The day I met a caveman

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 September, 2011, 12:00am


During the holidays, my family and I went to Queensland in Australia. While driving to Port Douglas, we passed a sign to The Crystal Caves and decided to stop and take a look. It turned out to be a fascinating trip.

The Crystal Caves is actually a museum and gift shop owned by a crystal, gem and fossil collector, Rene Boissevain from the Netherlands. It is different from any ordinary museum I've visited because it offers an interactive tour. We were allowed to pick up and feel the specimens and take photos. The museum comprised a maze of man-made caves and tunnels.

Before entering, we were given three things: a miner's helmet with a torch, a map of the caves and a guide with brief explanations of the crystals, gemstones and fossils. As we entered the tunnels, I turned on my flashlight and saw some rough crystals embedded in the walls. They came in different colours, with needles that poked out in different directions. It was the first time I had ever seen a proper crystal growing on a rock. It was stunning.

There was also an exquisite carving of a pagoda on a hilltop created out of Chinese lapis lazuli - a blue, semi-precious stone. I learned that it was found in a Hong Kong basement and no one knows its origins, although it is probably from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

But the most amazing thing I saw was the shining Empress of Uruguay. The Empress is the largest amethyst geode in the world, standing over three metres tall and weighing two-and-a-half tonnes. It contains thousands of amethyst crystals, and all of them could be used for jewellery.

I talked to Boissevain, who has been collecting crystals and fossils for more than 40 years. His passion for crystals began during a trip to Agate Creek, a dry riverbed in Queensland which is full of agates - bright, striped gemstones.

Currently, his museum collection has about 600 specimens. He also has a private collection of about 300 pieces at home.

Most of his crystals came from Brazil, Uruguay, India, Mexico, Chile, Africa and the United States. Boissevain said his favourite piece is a geode that was mined in Brazil and was meant to be sold to the museum of Tokyo. However, he was able to get it before the Japanese did.

He said most museum curators were given a blank cheque before travelling to New York or Rio de Janeiro where the most well-known crystal auction houses are found. But he buys crystals straight from the mines for less than half the price. His collection is now worth around US$3 million.

His advice to young collectors: do not chase after rare specimens; look for the ones in perfect condition. A perfect common crystal is always better than a chipped rare one, and a colourful collection featuring specimens of roughly the same size always looks best.

Pradyumn, 11, is a student at the German Swiss International School