Saturday, 29 August 2009

Reality bites

Wow - dinosaur teeth!

Awww. They're blunt.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Home alone

Riley, the Mr Wood's Fossils auxiliary, has told me of his plans for the Christmas break. Like last year, the American Idle will be lounging around in his homeland for nearly a month. Such a slacker. This leaves me facing a month manning the shop on my own.

If you come in on a Saturday in the near future, please feel free to berate him for his lack of dedication. And if you come in during late December, please bring me a strong coffee.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

None more black

Jet is very black. So much so that they call things that are really black jet-black. (Let's forget for a second that jet can also be dark brown). It has a long history of use in jewellery, despite it being more of a fossil than a mineral. It has - slightly condescendingly -been called a mineraloid. I'm always a little disappointed to be described as a humanoid. It's like I didn't quite make the grade.

Jet is actually a dense form of lignite - a coal. It's thought the best jet is fossilised Araucaria wood, better known as the monkey puzzle tree. Given how it can be found in the stratigraphy, most jet seems to have been initially deposited as driftwood. A softer form was originally laid down in freshwater. Another form of coal, anthracite, is often mistaken for jet, but true jet takes a far better polish than the pretenders.

Whitby, in Yorkshire, has long been a centre for jet jewellery, as some seams around that area provide very high grade material. A lot of material is also washed up on the beaches around that part of the coast, though it tends to be of lesser quality than the material directly mined. It's harder to find now, but there is still enough to keep a few jewellery makers going. Vikings used to come to Yorkshire to get jet, taking a break from their raping and pillaging to pick out a pretty brooch. The oldest jet jewellery, though, is thought to be between 16 and 17,000 years old, and plenty of 10,000 year old stuff has been found in Germany.

Queen Victoria was a big fan of jet. Because it's black and it went with her dresses. Her endorsement saw a bit of a boom in the trade. It's not quite as popular now as it was back then, or in the twenties, but it's still a nice stone. And I like nice stones.

Monday, 17 August 2009


Advertising is a tricky thing to get right. Because the shop is a little different, I get approached a lot. Newspapers, magazines, travel guides, web promoters, etc. I'm lucky in that I get a little more editorial than I might as, say, a card shop, but it can be very difficult to weigh up the pros and cons of each 'exciting opportunity'.

There are a couple of ways to gauge the effectiveness of advertising, but they can be clumsy and offputting at times. I take out a small and incredibly expensive advert in a tourist brochure that goes out in vast numbers all over the country. I have recently downsized the ad, as it had reached the point where I felt it may have become impossible to justify the expense. At least, with that one, people regularly come in waving the brochure. There are a couple of other Edinburgh tourist guides I go in most years, though I tend to vary it a little.

I also take out the occasional ad in the Scotsman and Evening News. With a newspaper ad, many people may see it, but it's a one day thing, quickly binned. Or recycled, of course. Web promotion seems even more nebulous, but at least some form of site traffic monitoring can be put in place in many cases.

I've recently had a spate of calls from website promoters suggesting I paid for their services last year and that it was time for me to renew. Or even, that i had agreed to split payment over two years and it was time for the next installment. This one was the fourth, and by this point I actually told the guy not that I didn't remember but that I didn't believe him. The first one was a little suspicious, but by the fourth over two months or so, I was certain it was a scam. A hard one to spot, though, as often money paid to push your website can seem like cash thrown into the wind.

However - I've had a few calls recently that I have listened to. I'm sponsoring a rubber chicken in a play in this year's Fringe. Gets my name in the program. I got to name the chicken, too. Woody. I'm going to have a 20 second ad running in the Ocean Terminal shopping centre for the next two years. It was a good deal, though it still added up to a hefty sum. I get to keep the rights to the ad, though, so maybe I'll be able to find something else to do with it. There will be some Mr Wood's Fossils 'advertorial' in Vogue this autumn, too. That was a call out of the blue. Apparently, someone had heard we sell meteorite pendants. Sadly, I won't be making the cover.

Monday, 10 August 2009


There's a film out at the moment called Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. Now, while I'm sure that almost everyone has a soft spot for giant-sized sea beasties - and especially sharks and octopuses - this film will probably not be an oscar winner. Harsh to judge a film on its title alone, but... You know.

I don't know too much about fossil octopuses, but the Giant Octopus that's currently kicking about is the Enteroctopus. A good name, worthy of a film itself. They only get up to about 20-23 feeet long, though. Not really that giant.

Mega sharks, however, are another matter. The undisputed mega shark was the Carcharocles megalodon. It was a relative of the great white - Carcharodon carcharias - and in fact was until quite recently assigned to the same genus. Megalodon, as it's usually called, means big tooth. Do I need to tell you why? Okay. It had very big teeth. No - bigger than you're thinking. No - hold on - not that big. Be realistic. The biggest complete tooth ever found was a little over 7" long.

The estimated maximum length of megs has been the subject of some debate. The best approach is the use the closest living relative, the great white, as a comparative measure. The technique is to scale up from tooth size and although different figures have been bandied about over the years, current thinking puts the approximate maximum length at around 60'. That's similar to a good-sized sperm whale. There have been bigger sharks, but not carnivorous ones.

Great whites attack a potential meal by ripping out a big fleshy lump - ideally the stomach area - and then coming back in for the kill once the thrashing around has abated a little. Megs would consider seals a bit of a light snack and there's evidence they used to attack whales - vertebrae with tooth scars etc.

Like many sharks, megs would have grown teeth constantly, shedding as they became worn, broken or loose during lunch. It's thought they would have had around 250 teeth in their mouth, too, so for every one shark there would have been a great many teeth throughout its life.

Megs died out only about 1.5 million years ago, and while many people would like to think there are a few still about, lurking in the depths, many others are very glad they are gone. Snorkelers and surfers especially.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Lost In Transition

Where are my paper bags?

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Twisted metal

One of the things I get asked about a lot in the shop is bismuth. Bismuth is an elemental metal that's grouped with arsenic and antimony. Unlike those, however, it's not (very) poisonous. In fact, one of it's main uses until relatively recently has been in stomach medicines for various reasons. Pepto-bismol, for example.

It forms naturally in a couple of ores and sometimes as nuggets. What draws the comments and questions, though, are the artificially grown hopper crystals. These are made using almost completely pure bismuth with trace additions of other elements to add varied colour to the oxidised layer that quickly forms over the silvery-grey surface.

Only a few people in the world make it, and the process to make decent crystals is a closely guarded secret. A friend of mine bought the business and know-how from a retiring Belgian and is now making his own in his garage in England. A few experiments has led him to the biggest crystals ever made. It's pretty brittle stuff, so once the crystals get over a certain size they can be quite fragile. He buys the raw material in ingots from a company that refines metals. The price has risen a fair bit in recent years as bismuth has gone from being a moderately useful by-product to an increasingly important product in its own right.

It's now being used as a substitute for lead in fishing weights, as an alloy for shot, pellets and plumbing uses. There are plenty of other new uses, but an important discovery made recently will lead to it being used in electrical circuit boards and in solar power cells. Bismuth diodes allow
two-way current flow, which will create far more efficiency in electrical equipment.

Great for global technology, not so great for the price of bismuth crystals.