There’s Always a Gem in the Junk Shop

Written by John Cooke, Mineral Enthusiast and Part-Time Volunteer Curator

There’s Always a Gem in the Junk Shop… (aka a Christmas Present to Myself)

Looking on a prominent on-line auction site on Christmas Day afternoon (well what else can you do after a large meal and subject to COVID restrictions), I noticed an offer of an item entitled “Vintage set/Mixed assorted natural stone/small stones/minerals/boxed”, (see fig1). This comprised a mahogany box with five trays of jumbled assorted gemstones, semi-precious stones and some minerals. From the accompanying photographs it was obvious that the collection contained some real treasures not least of which were three Australian opals, one of which was a fire opal. Other exciting specimens included topaz, beryl, a sapphire crystal and numerous agates resembling those from Idar-Oberstein, even though I am no expert on agates, I liked what I saw.

Figure 1: Semi-precious gem collection. © John Cooke.

The auction was due to end on Boxing Day morning and time was spent working on my purchasing strategy. Previous experiences have demonstrated that it is better to have a budget and place the whole amount on the bid form and press the bid button 8 seconds from the auction close…. GOT IT! The other bidders didn’t have time to respond and it was secured at a bargain price, or so I hoped.

Amazingly, it only took 4 days to arrive and was well wrapped and protected. The moment of truth. Gingerly unwrapping, with great trepidation, the purchase revealed a treasure trove of goodies. Was I happy? YOU BET!


The only apparent restoration needed was some attention to areas where duct tape had been used to secure the top, possibly during transport. This had been removed leaving a residue which was somewhat reluctant to abandon the wooden surface. YouTube suggested various treatments such as alcohol, soapy water, “eye of newt”, none of which appeared to do the trick. One source encouraged the use of nail polish remover (acetone).

So, I asked my wife for help on this matter and was presented with two bottles: acetone formula and concentrated acetone formula. I enquired as to what was the difference upon which I was given a lecture on the distinctions between nail polish remover and artificial nail remover. I am no wiser, and am afraid to say, I appear to have lost interest or consciousness. An apology is offered to those readers who believe I should have been more considerate.

An application was made of the stronger formula with a cotton wool bud and gentle rubbing at the site of the residue deposit. It worked like a charm, taking only 30 minutes of careful intervention. The bonus was that the underlying varnish was unaffected. The surfaces of the box were then cleaned and a layer of BriWax worked into the grain with a final buff to yield a beautiful finish. The before and after photographs are shown in figures 2 and 3.

Figure 2: Box with duct tape residue. © John Cooke.
Figure 3: Box after treatment. © John Cooke.

The base of one of the trays (see figure 4) had, in the past, been replaced. This, in my experience, is reasonably common and usually represents the after effects of pyrite decay, when the resulting sulphur and sulphuric acid eat into and through the timber. The replacement had been fashioned from a wooden top of a Fry’s Chocolate Box. This had been skilfully repaired and the presence of the repair had given an indication of the date of restoration. The box lid referred to the Royal Warrant stating: –

Makers to HM The King

HM The Queen

& HRH The Prince of Wales

300 Gold Medals and Diplomas

This was the style of marketing used by Fry’s after the Edwardian era and into the 1920s.

Figure 4: Frys Chocolate Box Lid. © John Cooke.

Other dating evidence for the restoration is apparent because during this repair, the owner required padding for two of the specimens and to facilitate this operation had cut to size some pages from a current Daily Mail (see figure 5). This find offered the opportunity to date the restoration and within the pages clues emerged. The banner of the paper stated it was 1922 but the clincher was a statement that the following day was the summer solstice and that people would be gathering at Stonehenge in the morning to watch the sunrise. So, there it was…the date was 20th June 1922.

Figure 5: Daily Mail. © John Cooke.

One small article on the scraps of paper was intriguing. It appeared to be the Daily Mail’s answer to Monty Don and Gardener’s World, entitled “To-day in the Garden”. Interesting suggestions included the following directions for those with green fingers: –

Make layers of strawberries.

Sow runner beans to continue the supply into late season.

Cut back rampant plants such as aubretias and alyssums.

Composition of the Collection

There is a preponderance of agates in the collection which have been beautifully cut and polished (see figure 6). Beyond these there are a number of cut, cabochon and natural stones including Australian opals, topaz, emerald, coral, amber, jade and a very pleasing crystal of sapphire, possibly from Sri Lanka. For the final restored collection see figures 7, 8 and 9.

(Top left) Figure 6: Agates and part of the collection. (Top right, bottom left and bottom right) Figures 7-9: The final restored collection. © John Cooke.

There is a definite division of the specimens, some of which are accompanied by much older labels indicating chemical composition. They are written in a more formal hand and are displayed with a Berzelian notation which was predominantly used between 1812 and 1850 (see figures 10, 11 and 12). The superscript dots relate to the number of oxygen atoms associated with the element below. Below are examples from the collection of Berzelian notation and their modern chemical equivalents.

Figures 10-12: Topaz, Turquoise and Beryl Berzelian notations. © John Cooke.


History of the Collection

Later label additions are in a different hand and could be associated with further collecting or restoration that took place in the early 20th century.

Contact was made with the seller to enquire if the history of the box and contents were known. He was very obliging and gave the following response of his and his father’s recollection:

“It has been in my family for a long time. My father is a jeweller and comes from a long line of jewellers. He thinks it belonged to his grandfather who had a jewellery store in London and collected gems and crystals and that this item may have been passed down from his father who came to England around the start of 1900s from Germany and was also in the jewellery trade. It’s not been opened for a long time and as I am in the process of downsizing it’s time to give it up to someone who appreciates it.”

Extrapolating from the information it is possible that the collection originated in Germany with someone interested in Idar-Oberstein agates and furthermore the style of the original labels would reinforce this view. Later additions are more likely from the 20th century and included because of accessions made through the jewellery trade.

Final Thoughts

So, there are still bargains out there and further stories yet to be told. When I was a volunteer curator at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, the Museums Manager, Ros Westwood, often reminded me that “there is always a gem in the junk shop.”

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