There's Nothing Like a Rock Show

Mineral display at the annual American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco, world's largest gathering of Earth scientists. All photos by Andrew Alden.

Display at the annual American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco, world's largest gathering of Earth scientists. All photos by Andrew Alden.

I was not a rock-and-mineral maniac growing up, but after getting my geology degree I started easing into that world. Now I can testify that rock shows—put on each year by any number of local societies—will use geology's loveliest faces to entice you into Earth science. Beauty is its own truth, and rock shows proffer beauty of all kinds, physical and intellectual.

We all know about gems and jewels, which are merely minerals cut and polished to show off their optical distinctions. But many people are enthralled by the minerals and stones in their less finished form, as natural crystals or smooth-faced cabochons or simply tumbled in a lapidary mill. Others love to make beautiful objects with their hands. And I've found that even the most cerebral scientists may have a mineral kickshaw or pet rock on their desk. No one is above the appeal of a pretty rock. Rock shows won't turn someone into a scientist, a lapidarist, a crystal therapist or a fossil hunter, but they give all those types a common place to rub shoulders.

Collectible specimens at the annual show of the Mineral & Gem Society of Castro Valley

Rock-and-mineral shows are determined to serve every level of interest, from jade carving and gem cutting to buying another pair of earrings. You can acquire a large fossil or glittering geode for a corporate atrium, or just a trilobite magnet for the fridge. At the core of the experience is education, whether for an afternoon or a lifetime if you are pulled into the orbit of the sponsoring gem-and-mineral society. At least ten of them hold annual shows in the Bay Area.


The beauty of a rock-and-mineral show is what might catch your eye there for the first time. You can own a meteorite, fresh from outer space, or a mysterious tektite, thought to be melted Earth rocks splashed into orbit by giant impacts. You might find just the thing to accent your miniature train set, or a good-luck charm.

Rock shows are also, naturally, a great place to shop for gifts. Skilled amateurs, working in their garages and spare rooms, make more exquisite things than they can give away. Help them clear the space to continue their obsession, whether it's agate bolo ties or jade lampshades or carved stone animals. And every one of them will be glad to talk with you. Who knows? Maybe you'll be seduced into joining their ranks.

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Tools like an extra magnifier might tempt you, or the $5 pocket ultraviolet light I got at the last show I attended. What's that good for? Well, there's a whole separate world of fluorescent minerals you can enter, whether it's just for a moment at the show, for an occasionally relevant mineral test (that's my case), or as a consuming hobby that will draw you out into the field with a gang of compatriates.

Fluorescent scorpion and mineral specimens at the annual show of the Mineral & Gem Society of Castro Valley

The following are Bay Area organizations that (1) have a website and (2) host annual shows. For a larger list, see the California Federation for Mineralogical Societies, an association of more than 130 groups around the state.

Antioch Lapidary Club
Contra Costa Mineral & Gem Society
Livermore Valley Lithophiles Gem and Mineral Society
Mineral & Gem Society of Castro Valley
Peninsula Gem & Geology Society
San Francisco Gem & Mineral Society
Santa Clara Valley Gem and Mineral Society
Santa Cruz Mineral and Gem Society
Santa Rosa Mineral and Gem Society
Stockton Lapidary & Mineral Club

These aren't the only avenue into the world of geology. Geological societies are what I prefer, but they don't reach out to beginners. Treasure-hunting clubs are another, as are hiking organizations and conservation groups, but in each of these you'll find that geology comes second to their primary mission. That's OK—science begins with wonder.