied or glitter-bombed, and you can almost see your reflection in angular silver pyrite which grows as a perfect square, begging for an explanation in an episode of Ancient Aliens. Some of the specimens are so magnificent in their natural state, it’s almost a shame to tame them. Nature has done it all before, we’re just impostors.
Maurice tells me he has been a collector since the age of 12, “most children collect things, I just never gave up.” He recalls days in his twenties when he’d buzz up to Namaqualand for the weekend on cheap petrol to look for pegmatites. Back then he was a general collector but says most people specialise after some time, “you get a feeling for a certain stone”. His is pyrite. Renè, a regular, is here buying crystals from Maurice for her collection. Her speciality is quartz which gets her teased by Maurice for choosing a mineral with such a big family. Maurice’s various collections can be found at Magic Minerals, a store in Philadelphia that he runs with his wife Aletta. MM sounds overwhelmingly great. René says you could spend a whole week inside it.
Maurice tells me that George Swanson’s son Lionel is here. I find out that Lionel runs bluelaceagate.co.za. His father discovered the gemstone deposit in Namibia – the only place in the whole world the stone has been found. The fascination seems to run in the family. For the club’s chairman, Malcolm Jackson, the ‘disease’ skipped his children’s generation but seems to have hopefully taken hold of his grandkids. Over a cup of tea in the office Malcolm talks about the field trips the club goes on, mostly to Namibia to hunt for crystals amongst mine dumps and in large desert areas. The motto of the club is Omnem Movere Lapidem: Leave no stone unturned. Malcolm laughs recalling the sight of 50 ‘rock hounds’ on their bellies scratching around in the sand for gems. Where mining is destructive, he sees collecting as preserving the minerals for future generations, “mining crushes beautiful things, we save them.” Most of the pieces on display on Saturdays are for sale, but for Malcolm, selling the stones takes the joy out of it for him. Of course this means he has a collection of hundreds at home.
The club has about 120 current members. “Disease spreads!”
I’m starting to show symptoms. The second time I go is a month later with photographer Kent Andreasen. Today Sil Gallon is here, working on a replica of the solar system made from specimens he has collected himself or traded with other members. His Jupiter has a dull surface to match real Jupiter’s atmospheric haze. Saturn has been cut in a way to reveal circular striations that signify its rings. He will use red jasper for Mars. A damaged crystal he bought off a friend for only 5 bucks is ground down to make a perfectly round planet. Professionally a financial advisor, Sil teaches lapidary classes at the club and offers us a tour of the workshop. He flicks the switch of the machine closest to us and a blade begins to spin furiously. He runs his thumb along the spinning blade’s edge, it’s completely blunt to human skin. When he replaces his thumb with a piece of quartz the blade slices off its sharp edges immediately. The machines are home-engineered by Sil and/or Malcolm from repurposed parts of other machines. The one Sil is using to create the crystal planets’ round shape still bears its ‘Hoover’ logo.
Lorna Quinton practices lapidary from home and has been working with stones since the 70s. Her display is one of my favourites: smooth and shiny ovals and hearts that fit perfectly into the palm of your hand are meticulously laid out like a printer’s tray of ornaments in small perspex boxes, with the photograph of each stone underneath it. Her pieces are ready to be made into pendants and other jewellery. Heavy silver loop earrings stud the edges of her own ears from top to bottom. She doesn’t have a favourite gemstone.
Brett Burgell is a quartz guy, and runs the Facebook page for the club. Another club member Ken Nelson is recently back from a field trip to Vredendal. His bakkie is parked next to his stand and carries bags full of roughs: he points out the dull and dusty tiger’s eye. When it’s polished it’ll shine amber and red.
Kent and I spot some geodes on another table which look like eggs growing crystals inside of them. We know they’re geodes because André Bergh leans over to let us know and we get chatting. I ask if he ever goes on the field trips, “Oh no, if they’re going on a trip I ask if there’s a hotel nearby!” At this point I wrongly assume he might just be a trader then and not one of the diehards. Maybe he reads my mind. He’s quick to let us know that he uses crystals together with singing bowls and gongs in his sound healing and meditation practice. He tells us about the 19 kids on the expulsion list at their school who all passed after sessions with him, facilitated through his Healing With Sound Foundation.
André has been aligning body and mind this way almost all of his life. He did try to retire once which would have meant more time for golf but out on the green he felt out of sync and uncoordinated, “So that’s why at 63 I’m still playing with crystals!”. I ask him how he got into this world in the first place. He says that from a young age he’s had an ability to sense things, something which was never discouraged by his parents. Only at the age of 25 did he find out that both of his parents were ‘see-ers’ too. He looks Kent up and down reading him as punctual and a perfectionist who will resonate most with the note “F”. Mine is “B”, he says, and taps his forehead, because things are always in overdrive up there. It’s true, I’m trying really hard to remember everything he’s telling us. We’ve known him for 10 minutes and I already have a favourite story of his: until very recently he used to have long hair which fell down his back. This was no good according to the golf club, and so when he went out to play he’d have to twirl his hair up and hide it under a cap. But then, just as he was about to tee off, he’d fling the cap off and shake out his long hair to throw his opponents off and piss off everyone else. He shows us a picture on his Blackberry of the crystal garden in the entrance hall of his house which makes for a powerful arrival. It’s difficult to see the screen in the harsh sunlight but even so, it looks impressive.
This reminds me of Maurice’s words from my last trip. With a background working in medical labs, he had always sat firmly on the side of science. It was Aletta who introduced him to the more esoteric properties of crystals. He calls the connection between both worlds a growing relationship, they’re two sides to the same coin, “Science tells us if we can’t see it or measure it, then it doesn’t exist. That’s not true. There are also those people who say you can heal anything with a crystal, that’s also not true.” A TV show once visited the Conradie’s shop for a segment in a lifestyle show. The interviewer asked Maurice if he believes in the healing properties of crystals. He looked around at all the gems that surrounded him and answered, “Well, look how healthy I am!”. Whether or not crystals are good for your health depends on who you’re asking, but spending time at the club leaves me thinking that a hobby is great for it.
We ask the members who are there last Saturday if Kent can take their portraits. Graham Harrison says, “Not a chance!” and volunteers his youngest son Craig instead. Craig is wearing a cut off denim jacket with a Slayer patch on the back, so we like this idea. Both of Graham’s sons have followed in their dad’s footsteps. André doesn’t want to be photographed today either but Rockey Ollewagen (not a nickname!) sits for us. So do Ken, Lorna, Sil, and Marion Coleman.
The next open day will be on Saturday the 5th of November. Brett might be late to get the Facebook event up, but rest assured they’ll be there.