From geochemist to shop owner, Donald Slater shares his love of rock collecting
Donald Slater fell in love with rocks in the third grade. He obtained degrees in geology and chemistry. He worked in a uranium company and an oil company as a geochemist for several years. Slater had been selling rocks on the side to fund his collecting hobby. After working as a geochemist, he opened a rock shop Oct. 1, 1994.
What got you into collecting?
I got into collecting in the third grade because my teacher brought in her collection. She would go out in the summertime to go collect when she and her husband would travel. I grew up in South Texas where we have dirt. We don't have rock. The only rocks there were on the railroad tracks, so the only time I was on the railroad tracks whenever I could get out there. I lived out in the country. Back then I did a lot more collecting because our family didn't do much traveling or anything. I didn't do a lot of collecting until I got into college. I started out with chemistry and a minor in geology, but I ended up getting both degrees because what the heck. I liked them both.
What was the most interesting specimen you collected in college?
It's hard to say. Most of the best collecting I did was after I graduated. I worked for Orex Energy -- Sun Oil -- Several friends and I would take off for a week and camp out near a mine and go collect. I found some really nice smithsonite. One of the prettiest things I found was the smithsonite in the Kelly Mine in Magdalena, New Mexico. We found some pretty nice stuff there. Even around here, I've collected some pretty nice pyrite that I've been happy with. I've never found anything super great, but the most important thing is the thrill of the hunt. Even if you don't find the best, just that you found something that no one's ever seen, it sparkles, and it's pretty. We used to go down into the mines in the morning, poke around there for eight hours, and you usually found stuff. Some other really pretty stuff was after I worked for a while. We used to call it rats hair psilomelane. The rock is covered with small fibers, and it's soft. You can pet them, and it feels like petting fur. We used to collect a lot of that because that mine was easy to get into and go wander, and one time a friend of mine hit a long vein, and we ended up leaving two-thirds of it behind because it was a truckload-- just too much of this beautiful plate with black hairs that glisten in the light. The cool thing about this mine was there was this huge vug, or hole, that was eight feet tall and six inched in diameter. the entire vug was covered in psilomelane. It looked the entire hole was covered in a neat coat.
What's the most extraordinary hunt you've been on?
Probably the ones down in the Kelley mine. That mine had been around since the early 1900s. The mine goes for hundreds of miles. It goes for so long that it connects to two other mines. You can go in on one side and walk until you come out the other side of the mountain. We would go down there and spend eight hours in there. When you’re down below in the darkness, time doesn't exist. Hours go by, and it seems like it's been minutes. That was probably my favorite. The Kelly mine led in zinc and some silver. It kind of fell away after World War Two.
Where do you source your specimens from?
The majority of the larger things I buy at a very big show called the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. It's not just one show. In the last good year, it was about 40 shows going on at the same time. It goes for roughly two-and-a-half weeks. I also just got back from the Denver Show which is the second largest show. I came back with a truckload of rocks. If I put another rock in there, I would have broken my axle. I was really loaded this time. Throughout the year, I also buy estates throughout the year.
Have you ever come across the collections of historical figures?
Not anything really great. There have been a few collections where I came across some that were famous rock collectors. They were well known for their work in the hobby of collecting or discovering new things. Even today, every now and then, they find a new mineral that has not been discovered before. Every show I go to, I learn something new.