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Beginner's Guide to Buying Mineral Based Home Decor

Buying mineral-based home decor and natural art is in many ways similar to being a treasure hunter. How do you know what is valuable and what is common? Precious metals is the purity of the gold or silver diamonds there is an elaborate assessment of the carrots clarity and quality of the gem. But for the class of semi precious gems stones woods shells and other natural art, definitions of quality and value or less clear and can always require a nuanced appreciation for the item.

Welcome to our first blog at Olympus Minerals by Bartky. I joined the OM team in January as a partner of Cynthia Bartky’s, and agreed that one of my first priorities would be to build a community of suppliers, designers and commercial buyers who share our passion in bringing to market these unique gifts that the Earth shares with us.

My background is in business management, and I’m admittedly a newbie when it comes to product selection. On my first buying trip with Cynthia to South America, I found myself quite frankly a little lost on how to assess the quality of the products for sale. I was constantly asking Cynthia and the local craftsmen why one object was less or more expensive than another, when each seemed equally beautiful to me.  In this blog I will offer a Beginners Guide to Product Value for buyers and designers who are responsible for home décor selection, and believe natural source materials make ideal furnishing and decorative pieces but, like me, struggle with understanding why items are priced the way they are.

First, it must be said that the concept of value is subjective; there is no absolute monetary value to anything, and especially home décor and artwork. Each person forms their own opinion of value and compares that to what others believe that same item is worth. Collectively, that forms the norms we are willing to pay for any given item.

And if money is not an object and you aren’t concerned about what others think of the decorative pieces that you buy, then some external convention on pricing is irrelevant to your decision-making on what to buy for your home and personal appreciation. This was true for me on my buying trip. I bought several items that I thought were as beautiful or more beautiful than product priced two to three times the amount I paid. I did so knowing I may not be able to find a buyer who shared my appreciation for those items. But they resonated for me and that was good enough.

In general, however, designers and retail buyers are typically value sensitive. Yes, of course, they rely on their instincts and personal tastes. But they also need a benchmark so that they’re not pricing their goods entirely out of scale versus competitors and customer expectations. Surprisingly, in natural art, I am finding as many under-priced as over-priced items, meaning people are leaving money on the table. If this is a concern for you, then there are some guidelines you should consider following to be certain you are getting your money’s worth. Beware! The guidelines can change based upon the source material. What’s considered valuable for Amethysts is entirely different for Pure Quartz.

Olympus Minerals by Bartky imports products made from dozens of different natural source materials. Too many to cover in this blog. So I will focus on our top three selling minerals over the past year: Agate, Amethyst and Pure Quartz. All of these minerals are part of the Quartz family but quite different in form, and each is considered its own class of semi-precious gemstone.

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The most common characteristics that form the foundation of precision pricing:

Beauty. Size & Weight. Rareness.

  • Beauty (is in the Eye of the Beholder): This is the hardest to quantify, as every individual is emotionally influenced to different degrees by different aesthetics. It has been our experience that objects with symmetry, contour and pattern appeal more to more people and thus command higher prices. Ironically, value tends to be found at the extremes of either simplicity or complexity, as these extremes make the item more distinct.

  • Size and weight: All else being equal, items are priced per weight or size, and the cost per unit usually increases the larger and heavier an item gets. Larger pieces of high-quality are rarer in nature and harder to source and fulfill. So, for example, a piece that is 1 pound and 6 inches in diameter may cost $100 at retail when a piece of similar quality that is 10 pounds and 18 inches in diameter would cost $200 per pound at retail, or $2000 in total.

  • Rareness, both in terms of nature and availability: Rare source materials like Arizona Petrified Wood are much more expensive that commonly found source materials like Sandstone. Similarly, difficult to procure materials like Diamonds may be naturally abundant, but because of their constrained supply, they are considered “rare” in terms of availability and are priced accordingly. Similarly, Cynthia and I have noticed too much supply for some relatively rare source materials, such as Orthoceras fossils, can cause prices to be low artificially.

  • Light Interactions (for Crystals): Light reflects and refracts through crystals differently, and items that sparkle and shine more are worth more. For tens of thousands of years, this special property has also given crystals significant value in religious and spiritual belief systems. This holds true today. It is critical with any of these minerals to look at them under both natural and directed lighting.

Now let’s turn to our 3 minerals, as each has valuation characteristics that are specific to its class:

Agate

Agate is technically a fusion of quartz and chalcedony silica that typically forms in the natural cavities of volcanic rock over millions of years. Agate doesn’t produce the dramatic crystal points found in other types of quartz, it is made up of much smaller crystals, what scientists call micro-crystaline. Agate is quite hard and holds its polish under most conditions including cutting and the use of chemical cleaners. Because of Agate’s durability and the fact it is friendly to craftsmanship (not brittle or prone to cracking or crumbling), it has been used as a source material throughout history. The Greeks and Romans used Agate in art and crafts, the Sumerians and Egyptians used it for jewelry and religious items.

When pricing agate, Cynthia and I have found that the main value characteristics of an item are:

  1. Brilliance of color (a.k.a. translucency) -- The color and its brilliancy depends upon a mixture of different minerals and organic impurities within the agate, as well as how it interacts with the silica that has sealed it. The more brilliant the color, the more valuable the piece.

  2. Amount and complexity of the visible crystals – when the rock cavity in which the agate has formed has not completely filled in, it will leave a hollow space where crystals are visible, typically comprised of either small quartz points (aka Druze) or Amethyst. The quality of these small crystals enhances the beauty of the item and therefore its price.

  3. Pattern: Craftsmanship at the source is critical here, as the agate needs to be cut against the grain to release the richest patterns while maintaining exceptional crystal formations in the cavity at the center. Also, Agate items usually contain other mineral classes such as opal, jasper and crystal quartz. These “impurities” do not affect price up or down, per se, but may influence price based on whether they complement the beauty of the item or distract from it. Many collectors prefer complexity in their Agate pieces; but this is a more subjective decision.

One additional quality to look for is the continuity of the outer layer: The first ring within an Agate deposit is typically a dark green mixed with brown color, called “green earth.  In our experience the layer per se doesn’t affect value, but items that have a continuous ring have more symmetry and completeness which affects its overall beauty.

Amethyst

Amethyst is a quartz crystal that is distinguished by natural tones of pink and purple on its points, typically with a white crystalline base supported by an outer layer of stone, also known as a matrix. Amethysts were historically extremely rare and expensive, and considered cardinal gemstones, as valuable as sapphires, rubies, emeralds and diamonds. But over the past two to three centuries, Amethysts have been demoted to a semi-precious gem as more sources has been discovered and supply is abundant. When heated in nature (1%), or in man-made furnaces (99%), amethyst changes its chemical structure to form Citrine which has Orange, Yellow, Gold and Brown color tones. Only 1-2% of an Amethyst vein is valuable enough to extract for sale.

To price Amethyst correctly Cynthia and I have found that the two most important factors are:

  1. Color intensity: Intensity is not really a scientific term. But I use it here to describe a confluence of characteristics: the deepness (redness and blackness) of the purple, the uniformity of that color throughout the item, and the brilliance & clarity of the crystal. The more visible the color zoning, the less valuable it is. As advised above, you cannot determine color intensity without good natural or directed lighting. Be aware! Most suppliers dim their Amethyst showrooms to protect color fading from extended exposure to light. But that can make the items appear to be a deeper and clearer purple than when seen under natural or directed light.

  2. Size and symmetry of the hexagonal Crystal points. The quality of the points and their size are equally important in determining price. Points greater than half an inch in diameter are rare and those greater than an inch are very rare, especially if they are consistent throughout the piece. Rarer still is the combination of consistently large points with consistently intense colors.

While the crystals themselves are hard and durable, they are held together by an outer shell of stone (matrix) that can be relatively brittle. Larger pieces may be reinforced to avoid breakage.

You may hear craftsman and suppliers brand their wares as Uruguayan, Brazilian, Deep Siberian (or Russian) Amethyst to connote a higher quality item. It is true that high concentrations of the highest quality amethyst can be found in Uruguay, Brazil or Siberia. But these geographies produce all levels of quality of Amethyst, as do most other sources throughout the world. The more trusted approach is to appraise the item based on the above factors, not their country of origin.

Pure Quartz

Pure Quartz, also called Clear Quartz, Crystal Quartz, Rock Crystal or Ice Crystal, is the most recognized class of quartz. Pure Quartz is a naturally hexagonal prism ending in a crystal point, and is the original source of the word “crystal”, itself, which means "ice rock" in Ancient Greek. Clear glass crystal was invented specifically to imitate the qualities of the Pure Quartz found in nature. Many ancient and indigenous religions considered Pure Quartz sacred and medicinal, and it has been used for millennia in religious ceremonies and artwork. Of the many related classes of quartz, Rose Quartz (Pink to Rose Red) and Smoky Quartz (brown to dark grey and black) are the ones we’ve seen with the most mass appeal due to their aesthetic qualities.

When pricing quartz pieces, Cynthia and I focus mostly on two factors:

  • Points: Across all classes of quartz, the most important drivers of value are the size, quantity and integrity of the crystal points. Pure Quartz is often found in clusters of points without an outer shell of rock or green earth crystalline bonded to it, and the distinctiveness of the points drives pricing. Points can be brittle, and some peripheral unevenness or chipping is to be expected. But "Purity" is fundamental to value, and most buyers are attracted to the item's elegant simplicity. Broken or chipped points damage value when they detract from the beauty and integrity to the piece or impede light interactions.

  • Translucency and Opaqueness: somewhat counter-intuitively, value increases the more translucent the Pure Quartz is, and the more opaque the Smoky Quartz is. The clearer the Pure Quartz the better, as it reflects and refracts light more capably. By contrast, a rich, deep brown or dark grey Smoky Quartz piece will command a higher price than an item that is mostly clear.

To recap: The value of all natural décor is a combination of its aesthetic beauty, weight & size, rareness. With crystals, how they interact with light is equally important. And within classes of crystals, there are specific attribute that matter most -- for Agate, it’s the brilliance, crystal core presence, complexity and pattern; for Amethyst it’s the color intensity and the size and symmetry of the crystals; for Quartz it’s the size, quality and translucency of the points.

I hope my beginners guide to valuing natural source materials helps your better structure your approach to pricing when buying and selling.

Happy Treasure Hunting!!!