Created over millennia, and adored and admired for centuries. The magical mineral known as Blue John can only be found in two cavern mines near Castleton in Derbyshire – the Blue John Cavern and Treak Cliff Cavern. This extremely rare and unique variety of banded fluorite is typified by a rich, deep purple and yellow veined variegation, which is set off against crackled colourless stone. Once seen, never forgotten.
Legend has it that it has been mined since the Romans discovered it when they occupied Britain, and it is also said to have been exported to the finest ébenistes in France during the 18th century to use as decoration on furniture and decorative accessories. What is certain is that famed Georgian manufacturer, dilettante and businessman Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) mined and worked it for decorative uses, making its name, and thus demand for this rare and most English of minerals grew exponentially amongst the aristocracy, royalty, and the burgeoning middle classes.
It was carved into everything from urns and bowls (a very common form) to knife handles and stones for jewellery, with production peaking in the Victorian era. With a strictly limited supply and a commensurately high price tag, it has always been treasured.
I spoke with Richard Haw, one of the last remaining people in the world with the skills and desire to fully work Blue John, either to produce new objects or restore and repair the old.
But it’s purple, I hear you cry! Why not Purple John, then? When the mineral is first mined it’s a deep blue, but exposure to natural light changes the colour to a rich purple. Richard says that you can sometimes see it happening when you take freshly mined piece outside. Other explanations include a corruption of the French for blue and yellow, the mineral’s colours – ‘bleu jaune’.
You could say Haw ‘fell into’ the centuries old craft of working Blue John – literally. When hiking in Derbyshire in Summer 1998, he fell into a hole which turned out to be part of the Blue John cavern. After reading more as he nursed a damaged ankle, fascination took hold and he taught himself all he could, eventually supplementing his job selling electrical equipment by working as a tour guide of the Blue John Cavern and mine.
During the Winter months, when tourists and tours were few, he helped polish the specimens, bowls and other items made by the couple of craftsmen at the mine’s shop. Gradually, these craftsmen, and the retired craftsmen-turned tour guides, passed their stories and skills directly on to Haw, who absorbed them voraciously, and practised them whenever opportunity allowed. With many craftsmen now inactive or having passed away, he is a treasure chest of Blue John stories and skills. He notes that nobody else has the wide range of skills and experience that he has – and the ability to practise them. A cancer survivor, he worries that when he is gone, his hard-learned and hard-earned skills – and those of the craftsmen who taught him – will go with him. “Who will take up the mantle and put the time and effort in?”, he asks.
He found that he had a natural affinity to the material, and was able to turn and finish a bowl almost immediately when most people required around six months of training. Captivated, and increasingly skilled, a complete career change came in his early 40s when he dedicated his life to the mineral.
As well as the loving the romance of the stone, the pattern and colour awakened something within him. As a child he loved looking at his grandmother’s Davidson ‘Cloud Glass’ bowl with its brown tonal striations. And a lump of the related but much more common fluorspar outside her house was a source of constant fascination. His other grandmother also gave him a lump of ‘shrapnel from the war’, which actually turned out to be galena, a silvery lead ore often found in combination with Blue John.
Working Blue John is a labour-intensive, manual art. He uses hand tools, a lathe and a lot of sandpaper. One tool, which looks like a toy spear for Action Man, he made himself. It’s used to painstakingly scrape out the inside of a bowl millimetre by millimetre.
When mined, Blue John is extremely friable, and is no more geologically stable than rock salt. To work it, it must first be strengthened with natural pine resin. The stone is heated until it is about 50-60º (“too hot to handle”, he says) and then the pine resin is crumbled and melted into the surface, binding the cracks together. When cool, the resin hardens and strengthens the mineral, enabling it to be cut, carved and polished. However, the hardened layer is thin, so it’s a constant process of reducing and strengthening. Once the form is finished, a long process of polishing using sandpapers of different grades finishes the surface to a mirror polish to show off the pattern and colours to their best.
Notably, Haw has mastered the fine art of working the materials of different hardnesses found within Blue John, for example between the silvery streaks of lead ore (Galena) and the calcite. Galena is very hard and the rest of the mineral is comparatively soft, so to gain an even, flat or curved surface shot through with silvery streaks – but with no bumps or ridges – requires great skill.
Despite learning from highly experienced craftsmen, Haw is largely practically self-taught. It took him over a decade of trial and error and “lots of tears, lots of heartache” to develop his own techniques. He found out that, in most cases, the techniques he found his own way to were similar or identical to the techniques used by previous generations of craftsmen.
Tradition is important to Haw. He is dismissive of craftsmen who use modern epoxy resins, instead of traditional pine resin, stating that we don’t know what pieces treated with epoxy resins will look like in the future. Will a piece made using epoxy resin go cloudy or opaque at some point, he asks? “I want a client’s piece to still look as wonderful as it does now in 200 years time.” he says. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. With Blue John, the old ways are always the best ways.”
Some craftsmen treat Blue John with heat to bring out other colours, such as red. Richard prefers to allow the mineral to speak for itself without doctoring it. This is also important when identifying, and even dating, a piece. Each seam across the mines has a unique pattern which ties it into that mine. Some seams were only mined during certain periods, meaning that a piece can be largely reliably identified, and sometimes even given a date range as to when it was mined and then worked.
At one point, certain people tried to dictate how a piece of Blue John should look, with banding of a certain type in certain places on an object. But this isn’t how Blue John is naturally, Haw says, with its plethora of random inclusions, cracks and colours. Controlling and dictating its appearance in such a manner means you lose the beauty of the natural rock. The impurities make it what it is. “It’s like us, our flaws are what make us.”, he says.
Mined raw mineral is hard to come by today, but Haw has access to a large pile of Blue John rocks held securely by a client and friend whose family worked the stone in Matlock in the 1860s. Otherwise, mining in either of the only two mines is strictly controlled, partly for health and safety reasons. He selects a stone because he sees something within it. He says “The stone decides what the object will be. Some pieces refuse to be made into anything. You have to understand the rock, the veins within it, how it can and will be cut, to get the best out of it.” He hands me a small rock with beautiful veining – even in its raw state it’s worth about £500.
To turn the raw material of the rock into an elegantly-stemmed chalice takes about 110 hours of careful work, fraught throughout with the chance of failure. There’s always a point where there’s trade-off. For example, if a flaw appears when finishing off a bowl which is already as thin as it can be – does he leave the flaw, or risk destroying the piece by working it further to remove the flaw? “That chalice has been in and out of the oven over ten times – you can imagine the stress. I’ve had chalices that have fallen apart in my hands after days of work and become thousands of pounds worth of dust”, he says. Sometimes the material decides what it will be – most breakages happen when the stone is forced to become something it doesn’t want to be, he tells me.
It’s one thing to be able to handle the material, but it’s entirely another to be able to create successful sculptural forms. He didn’t excel at art or sculpture at school, his feeling for form just came to him as he gained experience. His forms are balanced, proportional and ‘comfortable’, and diverge from the standard bowls and stones for jewellery to include chalices and even dragons, dragonflies, frogs and other animals.
With chalices, the shape, pattern and colour of the bowl inspires the stem, and then the shapes on the stem come from a sense of balance and proportion. The foot is always slightly bigger than the bowl for stability, but also because if it’s the same size as the bowl it tends to appear smaller and thus unbalanced. Stems are particularly difficult as they are worked from all angles and then drilled to hold the rod that supports the Blue John sleeves. They must also be completely straight and vertical from all angles. Obelisks are also tricky, as all the straight angular facets must be and look correct, at whatever angle it is viewed from.
There’s something about Blue John that makes you want to pick it up and turn it around in your hands to inspect the whole. The tactile nature of the material is also an added part of the process of creation for Haw. “When I’m making the stems, I have to take them off the lathe and feel them in my hand. Picking it up and handling it is part of the experience.”
There’s an almost Japanese element to this handling and viewing of a Blue John object ‘in the round’, from all angles. By its very nature, every angle gives a different view to capture the eye and mind. He says he often talks to his raw stones when working them. There’s a reverence there. “It’s not about the madness of talking to a stone, it’s about establishing a relationship with the material that you’re working”. He comments that he once saw a TV programme about a Japanese lady who appreciated and even thanked the ‘tools’ of her everyday life, from her shoes to her door handles, for allowing her to enact and experience her life. He builds such a relationship with the stones he works.
Blue John remains brittle and fragile. Much of his work is repairing or replacing parts on historic objects, and thus breathing new life into pieces that have been damaged across the passage of time. He frequently works with museums and important private collections. When Blue John is broken, it’s rarely entirely repairable – it depends how it breaks, but a few pieces can be rescued. He taps a chalice he has made with the back of his fingernail – if it rings, it’s alright, if it clunks, it’s broken. He doesn’t sign his work, but sometimes leaves in certain features, indiscernible to those who don’t know how to spot them, to distinguish his work from the work of others. “I don’t want to be famous.”, he says.
When I ask him to sum up Blue John and his relationship with it in one word, he replies with one word “Love.”. After a moment’s thought, he follows that up by saying “It’s all connected to nature. Nature has given us this beautiful gift and I’m just the final part, enabling it to be shown off at its best. This is the place I know I am meant to be in”.