Rock & Gem
The Many Contributions of Benny Fenn
Living in Arizona, the heart of southwest mineral collecting country, gives mineral collectors a great source of specimens from both currently operating as well as old closed mines. Bordering Arizona to the south is Mexico - for decades an amazing source of mineral specimens. Miners who dug the ore from these mines during World War II simply became specimen miners when the mines shut down. Their production was nothing short of phenomenal. The three main conduits for their production into the United States for this deluge of minerals pouring out of Mexico were Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
In the 1950s Tucson was home to several retail- wholesale mineral dealers who handled Arizona and Mexican minerals. At that time, there was only one major mineral show in Arizona (Phoenix) until 1955 when the new Tucson Gem and Mineral Show opened in April. Because of easy access to Mexico and its huge mineral production, the quantity of minerals from at the Tucson show really took off in the 1960s. Dealers and collectors could do the show then head into Mexico to restock.
One Tucson wholesaler was Susie Davis, whose husband, Brooks, had been superintendent of mines and Mayor of Tombstone. Born in a copper mining camp, Susie was always interested in minerals. When they moved to Tucson she operated Davis Wholesale Minerals. She did the show in Phoenix, selling out of her car trunk in the parking lot where I met her.
In the following years I would visit Davis Minerals whenever in Tucson and that’s where, in 1965, I met Benny Fenn. Benny was just getting into the mineral business. Before that he and his young bride Elva were selling lapidary goods of opal. He began supplying Susie with Mexican specimens and she was his business mentor, although he had learned mining and mineral collecting from his gold-mining father and grandfather in Mexico.
Meeting Benny was my great fortune as he quickly evolved into one of the most important Mexican gem and mineral dealers and specimen miners who made almost a dozen major finds in Mexico. Add to that he was a wonderful and generous collecting companion.
Initially Benny did not know the mineral market but was a quick learner. Susie helped him learn mineral values and he was not afraid to ask for advice. At the 1972 Rocky Mountain Federation Show in Phoenix, hosted by my Mineralogical Society of Arizona club, Benny had one of the recentlymined Mapimi legrandite specimen to sell. The water table had dropped in the mine so miners could get into a lower level where legrandite was known to be.
Benny’s specimen, maybe the only one at the show, was a small 2x2 inch dark brown matrix with a lovely two inch yellow diverging spray of legrandite free standing on it. Benny was not sure what to ask for it and someone told him to ask me. I knew it was really a good specimen so we walked over to a collector I knew and I told the collector he should buy it for $500. He did! Benny told me later he had hoped to get at least $50 for it. Like all of us, he was learning!
As both a dealer and a specimen miner, Benny’s talent and his willingness to help others were very effective. He was bilingual and knew the people of Mexico which gave him an advantage over dealers from America and Europe going into the country to buy. His business ethics were impeccable. As a young miner himself he treated miners as equals and quickly developed a reputation for fair dealing and a willingness to help someone who made a mineral discovery.
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When approached by a rancher or cowboy who had stumbled onto something of possible value, Benny would teach the local how to stake a claim, how to mine specimens, even supplying necessary tools and equipment. Then he would market the specimens mined being fair to all involved.
Because of his reputation for fairness, he helped develop important mineral deposits we recognize today. If you have a fine red grossular garnet of Coahuila in your collection, thank Benny. These bright red crystals on white matrix are known worldwide. Benny set up the ranch owner who found the deposit with how to mine the specimens. He took me there to collect so I could do an article in Rock and Gem and co-write a technical article on the deposit.
Several times I met locals who had found something and Benny helped mine and market specimens for the finders. He helped others mine selenite crystals, gem moonstone and Sonora Sunrise, a red and blue-green jasper that is still popular with the lapidary crowd. I did not get to collect at the Sonora Sunrise lapidary rock found by a couple of gold prospectors high in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains.
Sonora Sunrise jasper is a combination of red cuprite and blue-green chrysocolla in jasper and cuts beautifully for cabs, jewelry stones and carvings. The deposit was so remote in the mountains there were no roads near it. So he helped the miners mine the rock which had to be packed out of the mountains on mules to a road. Tons of jasper were mine and Benny would meet them and truck the rock to his ranch, prepare it and market it. You still see Sonora Sunrise (Benny’s name) for sale at shows.
For nearly 50 years Benny supplied the world with large quantities of superb specimens of the best known Mexican mineral specimens, including wulfenite, mimetite, garnet, legrandite, calcite, datolite, smithsonite and many, many other species. Some he mined himself and others he got from specimen miners. He developed a network of miners in Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango and elsewhere in Mexico. They would contact him when something worthwhile was unearthed.
By the 1970s Benny and Elva were doing retail shows as well as running the wholesale business out of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Benny stuck to the old selling rule he learned from Susie Davis. Regardless of a mineral’s retail price the wholesale price was always half retail! Try that today!
Thanks to the skills he learned from his father and grandfather, Benny was a good miner and he made several very important major specimen recoveries, again now known worldwide. The Eruption mine, Los Lamentos Mountains south of El Paso, had produced very fine bright orange tabular wulfenite crystals on white onyx matrix. Crystals are square, thick nearly pseudo-cubic crystals whose edges are zoned. These sturdy crystals are on a brown microdescloisite covering the white onyx. These are the sturdiest wulfenite crystals you can own.