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A Rockin’ Good Time

A chunk of pyrite/galena, at right, next to a piece of azurite and malachite. © 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Rock and gem show attracts collectors and the curious

Attendees strolling along the tables and booths at the Kalamazoo Geological and Mineral Society’s annual Rock, Gem, Fossil and Mineral Show at the Kalamazoo County Expo Center next month will undoubtedly see some unusual fossils and stones, but they are likely to overhear some interesting things as well.

“Let’s pan for gold after we buy beads” or “I‘d like a chunk of rose quartz for a doorstop” or “Is that noise coming from a Tibetan singing bowl?”

That’s because the Kalamazoo Geological and Mineral Society’s annual show attracts everyone from collectors and crafters to the just curious of all ages who all find something relatable about the allure of rocks, say organizers.

“We continue to grow every year,” says Wrifton Graham, who chairs the annual show that attracted more than 6,000 attendees from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio in 2018. “People will come from farther away if there are more vendors, and this year the show will be held in both the Expo South and the main Expo halls, totaling 44,000 square feet. This is a 65 percent increase in show space over last year, and we have the vendors and activities to fill it.”

The show, set for May 3–5, marks the organization’s 60th anniversary, and Graham expects attendance to grow to more than 8,000 attendees this year, especially with a draw such as Steve Arnold, a world-renowned meteorite hunter and co-star of the adventure reality TV show Meteorite Men, who will discuss his fascinating adventures.

While there will be a handful of vendors selling strands of semi-precious beads and jewelry, most vendors will be avid rock, mineral and fossil dealers who sell not only what they dig up themselves, but also what they love to collect.

“When choosing vendors, we don’t do first-come, first-served with the dealer waiting list. We try to add in a way that builds variety and not a lot of dealer duplication,” explains Graham. “And of the 30-plus vendors, we’re very excited to have several who have never shown in Michigan until now.”

What’s inside

While there is plenty to look at and touch at the annual show, it is also interactive, with knowledgeable dealers welcoming questions, game and craft areas for hands-on educational activities, speakers, a silent auction, a display case competition and demonstrations of faceting, beadwork and lapidary. But attendees have to get in line for one of the show’s most popular activities: purchasing a geode — a coconut, rock candy or Trancas type — and having it cracked open on the spot.

Geodes are hollow round rocks that are millions of years old and lined inside with bands of agate and crystals in varying formations and colors. From golf ball to softball size, geodes don’t look like much on the outside, but the excitement of cracking one open to see what’s inside is the draw.

“Everybody wants a coconut geode,” says Tony Payne, KGMS board member-at-large. “Those have multiple colors of quartz — white, blue, smoky, amethyst and often calcite and hematite, two of the most common secondary minerals. Rock candy geodes contain clear to light purple large or needle-like crystals, and Trancas geodes fluoresce bright green under a short-wave ultraviolet light. “

Geodes range in price from $3 to $60 at the show and are manually cracked open using a toothy, cast-iron pipe cutter. If one’s a dud (known as a mud ball), it’s replaced.

“Geodes are formed in gas bubbles in volcanic ash, and then all the minerals come through the ash and deposit into the bubbles,” says Payne. “That’s why they are round — they’re formed in gas bubbles and found 100 to 200 feet under the ground.”

Geodes sold at the show are sourced from a mine in Mexico and purchased through a Texas dealer. While hunters typically head to Western states to look for geodes, they can also find them along southern Lake Michigan and in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Students invited

The Rock, Gem, Fossil and Mineral Show also has a focus on education. It will be open 10 a.m.-noon May 4 exclusively for Kalamazoo area students, and the KGMS pays for buses to bring the students to the event.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for students to attend our event,” explains Graham. “We have a Kids’ Day on Friday specifically geared toward the young ones, and many of the vendors and exhibitors do special things. Since the KGMS’ focus is on education, there are also several booths to help educate kids about the earth sciences in general.”

But the show isn’t the organization’s only educational activity. The KGMS, formed in 1957, focuses its efforts on educating its members and the community about gems, minerals, geology, paleontology and lapidary arts through monthly programs, field trips and kids’ activities, including the Future Rockhounds of America merit badge program through the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies. A portion of the show’s proceeds go toward funding scholarships for Western Michigan University geology students, and those scholarship recipients in turn make presentations at fall KGMS meetings each year to explain how the funding was used to further their educations.

“There’s no typical person who joins the KGMS,” says KGMS President David Haas. Currently the organization has more than 200 members ages 6 to 89, and annual memberships are $8 for students, $10 for seniors and $15 for families.

“What they all have in common: They like rocks. Everybody likes a different kind of rock and does different things with it,” says Haas. “Some like fine minerals, some join just to get rocks for their yard, some want to learn how to wire wrap — I have a trailer to teach how to make cabochons — and some are into the metaphysical.”

Haas says the organization tries to accommodate varying interests when it chooses the experts who speak at its monthly meetings. “I’ve learned that Michigan supplied almost all of the iron ore for World War II, how copper came to be in the Upper Peninsula, and about groundwater contamination. We’ve had talks about how glaciers brought rocks into Michigan and Wisconsin. It’s a learning process, it’s fun, and I enjoy it,” he says.

Encore Magazine

Encore Magazine is Southwest Michigan’s Magazine, bringing readers intriguing images and stories of the good things, good works and great people of our corner of the mitten. Published 12 times a year, Encore in its fifth decade of serving Southwest Michigan, carrying on a historic tradition of being the premier lifestyle publication of the greater Kalamazoo area.

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