New Worlds February/March 1979

Two bright Leichts among the treasures of the earth

By Hubbard Keavy     Photos by Mike Jones

Mrs. Ruth Kirkby

Jerupa Hills Cultural Center

Riverside, California

Dear Mrs. Kirkby:

Can you recall visiting Riverside Elementery School about thirty nine years ago with your collection of rocks and minerals? That little show-and-tell episode had a profound effect on the life and fortunes of a fifth grader name Wayne Leicht. 

It was a long time ago, Mrs. Kirkby, but you might even remember that bright-eyed, eager kid; he was the one who asked all the questions about where you found those wonderful rocks. You told him about the hill, not far out of town, and advised him to go there to find specimens of his own. 

From that modest start, Wayne Leicht has become one of the world’s foremost authorities on minerals and gemstones. He travels the world over buying fine gems and minerals for prestigious institutions and serious collectors. Among his clients are most of the major museums of the world, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, British Museum, Carnegie and the most famous of all, the Smithsonian Institution. 

Success didn’t come overnight to your young friend, Mrs. Kirkby. After high school he learned the tool and die trade, took night classes at Cal State, Long Beach to earn an engineering degree, and in between, studied mineralogy, geology, X-ray and optical crystallography. Then came twelve years as a research and development engineer for Aeronutronic-Ford in Newport Beach, with three years out working for U.S. military intelligence. 

These days Wayne Leicht moves around the world from a Laguna Beach gallery named Kristalle (German meaning crystals). He works there with his wife Dona, who, thanks to you, is also a gemologist. 

Wayne is modest. He tells you little about himself, and then frequently in far too few words. Fortunately, Mrs. Kirkby, Dona does not suffer from the same problem. 

With swirls of laughter, here’s how she tells about her first date with Wayne: “He took me to a rock quarry in Pennsylvania. Good grief, I thought. In pouring rain he picked up specimens and he was so delighted with the whole thing! But I wondered what kind of a nut I’d met, then asked myself if I really wanted this relationship to go any further.”

It did. One might say (but shouldn’t) that he became the Leicht of her life. Dona fell in love first with Wayne and then with his hobby. 

Wayne at thirty-nine is solidly built and wears a beard that gives him a professional look, appropriate for his speaking engagements. His wife is a blue-eyed blonde who would seem to be out of her element grubbing around in a mind or a quarry. But while they have little time now to visit forgotten mining towns and other diggings, their experiences in collecting give them a hard-earned appreciation of the fine pieces in the world’s great museums. 

Dona calls Wayne the most tolerant and patient man she knows. At age seventeen he built his own faceting machine from scratch, and he now owns one of five faceting machines in this country large enough to cut stones of 20,000 carats. Dona mentions that he is co-patenter of a sensitive magnet device which led to the development of the magneto-cardiogram. “Oh, that,” he says. “Just a scientific curiosity. The medical profession has not decided on the usefulness of the magnetic fields associated with the heart.”

The Leichts’ conversation is studded with such terms as “morphological crystallography,” “paragenesis of the deposit” and “pseudomorphism.” They discuss Pliny’s five volumes on metals, ores and gems, written about A.D. 77, as knoledgeably as others discuss today’s Wall Street Journal. 

As new as Dona Leicht is to this esoteric field, she shares a distinction with only a few hundred persons in the several millenia history of minerals. She began learning about the treasures the earth conceals only after their marriage fourteen years ago. Let Wayne tell about an incident that is certain to become a part of mineral lore:

“We have looked for specimens in hundreds of sites. One of our favorites is the long-abandoned Grandview Mine, four miles down into the Grand Canyon. On one of our twelve pack trips there, Dona turned up two specimens neither of us ever had seen before. With the permission of park officials, we brought back several pieces. The X-ray patterns didn’t fit any classical patterns, so we are sure they are a new species and not subspecies of some commoner minerals.”

The follow-up to Dona’s discoveries seems to be as exciting as finding a new star in the heavens. One piece was sent to the Smithsonian and the other to an expert at the University of Chicago famous for identifying new minerals. So far as the Leichts knew, the experts are still scratching their heads. These minerals are referred to now as “Unknowns 5 and 6.” Sometime in the future the Mineral Names Commission, made up of professionals from all over the world, will decide what Nos. 5 and 6 shall be baptized. 

As you know, minerals are named after their composition, such as cavansite: ca for its calcium, van for its vanadium and si for its silicate. Or where they were found, as Vesuvianite, discovered after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Or for the discoverer, like Wulfenite, which was found by a Professor Wulfen in Germany. Wouldn’t it be a proper tribute, Mrs. Kirkby, to name one of these unknowns “Donaleight?”

Although Wayne and Dona still enjoy collecting in the field, most of the fine gems and minerals they acquire come as a result of purchases of collections, or trades with museums. On occasion, a mine, perhaps halfway around the globe, will produce a few fine specimens; Wayne is generally contacted, or hears about it through an incredibly fast and accurate grapevine (the mineralogist’s version of the grapevine). This often results in hurried plane trips to exotic places to acquire the material at the source. 

On such a trip, more planned than most, Wayne traveled with Paul Desautels, who curates the fabulous gem and mineral collection at the Smithsonian. Their itinerary took them around the world and included a stop in Sri Lanka where Wayne purchased a four-and-one-half inch blue sapphire crystal. Desautels so admired it that it went to his museum. 

Within the last two years the Leichts purchased a large, and perhaps the best, privately owned gold collection ever assembled. It contained over 430 ounces of nuggeted and crystallized gold, mostly from California. One crystallized piece alone weighed over 42 ounces and was sold to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Museums are delights when Wayne calls on them, Mrs. Kirkby, for they usually know that he has something extraordinary for their collections. The Smithsonian was a very happy recipient of a record size rare gem from Bolivia called phosphophyllite, so rare that a stone of 27 carats was unheard of, the Museum’s largest being only 6 carats. The crystal was brought to Wayne by a collector who had just returned from South America. It was Wayne’s computer-like mind that remembered no museum in the world had a large cut gem of this material. He purchased it on the spot and had one of his staff of factors fashion it into the magnificent piece now prominently displayed in Washington D.C. Likewise, the Los Angeles County Museum will add a 618 carat blue topaz to its ever increasing collection. 

This incident describes something of how the ritual goes, Mrs. Kirkby. One day Wayne took from a safe a large piece of crystallized gold in a matrix of quartz. “In all the world there may be one or two finer specimens than this,” he said with awe. He knew a collector who would be wildly enthusiastic about owning such a fine piece. He phoned his client, who flew from teh East to a hurried meeting at the Los Angeles airport and bought it on the spot. 

Wayne and Dona’s home reflects their hobby come business. The walls are filled with every conceivable book relating to mineralogy and gemology. Here and there are sprinkled items of incredible beauty from nature. They maintain one of the finest private mineral collections in the country which is kept safely in a bank vault. The value of a collection such as theirs would be a shock to the uninitiated, but it is safe to say that it is probably equivalent to one of the larger yachts in Newport harbor. 

David, their outgoing ten-year-old, does not, at the moment, share his parents’ enthusiasm for inanimate things. Rather, he merrily enjoys his butterflies, snakes, spiders and tadpoles which abound in teh nature park near their Newport Beach home in the Village of Harbor View. His interest is encouraged and the Leichts hope their son will seek a career in science. 

Dona again: “Children come into our store with the pieces they have found, and Wayne ever so patiently explains to them what they have unearthed. He gets them so enthused about minerals; I’ve often thought he would be a wonderful teacher. He gives them pieces for their collections, and when a school group is touring the shop, he is never too busy to talk with them. He loves it when the kids show a genuine interest and are excited. He hopes they will be the avid collectors of tomorrow.”

It just could be that Wayne is subconsciously repaying a great debt to you, Mrs. Kirkby. 

Sincerely yours, 

Hubbard Keavy

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