Step Inside the Natural History Museum’s Renovated Hall of Gems
As seen on Bloomberg, George Harlow, a curator in the Division of Physical Sciences of the American Museum of Natural History, advocated for the renovation of the museum's Halls of Gems and Minerals for 20 years. “It felt more like I was in a mine or something,” he recalls, describing the numerous floors, brown interiors, and smaller cases. “The biggest problem probably was the lighting and the carpets,” It had deteriorated significantly since its last restoration in 1976.
The curator learned in 2014 that his two-decade-long campaign had finally paid off. Ralph Appelbaum Associates was hired by the museum to collaborate with the exhibition department to reimagine, reposition, and rearrange the space for the 21st century.
For the first time, the museum has installed a special gallery in its permanent hall of gems. The inaugural exhibition, “Beautiful Creatures,” was curated by the jewelry historian Marion Fasel. At the center of it is a vitrine showcasing jewels representing marine's life. The Virius pendant holds 9.7 carats of Pink Spinel, 5.58 carats of Buff top Citrine, 0.35 carats of round Citrine and 3.03 carats of pave diamonds mounted on 18K yellow gold, courtesy of Marina B, New York.
Now, the 11,000-square-foot Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals are ready to reopen to the public on June 12.
Spaces devoid of levels yet brimming with rare jewels await visitors. The new exhibition cases accommodate roughly 5,000 specimens in much better-lit walls of cases and vitrines than before. But Harlow has a tip: “You really need a little flashlight,” he says. “A lot of [minerals] want to be looked at as if the sun were behind you—gems want to be seen that way. So I tell everybody, ‘Bring a light, and your phone isn’t going to be good enough.’”
Harlow acquired this 12,000-pound amethyst geode from a Long Island gem merchant. It occupies the opposite end of the hall from its counterpart. “We have signature objects like these partially as attractors,” he says. They are “awesome objects, as well as things that get at this idea of scale and how things look in the Earth.”
One of the most awe-inspiring standalone objects, the Singing Stone, was part of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Dug from a mine in Bisbee, Ariz., it’s embedded with bright blue azurite and green malachite, two copper ore minerals. The name comes from the high pitched sounds the stone makes when the humidity changes. (The controlled environment of the museum means there are no more sounds to be heard.) “It weighs about 7,000 pounds, of which perhaps 2,000 is copper,” Harlow says. “This was given to us by one of the mine managers, and it’s been here since 1895.”
One of the main attractions of the hall was, and will continue to be, its myriad giant gemstones. The Star of India, with 563 carats, is the world’s largest known gem-quality blue star sapphire. The 100.3 carat DeLong Star Ruby came from Myanmar.
“Because of the special optics of stars and cat’s eyes, we’ve dedicated a single case to them,” Harlow says. “These are among our most impressive and well-known stones.”
The new gem hall is in the same place as the old one, “but it feels bigger, because there was a lot of space lost because of deep cases,” Harlow explains. “Part of the goal I had was to augment people looking at gems. This is true for all minerals and virtually all substances, but the idea was to assist people to understand what makes gems so attractive.”
Also in the hall is a giant piece of stibnite, a mineral used in the manufacture of matches, which weighs nearly half a ton.
One of the exhibit's key draws is the opportunity to discover how diverse minerals may be. “There are far more minerals on Earth than any other planets in the solar system,” Harlow says. He can say that confidently, he says, because “Earth is a dynamic planet. Rocky, terrestrial planets, none of them have active tectonics or real active volcanism going on, and that’s a driver of chemical differentiation,” he continues. “It allows you to have a more dynamic range of minerals.”
Water- and oxygen-producing minerals, he adds, also add to the Earth’s variety. “We have colorful minerals because oxygen stimulates higher oxidation states of metals, which have more color,” he explains. “Because of oxygen, we probably have 4,000 more minerals than any place else.”
The city itself has its own section. “New York is on metamorphic rock, so it’s rich in minerals,” Harlow says. “And it’s been dug up as if it were a giant quarry, so a lot of things have been brought to life. It’s amazing, the variety of minerals you can actually find in the city, mostly in Manhattan.” Queens and Brooklyn, he explains, are “mostly covered over by glacial till,” so most of the specimens the museum has from those boroughs came from water and subway tunnels.
The so-called Subway Garnet, a nine-pound almandine unearthed in 1885 beneath 35th Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway, is at the core of the exhibit. It turns out that the term is misleading: it was uncovered during sewage excavation.
Another slab, from Upstate New York's Gore Mountain, is studded with huge almandine garnet crystals that date back over a billion years. Approximately 5,000 artifacts are on display, with another 112,000 specimens in storage.