Rating Rock & Mineral Field Guides by Dr. Hal Mahan
Customers who visit us at The Compleat Naturalist in BiItmore Village often ask us to recommend "the best" field guides for rocks and minerals. Recently we
carefully reviewed and rated the six main field guides we stock. We used the following criteria, in order of importance, for rating the guides:
1. Coverage: How well the guide covers most of the rock and mineral
species that would be encountered?
2. Illustrations: Since most beginner rockhounds compare their unknown
specimens to these, how good are the photos and/or drawings?
3. Specimen selection: How typical are the specimens illustrated? i.e. Are
most of the illustrations of "museum quality' specimens? Or, are the
illustrations of specimens typical of those the average collector might encounter?
4. Identification tests: Does the guide indicate how to distinguish between
two (or more) similar species?
5. Locality coverage: How thoroughly are the U.S. and world localities covered?
6. Collecting advice and other techniques
7. Clarity: Are the explanations about subjects such as crystal systems clear
8. Is a glossary provided as an extra aid in making technical terms more
• Handbook of Rocks, Minerals, and
Gemstones, by Walter Schumann,
By far, the best overall field guide:
best especially for rock identification,
with an up-to-date classification.
Excellent gemstones identification
section. Excellent for coverage of
world-wide localities; poor for U.S.
localities. No glossary, and weak on
• Eyewitness Handbook - Rocks and Minerals, by Chris Pellant, 1992 ($17.95)
Excellent illustrations of typical specimens. Some tests given. Biggest fault
- no localities given.
• Simon & Schuster's Guide to Rocks and Minerals, by Martin Prinz (ed.), 1977
Excellent coverage of crystals and crystal systems. Language very technical,
however. Also, specimens tend to be 'showy" museum specimens. Up-to-date
classification of rocks.
• The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals, by
Charles Chesterman, 1978 ($19.00)
Excellent coverage, especially of minerals. Species arranged by colors, which
doesn't always work in identification process.
• Peterson Field Guide Series: A Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals, by
Frederick Pough, 1997 (Fifth Edition), ($17.95)
The long-awaited revised edition of Frederick H. Pough's Rocks and Minerals
in the Peterson Field Guide Series has finally arrived in Asheville at The
Compleat Naturalist. This new, Fifth Edition has 385 new color photographs of
rocks, minerals, and geologic formations.
This all new field guide should be in the library of every amateur
mineralogist. The color photographs are a great improvement over earlier
editions, and much of the text has been updated and vastly improved. Of note
are the fine illustrations "of geologic formations, including a section with
photos of the best places to find minerals; mines and quarries; and an
excellent color illustration and text on plate tectonics. Most outstanding,
though, are the superb color illustrations of minerals.
As with Dr. Pough's earlier editions, emphasized are how one, with little
equipment and a few basic chemicals, can achieve greater identification
accuracy tests that are mostly absent in other mineral guides. He also
describes how similar minerals can be distinguished, and lists far more North
American localities that are found in other mineral guidebooks. This is a
pocket-sized book, then, to carry along with you when you visit other areas
of our continent. It is also the best guidebook to have if you really want to
improve your mineral identification skills.
• A Guide to Field Identification: Rocks and Minerals (Golden Field Guide
Series), by Charles Sorrell, 1973 ($10.95)
Poorest aspect of this guide: illustrations are merely drawings. Some
excellent tests demonstrated (Borax bead); fair localities and treatment of
It is obvious from the above that there are some excellent field guides on the market, but each has shortcomings. Our recommendations: use two or more different guides to overcome this. If you can only afford one, buy Schumann; but if you can afford it, the best field guide "library' would be Schumann, Pellant, and Pough: the first two for illustrations and coverage, Pough's book for separating similar species (with the tests given for each) and a more thorough coverage of U.S. collecting localities. The best of all worlds: acquire all these guides, plus others, if you want to have the most help in identifying your "unknown" specimens.
Reprinted from Mountain Mineral Monthly, Vol.65 Number 8, August 1997 and Vol.65 Number 10, October 1997. Used by permission.