WARREN TAYLOR RECALLS THE GROUNDBREAKING DAYS OF A WORLD-CLASS GEM AND MINERAL COLLECTION THAT SPANS THREE GENERATIONS
Interview by Hector Cantú ? Portrait by Kevin Gaddis Jr.
FOR 20 YEARS, the Rainbow of Africa museum enthralled mineral and gem enthusiasts from all over the United Kingdom. It’s here that Warren Taylor fashioned customized cases to display more than 300 of the world’s most beautiful cut stones, collected from across Africa over a 50-year period.
Now, the Rainbow of Africa collection, now owned by Taylor’s son, is going to auction. The collection includes tanzanite from the Merelani Hills in Tanzania, intense orange mandarin garnet from northern Namibia, and golden and purple scapolite from Tanzania. A single piece, a grass-green tsavorite garnet from Tanzania – one of the largest tsavorite gems in the world – is expected to realize at least $1 million.
“The sheer size of Africa and the instability of many governments mean a collection this important and beautiful will probably never be assembled again,” says Mary Fong/Walker, director of fine minerals at Heritage Auctions. “The gemstones in this collection have been carefully selected over five decades and reflect the array of African gems that come in all the colors of the rainbow to create a world-class collection.” Taylor, who was born in South Africa and now lives in England, sees the collection as a snapshot of the continent that begins in the 1960s. “It’s a snapshot in time,” says
Taylor, who acts as the collection’s curator. “And that snapshot won’t be repeated again. Somebody else will take another snapshot, but this is a snapshot of the early times when the gem discoveries of Africa, excluding diamonds, really started and got going.” The Intelligent Collector talked to Taylor and his wife Di when the couple visited Heritage Auctions in Dallas to work on the October auction.
Your family and your wife’s family are originally from England. How did you end up in South Africa?
Warren: My grandfather emigrated from England in 1911, and my father was born in South Africa. He grew up on the eastern side of South Africa in Natal, and it was in the climbing of the Drakensberg mountains that his first exposure to rocks and crystals started. That was about 1920, when he was about 8 years old.
What was your grandfather doing in South Africa?
Warren: He started a new business running a shop.
A gem shop?
Warren: No, it was a general dealer shop in the hamlet of Creighton, and his uncle, also from Birmingham, was running the hotel in Creighton. My father grew up in what’s called the Drakensberg, or the Mountains of the Dragons, and they have a fair degree of quartz crystals, amethysts, agates … those sorts of things. He grew up with an interest in rocks, and then moved to Durban in the early 1930s. After that, from about 1956 onwards, his interest in rocks grew and grew significantly to the extent that he in the early 1960s took me and my brother into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho or, as it was called then, Basutoland. Of course Basutoland is landlocked in the middle of South Africa and it is set fairly high, up at 10,000 feet, and it has significant mineralization in it. So there are garnets, diamonds, amethysts, quartz crystals, lovely quartz crystals, and a lot of the sort of stuff that an early collector of stones would love to get involved with. You could dig them out of the side of the road. They were that freely available.
Did he ever explain to you why these held such fascination for him?
Warren: He didn’t understand geology at that stage. And indeed actually the mineralization of Lesotho, or Basutoland, has only been formulized once the early diamond mines were discovered in about 1959, 1960, 1961. And we – my brother and I – had a maid who was a Lesotho lady, and she came from the area where the diamonds were discovered, and her son was involved in the early mining of what today are the big diamond mines at Letseng and Kao. She said, “If you come to Lesotho, you can see all these stones,” and so he went across to Kao and took me up to see those stones and that’s really where the big interest in collecting minerals and gems really started.
So this was basically a treasure-hunting type thing?
Warren: It was. It wasn’t based on anything that was scientific or it wasn’t even trying to say, “I need to set up a collection of this, this, this and this.” It wasn’t that at all. That came later in time. But all his father’s knowledge of rocks and minerals grew through reading. He had qualified as an accountant, not a geologist or engineer. As that knowledge grew, he passed it on to me.
Over the next 10, 15 years, he and I would take little field trips to look for specimens of gold, specimens of copper ore, whatever we could find, and he built a couple of mineral collections. They were collections of micro-minerals, typically ranging from 5 millimeters in size up to 10, 15 millimeters in size. As the collections grew, the need to explore the collections, to understand them, to catalog them drove the depth of knowledge into mineralogy. And then when I was at university, having completed my pre-university studies, I studied chemical engineering and during the chemical engineering course, there was the opportunity to attend at no extra cost first-year and second-year geology lectures at the University of Natal at Durban. And I attended those. It exposed me to a more formalized approach to geology.
So this interest was directly planted by your father?
Warren: Directly planted by him. And then as was the case for all engineering students, at the end of your second, third and final years, actually, you had to undertake an eight-week assignment in the industry, and it was he who said to me, “Thou shall go to Tsumeb.” Now Tsumeb is a legendary copper, lead and zinc mine in the north of Namibia, founded by the Germans in about the late 1890s, and it’s probably the world’s premier location for mineral specimens. And he said you should go there, and …
Di: It wasn’t an easy thing to get there. It entailed thousands of miles of travel by trains over four days.
Warren: It was diesel trains to start with, then a three-day steam journey to Windhoek and then up to Tsumeb. It was 1972. I worked on the smelter at Tsumeb. Tsumeb at that stage was owned by an American company that was mining it for copper, lead and zinc. Tsumeb produced the most marvelous mineral specimens of copper, lead and zinc. It was a freak of nature’s plumbing that brought these waters up 2,000 meters of fractures in the rock to produce probably what are the benchmark crystals for copper, lead and zinc in the world. And that really got the interest in the minerals going.
I spent most of my salary buying specimens from miners. I collected some wonderful specimens. At the end of it, of course, I suppose I didn’t think about how I was going to get these things across 5,000 kilometers back down to Durban. My father said, “It’s no problem. We will come up.” So he drove up in a Land Rover with my mother and we loaded the Land Rover with all these specimens and, of course, being copper, lead and zinc, all the specimens were extremely heavy.
So was this the starting point of your serious collecting?
Warren: Tsumeb was the start of that next chapter of a serious collector.
Di: I would say the special thing about Warren’s interest in minerals – initially it was crystals rather than cut stones – was that he’s very into displaying them. Very often when you visit mineral collectors, and we’ve met wonderful people who are mineral collectors, you go into dark rooms and they have little boxes and they’re all hidden.
Warren: You need to unwrap them and get a torch out to look at them! You’ve spent a lot of effort acquiring the specimen, hunting it down, finding the right people. Now to go that extra little bit of distance to display it and put it out so that everybody can enjoy it. I think any person must find it amazing that the way nature was designed by the creator allowed those crystals to stack in a very specific way and grow to the beauty that today everybody says, “Look at that. Isn’t it beautiful?” If nature didn’t put them together like that, it would be very different, and once nature has put them together like that, I believe it’s the right thing to display them so everybody else can appreciate them.
So after crystals, you moved to gemstones?
Warren: Having accumulated a fairly sizable collection of crystals and the rough for the crystals, we then moved to the next chapter, and the next chapter was a focus on the gemstones of Africa. And that’s probably where I’ve spent the last 25 years focusing my effort. That’s where, having passed the collection across to my son Ian for his 18th birthday, he and I have collaborated in enhancing the gemstone side.
We’ve kind of left the natural crystals, particularly the Tsumeb stuff, alone, although we did acquire two very sizable Tsumeb collections in about 1985. But Di said to me, “Don’t you pass away on me with all these thousands of stones sitting there.” Included in that was a big collection of the uranium ores from the Congo. I had worked in Lubumbashi in the Congo. My father had links to people who had access to specimens from the Congo. I also had a fairly sizable collection of meteorites, the iron meteorites from the area of Gibeon in Namibia. But Di did say, “Listen, just don’t pass away and leave me with all this.”
Di: It’s good to have a hobby that is all-encompassing, but I said I don’t want in our old age to still have the collection, because we bought a collection from a friend who had died, and the widow had to sell the collection.
And that’s when your family decided to go to auction?
Warren: Heritage Auctions had better expertise in this particular area compared to Sotheby’s and Christie’s. It was a short list. At the end of the day, the package that Heritage was able to offer confirmed that Heritage was the right way to go.
I see that the Rainbow of Africa Gem and Mineral Collection is considered among the world’s finest…
Warren: The focus has been only gemstones from Africa, including Madagascar. Now, in all the searching for the gemstones, I tried very hard to make sure we would get the provenance sorted out. We did work hard on cutting all the pieces of rough that we could, and as a result, the focus of this collection on Africa has resulted in 400 specimens of cut stones, and of those, about 110 are in the top five for Africa in terms of their size. That is a significant proportion of what I call top five stones in the collection, and that was only possible because of focusing on and looking for good-quality rough and good-quality finished stones, and working closely with people to ensure the cutting yielded the right sort of material.
In my relationship with cutters, we’ll look at the rough, we’ll assess what could be cut, what was not possible, look at the options, then make a choice. If it broke, we’d agreed we’re not going to let that stand in the way of our friendship. There were a couple of breaks where a flaw developed in a stone that had been completely unforeseen despite our best endeavors, and the stone cracked.
I would assume you and your cutters were often more successful than not.
Warren: At the end of the day, we probably had, I would guess, a 95 percent success rate on the cutting of the stones. And in all cases, we cut for light return rather than weight. The brilliance and sparkle was always our focus. For a person who wants to know what stones could be cut coming out of Africa, this collection offers some unparalleled opportunity for that person to acquire those stones.
Where did you acquire most of your collection?
Warren: I found very little myself in the mines. You would never go to a person’s mine and pick up a piece. The good quality stuff involves the right place, the right time, the right circumstances. And cash is the key. If you’re asking how much rough was purchased and how much was completely finished, it’s probably three-quarters and one-quarter.
Have you ever thought about what sets gemstone collectors apart from other collectors?
Warren: I think the category of collectors of minerals and gems is not too dissimilar from some of the other natural science collectors, where you are collecting maybe a butterfly or a meteorite, and it’s all to do with the fact that generally nature can put together a very perfect item but not everything that nature does is perfect. And it’s trying to find those few occasions where the item in nature is free from any flaw of any kind that makes it difficult. And, of course, because you are dealing with nature, you are dealing with something that is out in the open air. They [gem collectors] are adventurous. They are willing to rough it, to take risks on other elements. Snakes. Floods. Getting stuck in the almost non-existent roads. It gives those people a certain ability to co-exist with nature but at the same time search for those little gems of nature that are absolutely perfect. The perfect butterfly. The perfect mineral specimen. A perfect bird with all of its plumage intact.
Has your collecting ever put you in danger?
Warren: Generally, not. I don’t believe I’ve ever been robbed or mugged. I don’t think I’ve ever had any serious injury.
Di: He’s a very good communicator.
I’m asking because in this collecting category, some people think of Indiana Jones chasing treasures in the jungle or in the desert.
Warren: No. There will be the opportunities, if you’re carrying huge amounts of money, for a robbery. But it was not like that with me. And if you communicate with people, and you show them respect, mostly people will return that respect – whether they are in Basutoland, Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya, Swaziland, even in the Congo, where they worry about cannibals. I never worried about cannibals. But the only thing I would say is if you’re careful with your planning, and you’re sensible – in terms of how you approach your travel, your collecting, you don’t go and just pick up stones on another man’s plot – you’ll be fine.
What advice do you have for people who want to collect at this level?
Warren: I guess it’s to be observant and to be patient. Firstly, to discern what’s good and what’s not so good. And secondly, to recognize that to get those perfect specimens may take you many, many, many years. So when you are new in it, like I was when I was 10 years old, anything that has a slight bit of glitter was wonderful. But by the end of it when your eye is more discerning, you’re saying, “Well, that crystal face has got a little nick on it. I don’t care for it.”
Looking back, as you go to auction, what’s been the most fulfilling aspect of your collecting?
Warren: I think it’s the wonderful times Di and I had together when we were doing it. We’ve been married now for 35 years. That’s been a wonderful experience and the chance to share it with the children has also been wonderful. We have a photograph of them, all sitting in the middle of the desert, on a fossilized tree trunk. Now, which parents can say, “My children have been into the desert, five days, found it, and then sat on it? And then brought a piece back?” One of the other things that came out of collecting was the ability to meet wonderful friends who shared a similar passion. And by and large all those friendships were wonderfully uplifting experiences and I still have wonderful friends who are still in the mineral world. And for me, that was as much a benefit as the actual excitement of chasing a stone, finding it, acquiring it, or chasing and finding a rough, having it cut and then displaying it – the friendships that came with all of that.
So what will you both be doing now?
Warren: Less worrying about security! When you have a collection of this stature, you always worry about leaving your home. Now that it’s with Heritage, I don’t have to worry about it. Of course, we’ll certainly be spending more time with the family and I won’t have to be doing as much, but we’ll look for some new projects to keep us busy.
HECTOR CANTÚ is editor of The Intelligent Collector magazine.