Minerals, Collecting, and Value across the US-Mexico Border

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Elizabeth Emma Ferry traces the movement of minerals as they circulate from Mexican mines to markets, museums, and private collections on both sides of the US-Mexico border. She describes how and why these byproducts of ore mining come to be valued by people in various walks of life as scientific specimens, religious offerings, works of art, and luxury collectibles. The story of mineral exploration and trade defines a variegated transnational space, shedding new light on the complex relationship between these two countries and on the process of making value itself.

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Introduction: Making Value and U.S.-Mexican Space

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INTRODUCTION: MAKING VALUE AND U.S.-MEXICAN SPACE

This book traces the movements of minerals—discrete bits of the earth’s crust like the ones commemorated in two series of postage stamps issued in the United States and Mexico (figures 0.1 and 0.2)—as they circulate from Mexican mines through markets and museums in Mexico and the United States. These objects are valued in many different ways: as scientific artifacts, collectibles, religious offerings, commodities (some cheap, some very pricy), and gifts. This book explores the range of things that people in Mexico and the United States think about and do with minerals, as well as what minerals do as actors in their own right. These practices surrounding minerals depend on mining, museum and private collecting, and scientific research, all crucial areas in the relationship between Mexico and the United States over the past 150 years. I look at the transactions through which minerals are created as valuable, and further, at how people and minerals create value together and thus create many other things: objects, knowledge, people, places, markets, and so on. This attention to value gives us a new perspective on the United States and Mexico and the connections between them. But to begin thinking about these bigger questions, we need some idea of what kind of things we are talking about. What do I mean by “minerals?”

 

1 Histories, Mineralogies, Economies

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1 HISTORIES, MINERALOGIES, ECONOMIES

Mexican mineral specimens are surrounded by webs of transactions in which the minerals, museums and other institutions, and U.S. and Mexican miners, dealers, collectors, curators, and scientists all participate. It is impossible to draw clear boundaries between Mexican mineral collecting and mineralogy and the mineral collecting and mineralogy that goes on in other places. Likewise, the boundaries may become blurred among mineralogy and geology, meteoritics (the study of meteors), and paleontology; among collecting minerals, gems, or fossils; or between those who collect ore minerals (those associated with economic ore deposits and extracted as a by-product of ore mining) or gem minerals.1 For me, this has made the question of what to study and where to stop especially difficult.

What can we learn from limiting the object of study, for analytic purposes, to minerals as agents for making value in and between the United States and Mexico? The transactions surrounding Mexican minerals do specific kinds of work in the world: Through the process by which multiple forms of value are created, minerals help to make other things, such as scientific knowledge, collections, places, and marketplaces. And they make, to some degree, the people and places that participate in science, transnational space, and a stratified mineral economy.

 

2 Shifting Stones: Mineralogy and Mineral Collecting in Mexico and the United States

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2 SHIFTING STONES: MINERALOGY AND MINERAL COLLECTING IN MEXICO AND THE UNITED STATES

Value—the process of rating things as meaningfully different—only works as a generative, dynamic force because it is embedded within a similar process at a different categorical scale, where people judge the criteria by which objects should be judged to differ in significant ways—such as privileging rarity as a valuable quality for minerals. Change at this level—making difference meaningful—happens more slowly and is harder to see, but it is nevertheless an indispensable aspect of value-making.

Two major shifts can be identified in the valuing of minerals in Mexico and the United States that shed light on this second level, in which the kinds of difference that make a difference are stabilized and destabilized. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the perceived center of mineralogical expertise shifted from Mexico to the United States, a shift that was somewhat but not entirely rebalanced in the twentieth century. In the past thirty years, a second shift has occurred with the rise in popularity of so-called aesthetic minerals in the United States and Europe (and to a lesser extent, Mexico). This trend has successfully installed aesthetics as a primary valued quality for minerals, based on a comparison between minerals and fine art.

 

3 Making Scientific Value

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3 MAKING SCIENTIFIC VALUE

In most instances, the relevance of the concept of value to understanding uses of minerals seems obvious. Minerals are often exchanged as commodities and mined as the main objects or the by-products of extractive industries; in these areas, their economic character is immediately evident. To be sure, there are many cases in which minerals are exchanged not as commodities but as gifts either to other humans or to divine beings, but gifts are a favored topic within economic anthropology and are easily seen as objects of value. In other contexts, however, the people involved are not primarily concerned with minerals’ movements as gifts or commodities, though they may busily participate in such exchanges. They mostly use minerals to produce or instantiate scientific knowledge of one sort or another. In this context, are questions of value-making still relevant?

Once we specify our understanding of what value actually is—that is, the social action that results in making meaningful difference and in making difference meaningful—the domain of scientific knowledge becomes especially apt for looking at value, because this is exactly what successful scientific practice does. The case of mineral specimens shows this especially well, because minerals straddle those domains that are conventionally related to value in anthropology (commodities, gifts) and those that are not (scientific artifacts, religious offerings).

 

4 Mineral Collections and Their Minerals: Building Up U.S.-Mexican Transnational Spaces

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4 MINERAL COLLECTIONS AND THEIR MINERALS: BUILDING UP U.S.-MEXICAN TRANSNATIONAL SPACES

Mineral collections—intentionally assembled groups of minerals held out of economic exchange and manifesting exemplarity, aesthetics, or some other value—are sites where interactions and transactions between Mexico and the United States are especially densely clustered. Furthermore, the intentional character of collections brings a self-conscious quality to these interactions and transactions. This is particularly true of “Mexican mineral collections,” that is, those that purposefully focus on minerals originally found in Mexico, either freestanding or as parts of larger collections. Collections are expressions in miniature of particular visions of the United States and Mexico that are brought into being through the interactions and transactions of the people and objects that make it up.

 

5 Making Places in Space: Miners and Collectors in Guanajuato and Tucson

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5 MAKING PLACES IN SPACE: MINERS AND COLLECTORS IN GUANAJUATO AND TUCSON

Figure 5.1, a map featured in a report titled Potencial Minero de Guanajuato (Franco 1997) shows Guanajuato’s centrality in Mexico, in particular the fact that over 60 percent of the country’s population lives within a 350-kilometer radius (thus implying the density of infrastructure and services). The radiating circles on the map give an image of the mines and city of Guanajuato as a central origin point, with its subsoil resources expanding centrifugally to the rest of the country, and by extension, the world.

This image and the sensibility behind it contrast with many other views of the movement of mineral resources from mines to market, both for “regular people” and for social scientists. Within such views, for instance, mined ores such as silver, gold, or copper are quintessential raw materials, extracted from the “ends of the earth” and brought to the centers of global finance in New York and London. Likewise, mineral specimens are produced in geographically distant places and brought to Tucson, Munich, Denver, and other mineral marketplaces. In fact, even when minerals come from near these marketplaces, they are often treated as pristine emissaries of the margins of the cultural world. People also move from all over to a central meeting point at these mineral shows. Tucson, in particular, is called the “Mecca for mineral collectors,” emphasizing its role as a pilgrimage site and meeting place for the faithful all over the planet.1

 

6 Mineral Marketplaces, Arbitrage, and the Production of Difference

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6 MINERAL MARKETPLACES, ARBITRAGE, AND THE PRODUCTION OF DIFFERENCE

In November 1977, a prospector named Felix Esquivel entered the Ojuela mine in Mapimí, Durango, Mexico, and discovered a pocket of over twenty specimens of legrandite (a zinc arsenate). He and his brother sold them to a dealer, Jack Amsbury, via his Mexican agent Shorty Bonilla, for 48,000 old pesos, or approximately $4,000. Amsbury, with the help of Gene Schlepp, a Tucson dealer, resold the best piece (later christened the Aztec Sun) from the pocket (figure 6.1) to Miguel Romero for $30,000. Felix Esquivel reported to us that the buyer (he did not remember who) did periodically pay him 1,000 new pesos—between $60 and $100, depending on the year—as further remuneration. Romero held onto it for the rest of his life, planning to donate it with the rest of his collection to the University of Arizona Mineral Museum, where the best of his collection was on loan for many years (see chapter 4). In 2008, his heirs sold it to a Lebanese collector for something in the neighborhood of $1.7 million.

 

Conclusion

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  CONCLUSION

I conclude with two images of Mexican minerals: one moving through space and the other through time.

Two Stories

In the spring of 1998, as we were preparing to return to the United States after twenty months of fieldwork, my husband and I gave a party at our house to say good-bye to our neighbors and friends. We rented chairs and a tent, hired a band, and engaged our neighbor and friend Paco to kill a pig and make carnitas. Our guests included our neighbors in the town of Santa Rosa de Lima, miners, and other cooperative members, faculty and students from the University of Guanajuato, and a regidor (alderman).

Although it is not as common for people to bring gifts to a party (such as a bottle of wine or flowers) as it is in some U.S. contexts, one cooperative member, who worked in the automotive department, brought me a small rock wrapped in tissue paper. It was a specimen of native silver growing out of a base of black acanthite (silver sulfide). The silver looked like the slightly curved bristles on a toothbrush. The specimen came from the El Cubo mine, he told me, and he wanted to give it to me to remind me of my friends in Guanajuato. I was delighted to receive this gift and carried it back to the United States with pride.

 

Appendix: Sources and Methods

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APPENDIX:

SOURCES AND METHODS

Data on Guanajuato come from fieldwork in the summers of 2001, 2003, and 2007, as well as from twenty months of dissertation fieldwork focused on the Santa Fe Cooperative (1996–1998) on which my previous book is based. Data on Mapimí, Durango, are drawn from two visits in the summers of 2007 and 2008 and from interviews in Tucson with U.S. and Mexican dealers who work in or travel to Mapimí.

Archival research in the summer of 2005 forms the source for the Smithsonian material. In addition, I attended the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show (2004, 2009), the Denver Gem and Mineral show (2005), and the East Coast Gem and Mineral Show (2003, 2004, 2008), and participated as a member (and newsletter editor) of the Boston Mineral Club for two years (2005–2006). I also conducted archival research at the British Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History (in New York City), the Harvard Mineralogical Museum, the Palacio de Minería, the Archivo Histórico Genaro Estrada in Mexico City, and the Museum of Mineralogy “Eduardo Villaseñor Söhle” at the Guanajuato School of Mines.

 

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