Federation of Southern African Gem and Mineralogical Societies.
Federasie van Suider-Afrikaanse Siersteen en Mineralogies Verenigings.
The SA Gem & Mineral Club of Port Elizabeth was founded in 1954, and was the first Gem Club in South Africa. The founder members were Mike Karp, a journalist, Norman Brittle, a school teacher and Mrs Kate MacIntosh, a well-known concert cellist. Mike Karp had been in touch with enthusiasts in the United States and had been sent copies of the Lapidary Journal. At first the founder members started off by meeting after work at a tea-room in town to consider the feasibility of establishing such a club. Some of them had no idea what a semi-precious stone looked like, although they were enthusiastic and actually hoped to find suitable material in die Port Eliabeth locality. They agreed to persevere and the formation of the club was duly announced. Mike wrote a note to the editor of the Lapidary Journal and it was advertised that the club has been formed at a meeting held on the 20th November 1954.
The members made various attempts at shaping stones but the grindstones just disappeared – the apparatus was useless. So they acquired books and consulted with companies supplying abrasive tools. Their methods were still pretty primitive when a lady in America offered to exchange a small polishing machine for an ostrich skin handbag. This set the Club on the right road. Then the son of one of the members set up a mud saw which members were able to use. The next step was finding suitable premises to set up a workshop. Eventually this was offered to the club by a member and they were organised. Later, they moved into a vacant garage in Cape Road and at that time had a diamond saw and silicon carbide grinding stones.
The club had in the meantime, gained a few more members and it was decided that meetings should be held on a monthly basis. The Chairman approached the Director of the local Museum, Dr Geoff McLachlan, who agreed to let the club meet at the Museum. At that stage they were complete novices as far as stones were concerned and depended upon Dr McLachlan and a Professor Mountain to inform them of the geology of the country and what could be found in the various areas.
Although the Eastern Cape is generally lacking in semi-precious stones, it is rich in marine fossils and petrified wood. The Sundays River Valley is world-renowned for such material. The club was therefore able to organise excursions to look for fossils and, on one occasion, collected a fossilized tree fern at Dunbrodie. A sculptor from Cape Town created what he called “The Head of Moses” from one piece and the “Head of a Poet” from another. In 2004, the late Norman Brittle wrote a piece on the information and development of the club on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary (on which this article is based). At that time the “Head of a Poet” was still at the local Municipal Art Gallery.
Members of the club obtained supplies of semi-precious stones by collecting agates from Kimberley and then travelling across the North Western Cape to Griquatown, Prieska, Kakamas and Augrabies. They were lucky enough to order and acquire bags of Botswana agates to supply all the members with good quality rough. They went so far as to order a drum of Mooka chalcedony from Australia, having considerable difficulty in clearing this at Customs. The Chairman, Normal Brittle, acquired his first parcel of semi-precious stones from a Piet Marais of Prieska, who in those early days, was setting such material in cement blocks for sale to the public. Normal also answered an advertisement in the Lapidary Journal to send stamps to a Mr Mueller in exchange for stones. He sent 16 000 stamps in the first parcel and received a fantastic selection of rough material. Nowadays it is easy to buy whatever rough one wants from dealers, yet ironically, the number of those who polish stones is declining.
At the inception of FOSAGAMS, our club was one of the original members. The man responsible for forming FOSAGAMS, Ronnie Erasmus, was originally from Port Eliabeth and a member of our club.
Over the years we have had very successful exhibits at Agricultural Shows and Hobby Fairs, where we have provided the necessary machinery to demonstrate the various facets of this rewarding hobby to the public. In addition members have been active in all branches of the hobby and contributed to its promotion in various ways. For instance, our founder member, Mrs Kate MacIntosh, was the author of the book “A Collector’s Guide to Rocks, Minerals and Gemstones of Southern Africa”, which was first published in 1976, and which has been revised and reprinted several times including in Afrikaans.
A monthly newsletter serves to keep our members as well as other clubs informed of ongoing activities. Noël Pearse, our club secretary for 40 years, was responsible for this from 1986 to late 2009, when the current club Secretary, Gillian Towers, took over this function. Colin Towers was elected Chairman of the club in 2009 following the resignation of Norman Brittle, founder member and Chairman for almost all of the 55 years of the club’s existence to that date! Normal and Noël were made Honorary Life Members in May 2010. Sadly Norman passed away on 15th February 2012, 13 days after his 902nd birthday, after a long and productive life in the lapidary arts.
Regular club competitions are held to encourage members to improve their skills, and members are also encouraged to enter the recently instituted SA Gem Cutting Challenge as well as the Geelong International Competition. Our club has excelled at the SA competition, in both number and quality of entries. In previous years, our club entered National Show competitions such as in Cape Town in 1990, where our members did very well, coming home with many awards.
Over the years the locations of both the club’s well-equipped workshop and the monthly meetings have changed. The club workshop is still situated at the back of Norma Brittle’s property at 4 Pancras Street, Sydenham, by kind permission of his friend Arthur Jackson, and is open to members and visitors on Saturday afternoons. In addition, the monthly meetings of the club continue on the last Thursday of every month except December, currently at the Guineafowl Room, Training Centre, St George’s Hospital in Park Drive. The membership of the club has shown a steady decline in recent years, in common with all similar organisations. In 1974 we had 64 members, in 2000 34 and our current paid-up membership is 13 full membership plus 5 spouses and 1 Honorary Life Member. Nevertheless, the club remains active and its members enthusiastic, and it is hoped that our new venue will encourage support as it is safe and secure.