BRITAIN’S oldest gem-hunting club is looking for a new setting.
For 40 years members of the Edinburgh-based group have scoured Scotland for precious stones, before cutting and polishing them and mounting them in silver.
Now it faces extinction if it cannot find suitable new premises as it is finally being forced to leave the landmark building it has occupied since 1965.
Officials with the Scottish Mineral and Lapidary Club are now appealing for anyone who may know of suitable premises to contact them after their own efforts to find an affordable base drew a blank.
Generations of real-life treasure hunters have been inspired by the club and the members covet and promote Scotland’s home grown precious and semi-precious stones.
During field trips into fields, beaches, mountains and caves, they uncover gems inlcuding agates, Elie rubies, Cairngorm crystal and amethysts. Then at their Edinburgh base they use specialist tools to cut, grind, shape and polish the stones to be made into beautiful, hand-crafted jewellery.
Chairman Ron Mason, 76, said: “We have been thriving for all these years yet hardly anyone realises Scotland has so many of its own precious stones and very few people outside of our own community know we are here.
“It’s quite ironic, because we consider ourselves something of a hidden treasure. We are the oldest club of our type in Great Britain and really do have excellent facilities.
“Even though we are dealing with gemstones, it is a hobby and nothing else. There is no way members could make themselves a fortune. Given the time and effort that goes into collecting and working the stones, you could never realise a profit. We do it because we love it.”
Most club members keep the stones themselves or give them as gifts to friends and family,although once a year it has an open day where items are offered for sale to the public. Its only other income is from annual fees paid by the 175 members.
Mr Mason added: “We are not a wealthy organisation and this could finish us. Without a base members will very quickly start to drift away and anyone at all who has ever run a club knows that once that starts happening it is virtually impossible to go back.
“We know how lucky we’ve been to have had these premises and can’t really expect to remain in the city centre, much though we’d love to.
“If we can find somewhere with a roof, four solid walls and a lockable door, then we can do the rest. I’ve even looked at some industrial units on the outskirts of town, but even they cost between £9000 to £15,000-a-year in rent and rates.
“At the moment we pay £5000 a year and that’s about as much as we can afford. I suppose we are hoping for an old church hall or a disused basment somewhere.”
The current premises – on the News Steps between the High Street and Market Street are owned by the City of Edinburgh Council but are being sold when the authority moves into its purpose-built new HQ beside Waverley Station.
The club need a good-sized venue to house its huge collection of Scottish minerals, – second in size only to the collection in the National Museum of Scotland. Most of the club’s collection was gifted to it by the Free Church of Scotland when it moved out of its base on The Mound.
It also has an extensive range of equipment in various rooms. They include a saw room with diamond-edged tools for cutting stones, a lapidary room, where machines known as laps use fine grit to polish stones, a grinding room where other specialist tools are used to shape stone and a silver room, where precious metals can be smelted and worked.
It is a hobby that is particularly fascinating and educational for children and the club accepts members from the age of 10. Renowned city jeweller Alistir Tait, joined as a 10-year-old boy and has built his entire life and career round the love of gemstones.
His Rose Street shop, Alistir Wood Tait Antique and Fine Jewellery, still specialises in selling Scottish gold and gemstones, including the Scottish “Pebble Jewellery” which was hugely popular around the globe in the late 19th century, when favoured by Queen Victoria.
Alistir, now 50, first caught the bug when his father Alan, an accountant, took him to the hobbies exhibition at Waverley Market in 1963. Now Alistir is respected gemmologist and world-expert on Scotland’s native gems and jewellery-making heritage.
He added: “I still regularly use the club and would be genuinely and deeply upset if it was forced to close. Down the years it has got hundreds of children and young people out in to the country learning about how the world around them was formed.
“It also teaches practical skills in how to use all the equipment and there is nothing like the satisfaction of turning a pebble that looks like a dirty old potato into a beautifully cut and polished gemstone.
“Like all the other members I will be doing anything I can to help find new premises as I believe it would be a tragedy if this club was to fall by the wayside.
“Disappointingly few people realise that Scotland has such a wide variety of native precious and semi-precious stones and there is also very little recognition of Scotland’s long and proud jewellery-making traditions. This club is one of the few organisations doing anything to reverse that.
“I would urge anyone who knows of any potential premises to get in touch.”