Rock stars: Mined masterpieces

Beautiful crystals

Crystals like amethyst are the ROCK STARS of mineralogy -- and one collector’s particular obsession Tracy Smith shows us the goods:

Seattle, Washington wears its natural beauty out in the open. But the views can be just as stunning indoors if you know where to look.

In a neighborhood not far from the city, there’s a warehouse that looks like Mother Nature’s private museum. For security reasons we can’t reveal the location, for inside are giant crystals, some the size of a compact car. Perfect formations, in brilliant white or clear as glacial ice.

Smith said, “When I think of crystals, I think of those little, dainty things that people wear around their necks.”

“This is not one of those,” laughed collector Richard Berger, who found one 7,000-lb. specimen in Namibia.

Richard Berger shows Tracy Smith a crystal the size of a small car. CBS News

Berger has spent his adult life -- and, he says, most of his money -- chasing the biggest, most perfect specimens he could find.

And he’s especially proud of concretions: great swirling masses of rock from Fontainebleau, France, formed into fantastical shapes when ancient hot springs suddenly cooled -- as if liquid was suddenly frozen.

A crystal from Fontainebleau, France. CBS News

“It went from water to rock in minutes,” said Berger.

And what might be more amazing is how Berger’s rocks have transformed him.

In 1968, he was a Philadelphia medical student on a road trip across America when he happened across a tiny shack in Wyoming with crystals for sale. “And I saw this little piece, and it’s the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, right? And I was completely enchanted by it.”

So enchanted, in fact, that he dropped out of medical school and basically roamed the Earth buying the biggest and most startling things ever dug up.

One -- that is actually the fossilized bottom of a tropical lake – is imprinted with ancient fish around a palm frond, dug up in what is now Wyoming. “This is a photographic memory of life on planet Earth 52 million years ago,” he said.

And another quartz crystal formation looks like it came straight off a “Superman” movie set.

“This is from Krypton, also known as Arkansas,” Berger said.

Richard Berger has spent his life amassing a monumental collection of crystals, some the size of a car. CBS News

Some believe that just handling a crystal can have a healing effect, and they have long been symbols of power. Just look at the crowns used in British coronations.

“And what’s on their head?” said Berger. “Mostly diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, crystals that have been cut into a variety of shapes, and made into a hat.”

He’s never owned a crown, but by 1977 Berger had collected enough crystals to open a store in his native New York City.  

Miriam Dyak and her girlfriend were customers one day in 1982. “He thought my friend was cute; he didn’t really notice me,” Miriam said.

“Paid no attention to her whatsoever,” Richard said. “I made up for it, though!”

Long story short, they married in 1985. And as their relationship grew, so did Richard’s collection.

“Are there times, Miriam, where you have to say to Richard, ‘Enough is enough’?” Smith asked.

“Oh, I’ve tried! I don’t think I’m very effective at that,” Miriam replied.

To which Richard added, “I say that’s an understatement.”

They’ve managed to make a living selling a piece here and there, but most of their money has gone back into this collection -- which they say has now become too expensive for them to keep.

“I mean, yes, we need to sell it, ‘cause otherwise we’d have nothing,” Miriam said.

Richard said, “This represents a very, very significant investment. But that doesn’t mean that we left enough for ourselves, right, to live that comfortably. So, you know, we have our 15-year-old car, and we have no stock portfolio, and we don’t own a house. And we live in a 315-square-foot apartment.”

“Yeah, the crystals get 6,000 square feet,” Miriam said.

“Right, and we are sitting on the greatest collection of giant crystals in the world.”

A specimen from Richard Berger’s collection. CBS News

They’re hoping to sell it all to someone who will keep the collection intact, and build a museum around it. Berger won’t quote a price, except to say it’s in the multi-millions.

They’ve had offers, but only for individual pieces, like the Wyoming lake bottom.

“We had somebody, six months ago, who wanted to put it in the lobby of a new Sheraton they were building,” Berger said.

And you said? “No. With five cents in the bank, I said no to selling that, right? Because we’re trying to hold the integrity of this collection together. And we don’t want to sell off iconic pieces. At a certain point, if that becomes improbable to sustain, then you go, ‘All right, enough of this.’”

But not yet.

After all, they’re not just rocks: To Berger, they’re the foundation of a dream he wants to share with the world.

“It’s a way of inspiring people, right?” he said. “It’s about inspiration. I think what the world needs right now more than just about anything is inspiration.”

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