I was born in New York City, during the time of the Great Depression, on December 28, 1933, to Lawrence Henry Conklin and Mildred DeCarlo Conklin. My mother's parents Michael and Celeste DeCarlo had emigrated from Avellino, Italy around 1890. My father, Lawrence Henry Conklin, senior traced his family to one John Conklin who was born in Nottingham, England in 1598, emigrated to Salem, Massachusetts in 1639 and established, with his brother Ananais, what many historians believe was the very first glass-works in America, indisputably it was the first in New England. Even before that, it is suspected the Conklins were French Huguenot glassmakers (called then, Concklaine) who emigrated from Lorraine in France to England. In the 15th century, and before, they may have been part of the vast glassmaking industry that flourished in Germany.
As soon as I was old enough to travel from 75th Street and First Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art I spent much time in the American Wing, especially the early New England period rooms. Although I disconnected from that influence for many years, I recalled it all later, and with my wife, Halina Aldona Zychlinski Conklin, purchased and restored the Beardsley House in Kent Hollow, Connecticut.
Mineral specimens have, obviously, played a major role in my life, and the first mineral specimen that I can remember was, I believe, either a galena cube or an agate slab, received as a Christmas present around my fourth or fifth year from my uncle, Anthony Schumacher (1894-1965.) This specimen, taken from me so I would not lose it, was promptly swallowed up in the family morass (there were four of us living in a small apartment) and was never again seen by me.If I could scrape up a nickel for bus fare, I would get to the American Museum of Natural History at Central Park West and 79th Street in a few minutes; otherwise the trip on foot took about an hour. In either case, when I arrived I would find myself walking past the stuffed lions, the elephants and even the dinosaurs to get to the Morgan Memorial Hall of Minerals. The displays were full of wonder for a young boy and he could learn so much from them too! One day I would concentrate on the study of pyrite and, perhaps, another day, on galena (still labeled galenite). If I were studying quartz I could look down on, perhaps, a hundred or or more specimens in one of those old, flat, glazed-top cases, lean over and, with my breath hot on the glass, get my nose to within inches of each piece. I could then study them and make comparisons as to varieties, localities, crystallizations, colors, etc., etc., learning much in the process.
By the time I was seven or eight I had, with the aid of my Uncle, a fairly good acquaintance with minerals. I remember how impressed he was when, on one of his visits, I showed him the catalogue of my collection. From that time on mineral specimens could always be counted on by me for Christmas and birthday presents and sometimes for no occasion at all, and they really accumulated.
Collections were different in those days. I considered any cut stone (faceted or cabochon) to be just as desirable as a crystallized mineral, and so did my uncle, whose minerals, even by today's higher standards, were superb. My uncle and I both had, in our collections, polished slabs of agates and other things like fossils, and even some shells. On early field-trips (sophisticated New York City style) I regularly visited the neighborhood jewelry shops to look through their scrap boxes of stones broken out of old rings, etc., and once found a superb, one and one-half carat, faceted Burmese ruby. I quickly paid the asking price of 10 cents! I sold that ruby many years later for $300 and the price today could make $10,000!
One mineral collecting memory of that same period, that remains vivid in my mind, centers around a large group of rock crystal quartz that someone told my father about. It was on display in an interior decorator's store window on 53rd Street. (Minerals were rarely seen publicly in those days and therefore it was really an event). My father told me about it and suggested that we go there and see if we could buy it. We looked it over in the window for quite a while before entering the store. It was an average example of Arkansas quartz with several broken crystals, perhaps about 8x10 inches in size, a rather routine specimen that might sell today for about $50, but then it seemed quite important, at least to my eyes. Well, apparently it was important, as the great and late interior decorator Rose Cumming explained to us, and the price was a staggering $2,000, as much as much as one would pay at that time for a new automobile!!
And there were true field-collecting possibilities on Manhattan Island in those days. I recall taking a long bus-trip to a street on its northern end, sitting down on the sidewalk, and chiseling malacolite (diopside) crystals from the Inwood marble using a two-pound sledgehammer. It was not long before I was ordered off the street by a gruff Irish policeman who considered my "collecting" to be nothing more than vandalism; the "location" after all was a New York City sidewalk. The Manhattan schist which outcrops frequently in Central Park, and often contains small embedded garnet crystals is another possible collecting site, but was shunned by me as being inappropriate, and, of course, highly illegal. Central Park does not need any extra demolition work, even with hand tools.
Some excellent specimens have been found in the pegmatite veins that traverse the Manhattan schist and the American Museum of Natural History has, (alas, put away in storage) an excellent assemblage of them collected mostly by B.B. Chamberlain around 1900 and who was a contemporary of George F. Kunz. I managed to get a few good examples from working excavations, but the blasted rock was usually hauled far out-of-town. Later in my life I followed a truckload of rock to Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx but with little success.
By the time I was about 14 years old my collection had grown to the point that a display cabinet was in order. I spoke to my father about this and he suggested that if I could design what I wanted he could get it built for me at the shop of the interior decorating firm for which he worked, L. Alavoine & Co. I was attending Brooklyn Technical High School and was studying mechanical drawing (at this time in my life I thought that I would become an electrical engineer) so the designing job was easy. About a year later the cabinet arrived and it was wonderful, complete with lights; even my Uncle Tony was envious. I promptly filled it up and it stayed that way for a very long time, even after I married and left my parents' apartment in 1956. Although it was my cabinet, filled with my minerals, it was my father's pride and joy and was literally the centerpiece of the tiny apartment. I remember many, many instances of guests arriving unexpectedly, and seeing my father jump up to turn the lights on in "the cabinet" so there could be no way the visitors would fail to ask about it. All the minerals were individually labeled, so my Father did a fairly good job of curating. I am happy to report that the cabinet survives today in the home of a good friend.
I once exhibited my minerals at a science fair in High School. Everyone who saw them was greatly impressed, and I always had more people looking at my display than there were around many of the others combined. I won no awards however, because my specimens "didn't do anything." Many years later I was told by Dr. Vincent Manson, Curator of Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History, that an innate prejudice against minerals existed at that institution (except, of course, in the earth-science departments) because "they had never been alive." One consolation at the science fair came in the form of a gift from a visiting teacher, and it was a lovely fire opal from Mexico. Later, as a college student, I exhibited my collection (by this time much more extensive) in the Great Hall at the City College of New York, but not in competition.During my college days I was shown, by Geology Professor Kurt E. Lowe, the original type specimens, if you will, of kunzite. They had apparently been deposited there by Charles Baskerville a City College chemistry professor who named the mineral for his friend and associate George F. Kunz. Can you imagine my shock, when almost forty years later they were offered to me as part of an exchange of mineral specimens with Harvard University. I am sure there is a fantastic story as to how they left City College and went to Harvard, but I'm not sure I want to be privy to it!
I enrolled at City College under unusual circumstances. As an "A" student at Brooklyn Tech, I needed no testing (or placement) grades to qualify for admission, and I was told to simply show up for registration on a certain August morning. Fortunately for me, I was assigned an upper-classman to help with the process, and I was to enroll in the engineering school and study electrical engineering. As I look back I think of this as a colossal Voltarian joke. I, who today can get a shock plugging a toaster into an outlet- an electrical engineer? But it was all set, and that was that! As I looked over a giant blackboard filled with the various courses offered and tried, with the help of my adviser, to make them all fit together, I found my eyes bugging-out over the listings of courses (not available to me as an engineering student, of course) such as geology, paleontology and mineralogy.I guess I was extremely naive at that time because I had no idea that a person could study such things in college, and, I thought, such pursuits were surely reserved for hobby purposes. My adviser tried to keep me on my original path but after I kept resisting his help and persisted in telling him all about my collections of minerals, fossils, gems, etc. He uttered, perhaps in mild disgust, words to the effect of "Well, why in hell don't you become a geologist?" to which I found myself replying "Yes, I will." And I did. These days I think about that anonymous adviser of almost 50 years ago and thank him silently.
My later history is very simple. I was able to turn a childhood hobby into a lifetime's work. For most of my adult life I commuted to New York from Connecticut on the New Haven Railroad with a few gentlemen who earned multiples of what I did, but they literally hated what they did for a living and always spoke glowingly of the day when they would retire. I, on the other hand, love my work so much that as I grow older I do not even think about retiring. Some friendly critics say that I have always been retired.
Unlike my old friends who are still on the train ( I now live on Manhattan Island) I get up in the morning and cannot wait until I arrive at my new office-showroom. I would rather be there than just about any other place on earth. My clients are museums and private mineral collectors and I have been engaged thus, for almost 53 years so far. In 1983 the newsletter publication Bottom Line/Personal called me "The world's foremost dealer in mineral specimens for the collector," and why would I dispute that?
Appraisals are an important part of my business, too. Due to my technical training in mineralogy, 53 years of dealing in mineral specimens, and my long memory, my appraisals are accepted and undisputed. I have appraised what many people think of as the two finest specimens of minerals in the world, currently at the American Museum of Natural History, the Newmont azurite and the Engelhard diamond.
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Lawrence H. Conklin
Wallingford, CT 06492
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