When you’re starting out as a rockhound, often all you really know is that you like rocks. But once you start hanging out with more experienced rockhounds, you might hear them using all sorts of strange terms. To help you out, here’s a list of some of the terms you might hear, concentrating on the most essential general terms, along with odd things rockhounds have come up with over the years.
Feathers and wedges
To “Lamp” something
How the Rockhounding Terms Are Used:
Generally, people who love looking for rocks are called rockhounds. I often call myself a rockhound or a rockhunter. I personally call what I do rockhunting.
If you’re a rockhound, you might like to collect rocks and/or minerals. You might call any hard object you find on the ground or in a quarry a rock: stones, pebbles, boulders, or crystals. But to be scientific about it, a mineral may seem to be a “rock,” but more precisely it’s a solid material that has a specific chemical formula and is made up of a certain amount of one or more elements. For example, salt is a mineral, and it has the formula NaCl, where “Na” stands for the element sodium and “Cl” stands for the element chloride. Rock, on the other hand, is made up of more than one mineral. For example, granite is a type of rock, and it is made up of the minerals quartz, feldspar, and mica. Note though that sometimes you might call something a rock because it’s just a lump or chunk and isn’t very interesting, but it might actually be all quartz if you tested it, which would make it a mineral.
There’s a whole lore around the size, occurrence, quantity, quality, and configuration of crystals. The dream of all rockhounds is to find a pocket, which is a hollow area inside of a large quantity of rock (a ledge, a wall of rock, the side of a mountain, the floor or wall of a quarry or mine) that allows crystals—hopefully a large number of them—to grow out into the empty space without interference, hence allowing them to be larger and/or more perfect. Often the finding of a pocket occurs in the form of someone poking into this large rock with a long screwdriver, chisel, or drill, or something else long and thin, and having it go through into open air. A pocket can be any size from, say, six inches to thirty feet or more.
When you find a pocket, you hope to find crystals that are fully terminated or have terminations, meaning the end of the crystal is complete, with clean, sharp naturally formed facets on the end. Sometimes you can find what are called floater crystals, which are also called doubly terminated. That means they are/were not attached to anything inside the pocket and have nice terminations on both ends. The “Herkimer Diamonds” that can be found all over the Herkimer County area in Upstate New York, not far from Albany, are a well-known example of doubly terminated crystals from pockets. They are roughly football shaped, but with lots of facets, and range in size from a sesame seed to, yes, a football…if you’re really lucky and have a jackhammer to get to them.
Also, when you find a crystal, the best thing is when it’s gemmy; that is, it’s nice and clear, like a gem you’d find in a piece of jewelry. Sometimes crystals may have nice shape, but they are opaque or foggy or don’t have the expected color. And at other times, a mineral doesn’t form a crystal, it’s just massive, with no facets, and shaped like a standard rock.
If you find a very small pocket, say a quarter inch to a couple of inches deep, it’s called a vug. And if you find rock, or an individual rock, that has a number of vugs, you call it vuggy. Inside a vug, you might find a thumbnail-sized crystal (or just “a thumbnail”) (say an inch or two in size), at most, but you’re more likely to find a micromount or just “a micro” (1mm to 1 inch). You definitely won’t find a hand specimen or a cabinet specimen, because those are much bigger (2–4 inches, and 4 inches or larger, respectively, roughly) than a vug and won’t fit! The largest size, if it’s something you’d take home and put in your garden, is called a yard rock. If you find a micromount, you might put it into a perky box, which is a small hinged plastic box with a black bottom and a clear top.
A geode is basically a pocket as well, but, unlike other pockets, each one is self-contained in its own personal rock.
It’s great to find big crystals, but often instead in a pocket, geode, or a thin gap between rock surfaces, you’ll find the rock is coated with a layer of small crystals, which usually give it a sparkly look. You can say the rock is druzy/drusy (adjective) or covered with druze/druse or, again, druzy/drusy (noun). This is usually quartz crystals. Sometimes you will find a rock where it was originally one mineral (either crystals or just a mass of something), but that had a druzy coating of quartz crystals deposited on it. In that case, you can usually still see the original mineral, but it will be very sparkly from the druzy quartz.
When you find a rock, and most of it is just plain old rock or a very common rock/mineral, but the smaller part of it is an interesting mineral or crystal, you call the larger part the matrix. On a larger scale, when you go to a mine or quarry, and there’s an area that has the type of rock you want, and an area surrounding it that’s all rock you don’t want, the rock outside is called the country rock, not to be confused with Southern-Fried Rock, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd. On a smaller scale, sometimes when you’re looking for rocks, you’ll pick up something that looks kind of cool, but then you decide it’s not worth keeping. Old-timers love telling new rock collectors “That’s what we call ‘leaverite’—if it’s not worth keeping, just ‘leave ’er right’ there.’”
Rockhounds have lots of tools they like use to help them identify minerals or just make collecting more fun. One of the most handy tools is a 10x loupe, or magnifier, hung on a strap or string around your neck that helps you see crystals more clearly and identify them. A UV light is a special light that makes different minerals glow in different colors. It’s usually a longwave or shortwave light, which refers to different types of light that will cause different minerals to glow or will cause the same mineral to glow in different colors. When a real pro is using their light on a rock, they might say they are lamping it. Lamping a rock can help you see if there are any special minerals in/on it.
When going out to collect rocks, here are some other tools a rockhound might use:
- Hammer and chisel for chipping/breaking rocks
- Hand rake for scraping soil or crumbly rock
- Sifter for sifting through sand, dirt, or small gravel to see if it contains cool minerals or gems
- Feathers and wedges for splitting large rocks apart
Finally, if you find some cool rocks that are not perfect crystals and might look better if polished, you might use a rock tumbler to polish them.
As you dig deeper into the rockhounding hobby, you’ll hear and learn a lot more terms and mineral names that I haven’t covered here, but hopefully this glossary will give you a good start toward understanding how to express yourself as a rockhound and understand others of your kind.
This article, Copyright © 2022 Carl Quesnel. All rights reserved.