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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

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

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Why might a person have the same feelings towards a piece of malachite that a mother has towards her child? Does it puzzle you that a small semi-precious Mexican mineral specimen could sell for two million dollars? Are you surprised to read that the largest and most valuable collections of Mexican minerals are located in the US?

If so, then Elizabeth Ferry's book Minerals, Collecting, and Value Across US-Border Relations can shed some light on these issues for you.

This book traces the journeys of scientists, miners, collectors, and semi-precious minerals in their travels from Mexican mines to markets and museums in Mexico and the United States. Ferry guides the reader through places like silver mines, crystal caves, miners' altars, the collections of the Smithsonian Institute, and the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show.

Ferry illuminates how cultural engagement with minerals as scientific artifacts, collectibles, religious offerings, commodities and gifts factors into the current relationship between Mexico and the United States. She also examines some of the general social processes through which things, like these Mexican minerals, acquire value.

At first glance, it may seem that the value of specimens of opal, silver, or amethyst is related to their intrinsic qualities. After all, minerals ostensibly represent bits of pristine nature whose existence predates humans by millions of years. However, Ferry suggests that value is better understood as a verb: a twofold process rooted in human action.

According to Ferry, value first involves human acts of comparison and ranking that establish meaningful difference between things—for example, between an opal and an amethyst, or between an ordinary opal and a spectacular opal.

Second, value is a process of deciding which qualities are worth discriminating or ranking, such as colour or pristineness. It's as part of the latter process that we can see how unequal political and economic relationships influence value-making.

The development of mining in the Americas and the gradual shift of mining expertise from Mexico to the US had a major impact on the story of how Mexican minerals became valuable. The US lagged far behind Mexico in terms of knowledge about mining and minerals until the 19th century.

It was then, as the US expanded westward that industrialists invested in science and established institutions to develop expertise in mining and engineering. Mexico lost its preeminent position in mining as power relations on the continent tipped in favor of the US.

In the 1970s, a major shift occurred as minerals became valued more for their aesthetics and as art objects than as specimens of natural history. Paul Desautels, the curator of the mineralogical collections of the Smithsonian Institute, played a key role in this process. His published works and efforts to build relationships with elite collectors made spectacular specimens ever more desirable. One luxury magazine put it like this:

"minerals – geological accidents that have miraculously survived the excavation process – came to be viewed as works of art."

Scientific and elite collecting practices do not just make mineral specimens into valuable highly-sought after objects. In establishing connections between people, things, markets and institutions in Mexico and in the US, scientific and elite collecting practices have created social relationships that transcend the political borders that divide the two countries.

However, the relationships among scientists, miners, dealers, and collectors do not always occur on the basis of equality. Because people in the two countries have differing levels of financial and cultural resources, they are not able to benefit from the elite market for mineral specimens in the same way.

This is particularly clear at the Tucson Market, a market that draws elite buyers and where the key dealers are mainly American. US dealers are able to benefit more from the practice of arbitrage, or earning income from price differentials for specimens.

Because most Mexican dealers do not possess the social and cultural capital—the language, accents, education, social networks, and connoisseurship—that their American counterparts do, they have limited access to this market.

By contrast, in the Mexican town of Mapimi where the mine is a major source of high-value specimens of copper, lead-zinc and lead-silver, miners' knowledge and skills center on their ability to access minerals legally through relations with the cooperative, and illegally through daring acts or the use of force. The miners of Mapimi rely on their extraordinary strength to carry the sacks of minerals on their backs and to navigate the underground city that is the mine.

Given the differences in demand for the minerals, and the power differentials between US and Mexican citizens involved in the mineral trade, we might expect the movement of minerals to be unfettered and uni-directional: that is, valuable minerals flowing from Mexico into US markets.

However, in the Mexican town of Guanajuato, which was home to a silver mining collective until 2007, miners do not sell all of their specimens to foreign dealers. Mineral specimens are often given as gifts to family members and friends or placed on alters as offerings to Jesus or to saints. In other words, they play a key role in creating community ties and in mediating between people and the divine.

Ferry's book does a marvelous job in sketching out the history and transnational networks of people, markets, and institutions through which Mexican minerals pass from being embedded in underground rock to elite US collections.

Her vivid descriptions of the labour of mining and the cultivation of connoisseurship reveal the inextricable links between the valuation of minerals and the creation of social and spatial relationships that encompass rather than divide North America. In doing so, she casts light on hitherto little known dimensions of US-Mexican economic and cultural relations.

Value is a process of deciding which qualities are worth discriminating or ranking, such as color or pristineness. It’s as part of this process that we can see how unequal political and economic relationships influence value-making.

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