The Forgotten Legacy of British Mineralogist John Mawe

Justin K Prim
Jul 3 · 16 min read

If you ask a gemologist today what they know about John Mawe, chances are they’ve never heard of him. This is unfortunate because not only did John Mawe lead an action-packed life that included adventuring to different parts of the world hunting for minerals and running a mineral shop in Regency-era London, but he also helped pioneer the amateur lapidary trend that would become a favorite Victorian past time.

To accurately tell the story of John Mawe, we need to set up the environment that he was born into which helped to inspire his greatness. On May 25, 1759, three marriages were performed in All Saints Church in Derby, England. One was between Samuel and Elizabeth Mawe, John’s parents. The other marriages were for marble worker and mineral dealer Richard Brown II as well as clockmaker George Whitehurst, whose brother John Whitehurst, the pioneer of Derbyshire mineralogy, was a witness to all three weddings. Both Richard Brown and John Whitehurst would end up playing inspirational roles in John Mawes life, though for now John has not yet been conceived.


Queen Street with All Saints Church (Derby Cathedral). Photo by Justin K Prim

John was born in 1766 in a house on Queen Street that faced the church that his parents married in. Though John’s parents didn’t have any of their children baptized, Richard Brown II, who was also the Parish Clerk of the church across the street, probably knew John since the day he was born. John’s mother Sarah died when he was 10 years old and a year later, he became a merchant marine officer. This was the beginning of what would become an exceptionally adventurous life. John was already collecting minerals and shells before he left for sea, likely inspired by friendships with his mineral interested predecessors, Richard Brown and John Whitehurst. From 1777 to 1793, John was at sea and eventually became a ship’s officer. Britain’s trade was rapidly expanding around the world and John later wrote that he once “sounded on a coral reef in the channel of Mozambique.” It’s clear that these early years of exploration and adventure set the tone for John’s life and later expeditions around the world.

John’s father died in 1783 while John was at sea. John’s oldest brother inherited their fathers bakery and continued on with the family business while John inherited real estate in his hometown of Derby as well as nearby Stanley and was put under the guardianship of baker Joseph Sowter. John was not destined to be a baker though. John remained at sea for 10 more years and in his later books, he tells us that he visited places all over the world including Morocco, Jamaica, and Bombay and he collected shells and minerals in many of these places. Eventually, he decided it was too dangerous to be at sea during wartime so when war broke out with France in 1793, John came back to Derby.

The Masters Daughter

The 27 year old John quickly began an apprenticeship with Richard Brown II, who had become quite well known locally for his marble factory. By the time John joined the company, Mr. Brown was already running two local workshops, including the water-powered mill inside the Old Silk Mill in Derby where they carved monumental objects such as urns, candelabras, obelisks, and fireplaces out of Chelleston Alabaster, Ashford Black Marble, and Blue John from Castleton.

Section of an 1806 Map of Derby showing the Marble Works. Engraved by J. Roper from a drawing by G. Cole

Mr. Brown’s wife, Ann Hind was related to the Hall family of Castleton and in 1760, Richard Brown and Joseph Hall were able to get a concession to mine the colorful Blue John fluorite at Treak Cliff Cavern in Castleton. When John joined Mr. Brown’s company in 1793, Brown was already famous for his carving work, as was his father and grandfather before him. In that same year, Mr. Brown took over another lease and opened his third and most advanced workshop on Old St Helens in Derby. This one was to be powered by steam instead of the running river, so he commissioned a 1 horse power Boulton and Watt type engine to power the mills.

John not only became a partner of the company, he also became part of the family when he married Mr. Brown’s daughter, Sarah Brown, on 1 November 1794. The company rebranded itself as Brown, Son & Mawe and John and his new bride Sarah relocated to London to run the companies new shop and “petrifaction warehouse” at 5 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden. Their 1797 company catalog offered the spar and marble objects made in the Derby marble workshop as well as minerals, mineral analyses, and boxed collections, including “elegant crystallizations … in the greatest variety.”

In 1799, Mr. Brown bought the building he was renting on Old St Helens and quickly demolished it in order to build a brand new factory and showroom. This new shop was England’s first purpose-built marble works and the only one that still survives today. A few years later, he upgraded the factories production capabilities by replacing the 1 HP steam engine with a 6 HP model, which also powered a patented marble saw.

The Remnants of Brown’s Marble Works on St. Helen’s Street, 2019/1999. Photos by Justin K Prim and Derby Evening Telegraph

London Life

Meanwhile, John and Sarah had a son and a daughter in London. John was regularly traveling between London and Castleton and he was starting to plan his big first gemstone field expedition. In 1800, Mawe embarked on an extensive tour of England, Scotland, and Wales which led him to write and release his first book in 1802: Mineralogy of Derbyshire: with a description of the most interesting mines in the North of England, in Scotland, and in Wales. By the time his book was released, the shop was selling over 20,000 mineral specimens, “the most extensive variety on sale in the Kingdom.” They had a rich variety of clients all over the capitals of Europe including an exiled Spanish Royal Family. In fact, it was the King of Spain who commissioned Mawe to make his survey of the Derbyshire mines so that “an exact representation” of them, showing specimens from each stratum, etc., could be prepared for the King’s natural history cabinet.

In 1802, John visited Paris and exchanged specimens with various mineral collectors and mineralogists as well as attending the lectures of French priest and mineralogical pioneer, René Just Haüy. He was listed in fashionable London directories as a “collector of minerals,” and was regarded as one of the best and most successful mineral dealers in London.


Two years after his Paris trip, he embarked on a much bigger expedition; a six-year long tour of South America. At the request of the sovereign of Portugal, Mawe included a two year expedition into the Portuguese territory of Brazil.

Upon his return, Mawe began work on the book that would recount his South American experiences and discoveries, Travels in the Interior of Brazil (1812) . Mawe’s book is the first English account of the mineral wealth of the region. The plates included in the volume show diamonds being mined, a map of Mawe’s travels, mining machinery, crystal drawings, and various snail shells. The book was later released in Portuguese, German, French, Italian, and Swedish, as well as an edition published in America. We can see that Mawe’s popularity is growing as his books reach a worldwide audience.

While John was on his South American expedition, Sarah was left to run the shop with the kids. She must have been quite the expert by then, having been the daughter of a mineralogist and the wife of a mineralogist. By this time, she had built her own collection of minerals, some of which she loaned to James Sowerby in order to illustrate his books British Mineralogy (1804–1817) and later, Exotic Mineralogy (1811–1820).

John returned in 1810 and the following year the Covent Garden shop moved to 149 Strand, on London’s busiest shopping thoroughfare, where it remained for the next 70 years. This was also the period of time that the London gem trade was starting to settle into Hatton Garden, only a mile from the Mawe’s shop, which is still the home of the London gem and jewelry trade today.

By the time the shop relocated, the Mawe’s had developed an extensive network of connections in Brazil, Europe, North America and even Ceylon which provided a regular flow of specimens. The shop on the Strand had become extremely successful and he and Sarah were able to open two more shops in Matlock Bath and Cheltenham in Gloucestershire.

Ad for John Mawe’s Museum and Shop in Matlock Bath, 1830

Familiar Lessons

Over the next few years, Mawe released two more books, A Treatise on Diamonds and Precious Stones in 1813 and more importantly, Familiar Lessons in Mineralogy and Geology in 1819. The book is meant to be an introduction to mineralogy which introduces the reader to basic terms and concepts. Through the next 11 years, the popular book continued to be subtly revised over twelve editions. It’s written from the viewpoint of John’s practical experience and includes basic observations on minerals, gems, geology, and the lapidary craft. This last bit might have been one of Mawe’s most important historical contributions.

In the first edition of the book, John introduces his readers to the world of lapidary by providing detailed instructions on how stones are cut and polished and he includes a color plate depicting a portable lapidary machine, which seems to be his own invention. This “portable lapidary apparatus” was offered for sale in his London shop and the intention of the machine is to put the power of gemcutting into the hands of the gentleman amateur. He tells us “This compact Lapidary’s Mill is contained in a small mahogany box, and may be placed on a parlor table, and worked without any inconvenience.”

This marks possibly the first time that an effort has been made to make gemcutting appealing and available to the layman. England was going through its first, though not its last, popular interest in amateur gem hunting and people all over Britain were hunting for colorful specimens to collect and polish. This might be why Mawe’s books were so popular; they spoke to a cultural demand for mineralogical information for hobbyist enthusiasts. We can see more evidence of this growing enthusiasm if we look to Calke Abbey, just 15 miles south of John’s hometown of Derby.

Calke Cutters

The owners of the Calke country estate were exactly this type of amateur naturalist. John Harpur Crewe (1824–1886) and his son Vauncey (1846–1924) were avid collectors of gemstones and by the time Vauncey died, the family had acquired several huge collections of gemstones, minerals, fossils, and shells. Luckily for us, in the 1920’s the house was closed up and essentially frozen in time until the National Trust acquired it in 1985.

What you will find if you visit today is an enormous collection of Victorian minerals, some rough, some cut, some polished, and they seem to have been polished in the exact same manner that Mawe describes in Familiar Lessons. Not only do we find a mineral collection, but we also discover how the family would have cut and polished their found or purchased minerals: In an upstairs store room rests an unregarded and completely forgotten lapidary table. This isn’t the portable one that Mawe depicts but a full size jamb peg lapidary machine that we find illustrated in numerous publications from the 1830’s to the 1880's.

Calke Abbey Lapidary Table and Mineral Collection. Photos by Justin K Prim / Lapidary’s Mill from the Encyclopedia Brittanica (1857)

In fact, Mawe left us another important piece of information about this type of machine. In 1826, he released the eighth edition of his Familiar Lessons book. He had previously gone through 8 versions of the book and nothing much had changed in his lapidary instructions. Then in 1827 and 1828, something noteworthy appears. In 1827, he publishes a standalone pamphlet version of his lapidary instructions which contains a brand new illustration; the British jamb peg. This 1827 illustration is the first time in history that we see such a device, something that we won’t see in French publications for another few years. In 1828, he releases the 9th Edition of Familiar Lessons, again with this jamb peg faceting machine illustration and instructions for its use. It’s thanks to John Mawe that we can practically pinpoint the year that the worlds first Jam Peg appears and and how it was initially used: “Whilst the left hand is employed turning, the right applies the stone to the surface of the mill, which is charged with emery, and kept constant wet by brush… In order to cut facets… it is necessary to have a cone of wood, about 8 inches high, placed perpendicularly on an iron pin. This is called a gimp peg: it has four or five heights of holes.

The 1828 depiction of a British Jamb Peg Machine. Photo by Justin K Prim

John gives us one last piece of lapidary history along with his extensive, step by step instructions on how to use the new cutting device. He tells us that before the invention of this new gimp peg, “the ancient mode of cutting was with the quadrant, having a movable index, to which the stone was mounted and placed at any angle desired. This mode, though mathematically exact, is now discontinued, and the workman depends rather on habit in placing his stick at a proper angle, and on his eye, in forming facets.” Thanks to this book, we can successfully determine that the original version of the jamb peg faceting head was likely a British invention that was later popularized by the French and also used by 19th century German lapidaries.

The Passing of the Generations

In August of 1816, tragedy struck the family when Sarah’s father and John’s mentor and business partner, Richard Brown II, died. His factories in Ashford and Matlock were taken over by his son and Sarah’s brother, Richard Brown III. The factory on Old St Helens in Derby was taken over by Brown’s Blue John mining partner from Castleton, Joseph Hall. John and Sarah continued to run the mineral shop on the Strand.

James Tennant, John Mawe’s apprentice and successor.

Now that John was mentor-less and literally head of the family line, he decided that it was time to take on an apprentice and pass down his knowledge. In October of 1824, John took on a “shop boy”, the 16 year old James Tennant from Upton in Southwell, Nottinghamshire and later Derby. During his apprenticeship, James was extremely interested in mineralogy and in addition to his mineral shop apprenticeship, he was also taking classes at the Mechanic’s Institution, as well as learning with the mineral collector and gemologist Sir Everard Home. He also attended chemistry lectures given by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution. Faraday was impressed with his young student and later recommended him for the post of teacher in geological mineralogy at King’s College, where Mawe had also been lecturing for a number of years.


Two years after taking on his apprentice, the 63 year old world traveller died on October 26, 1829, leaving his wife Sarah in charge of their chain of shops. John’s ashes were interred across the street from their 149 Strand mineral shop in the graveyard of St Mary le Strand church. Sarah had a memorial for John placed inside St Edmond’s Church in Castleton, as it was the town that first inspired John’s love of mineralogy and was a place that he visited regularly throughout his lifetime.

John Mawe’s Memorial in St Edmond’s Church, Castleton. Photo by Justin K Prim

After John’s death, Sarah became a highly successful and respected mineral dealer in her own right, and was named “Mineralogist to her Majesty” Queen Victoria in 1837. She continued on with James’ apprenticeship and he eventually became manager of the shop before he succeeded her in 1840 when he bought the business from her. He inherited the title of “Mineralogist to Her Majesty” in the same year he took over the Mawe business. Six years after she went into retirement, Sarah Mawe died in 1846. James Tennant kept her mineral collection intact for many years before finally advertising it for sale in 1876 as:

Boxed set of minerals prepared by Sarah Mawe, dated April 27, 1836.
Photo Courtesy of Paul Hamilton

“A collection of recent shells, minerals, rocks and fossils, in a large and well made cabinet of 108 drawers, with Glass Bookcase on the top. The Cabinet was the property of the late Mrs. Mawe, and contains her Private Collection of Recent Shells and Minerals. Among the latter are some crystals of gold, figured in Mawe’s Travels in Brazil, and supposed to be unique.”

As Mineralogist to Her Majesty, Tennant’s only known task was superintending the recutting of the Koh-i-Noor diamond from the Crown Jewels in 1852. Minerals were only a part of a much larger trade for Tennant. He described himself as an “importer of shells, minerals & ornamental works of art, manufacturer of Derbyshire spar & marble ornaments.”

Tennant ran the shop until his death in 1881, during which time he wrote descriptions and catalogues of the crown jewels and of the mineral displays at the South Kensington Museum, to which he contributed a display of diamond rings. Tennant made much of his shop as a place of science, and gave lectures on mineralogy at King’s College London. Although the range of material he offered was notable, he was not an important supplier of individual specimen minerals.

In 1880, at the age of 72, James Tennant planned to retire, and advertised his stock for sale at discount prices in sets “adapted to the young Amateur as well as the more advanced Student.” Unfortunately, before he could retire from a life of mineralogy, he died on February 23, 1881, 2 weeks after his 73rd birthday

It took an auction house 12 sales to liquidate all of the stock from Tennant’s 149 Strand shop. The auctions happened in 1881 when John Harpur Crewe and his son Vauncey were at the height of their mineral collection in Calke Abbey so it seems quite likely that a portion of Tennant’s final collection are mixed into the hundred of mineral on display in Calke Abbey today. At the time of Tennant’s death, his 2,600 mineral specimens included “many of the select portions of the Duke of Buckingham’s, Sir John St Aubyn’s, and other historical collections.”


Throughout John Mawe’s life, he met with success, whether that meant acquiring royal patronage from the King of Portugal and the King of Spain, exploring various parts of the world in order to catalog its mineral output, or becoming the most celebrated mineral dealer and writer of his day. Mawe wrote 10 books in total, several of which were highly successful works on mineralogy and conchology. He helped usher in a wave of British mineral collectors as well as amateur gem cutters and changed the history of British mineralogy in the process. Not only was he a great achiever in his lifetime, but he was succeeded by success through his wife Sarah and his apprentice James Tennant. John and Sarah’s daughter Sarah Anne married Anthony Tissington Tatlow, who became a partner of Mawe’s shop in Cheltenham in 1816 and continued on with the family business. John Mawe is an awe-inspiring figure whose life was full of passion, adventure, and knowledge and his memory deserves to be celebrated and remembered.


This article would have been impossible to write without a research grant from the Society of Antiquaries of London. I would also like to thank my hosts in London and Derby, Kim Rix and Sarah Crane and a big thanks to the staff of the British Library and Calke Abbey.


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The Mineralogical Record online, John Mawe, accessed June 29, 2019
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About the Author

Justin K Prim is an American lapidary and gemologist living and working in Bangkok, Thailand. He has studied gemcutting traditions all over the world as well as attending gemology programs at GIA and AIGS. He is currently working on a book about the worldwide history of gemstone faceting. He works as a Lapidary Instructor for the Institute of Gem Trading as well as writing articles, producing videos, and giving talks about gem cutting history.

If you enjoyed this article please check out some of my other gemstone and gemcutting related articles:

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Gemcutter / Travel Adventurer / Lapidary Historian/ Author of The Heart of Merlin /

Justin K Prim

The collected written works of Justin K Prim : Travel Adventurer / Gemologist / Musician / Author of The Heart of Merlin

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