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The Smithsonian Mineral Collection

Last Updated: 10th Nov 2014

By Jake Harper

Visiting the Smithsonian:
The Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems & Minerals

March 14th, 2013

Wow! A visit to the Smithsonian? Normally, a trip from California to D.C. would be a little expensive for me. However, my regular day job is a pretty unusual one, in that it places me all over the country at a moments notice. I never really know where I'm going to be until I'm actually there. Recently, we ended up in Baltimore, MD with a free day, and so we decided to rent a car and visit Washington DC. Both of my co-worker/friends have a little interest in minerals (to my credit) and so the mineral hall at the Smithsonian was on the days agenda. Every mineral collector with a desire to see the finest of the mineral kingdom ought to try to make the pilgrimage to the Smithsonian at least once. As housed under this one roof are great numbers of famous and well known specimens that are a joy to behold in person and the experience alone will remain with you forever!

Silver! No, not just silver -- but KONGSBERG SILVER! Everywhere you look. And in every conceivable form from this ultimate classic locality. Large curling ropes, delicate wires, stately sculptural masses...delicate crystallized specimens...mineral overload is not supposed to occur so early in a museum display, and yet it did for me here. Many blurred photos had to actually be deleted from my camera after viewing this remarkable display due to the "mineral shakes" that I quickly contracted from viewing it.

Sharing space with the silver were equally stunning crystallized coppers - my two favorites being the incredible copper with calcite specimen at upper right and the giant copper "skull" below it from the Keweenaw peninsula, Michigan. Oh, and that huge grouping of 1 + inch crystals from the New Cornelia mine actually looks like it was literally grown to fit the location where it resides today, as it is wedged in pretty tight.

The Candelabra tourmaline:
Mined in at the Tourmaline Queen mine in San Diego county by Ed Swabodda and Bill Larson from the famous "Blue Cap Pocket" which they discovered with the invaluable help of pegmatite miner John C. McLean during the mid-1970's. This piece caught the attention of the esteemed curator of the Smithsonian mineral collection Paul Desaultels and was quickly acquired by him for the collection, where it resides today.

The Steamboat tourmaline:
Another well known piece, this large, stately tourmaline was collected by Frank Barlow Schuyler from the Tourmaline King mine in 1907. It was later sold by Schuyler to colonel Washington A. Roebling, renowned bridge builder and mineral collector, who's master engineering produced such structural marvels as the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling's son John eventually donated his fathers collection, consisting of over 16,000 mineral specimens to the Smithsonian. The Roebling specimens are considered to be the foundation of the Smithsonian collection today.

Three magnificent San Diego County tourmalines together!

Kunzite from the Urucum Mine, Brazil:
I have heard that Urucum mine Kunzites are considered to rank among the finest of species as the size, color and luster were nearly unbeatable from this deposit. The first major find was originally brought to market by the late/great Martin Ehrmann, who is perhaps the preeminent mineral and gemstone dealer of the 20th century. When Martin first procured the large production of kunzite crystals from this mine, he offered the best specimens to our nations top museums, as he felt a strong affinity for our country and for what our country had done for him. This is one of those pieces and at over 20 inches long, it is an amazing specimen to behold. Thank you Martin, for all that you did for our collections.

The Ultimate Amethyst!
I do not believe they get any better than this. My photo is a little overexposed, but those crystals are giant, flawless, damage free, lustrous and are arranged in such a perfect aesthetic formation as to resemble a beautiful flower. An over two foot tall flower at that! Collected by the Ontiveros family from their claims near Amatitlan, this Guerrero piece was considered by Smithsonian curator Paul Desautels to be the world's finest amethyst.

Beryl, Beryl and MORE Beryl!
I'm sure that the janitors at the Smithsonian have to mop through this area on a regular basis due to the large amounts of drool that accumulate on the floors in front of this unforgettable display. Those three North Carolina emeralds at upper left had me stunned for quite some time...I may never recover.

A closer view of those glorious emerald crystals.

A 30+ cm flawless Tasmanian crocoite matrix specimen with large, stellate groups of crystals.

The Roebling Apatite from the Pulsifer Quarry, Maine:

There are many that feel that this piece is "best of species" for apatite, and after several minutes of examination I am one of them! With its large size, pyramidal modifications, deep purple color, luster and gemminess, not to mention its regal U.S. provenance.

The Van Allen Belt Rose Quartz:
Another world class Ikon of the mineral world sharing space with the Roebling apatite! This remarkable specimen consists of a belt of lustrous deep pink rose quartz crystals that encircle a large smoky quartz crystal. The piece was mined at the Berilo Branco claim in Minas Gerais Brazil and was donated to the Smithsonian by Fred C. Kennedy.

A display of eye-popping wulfenite specimens:

I silently thanked the mineral gods for my trip to the Smithsonian as I stood in the presence of that 2 inch, bright red/orange Ed Over wulfenite from the Red Cloud mine - donated by the late Arthur Montgomery...sigh.

A large Ichinokawa stibnite:
The American museum has a larger Japanese stibnite than this, but I think this one might be the finer of the two.

Two giant topaz gem crystals!
Here I would like to personally thank Gene Meieran "Dean of gem crystals" for his efforts in preserving these splendid topaz crystals and actually saving them from being cut to pieces for use in X-ray monochromators. The crystals were the highlight of my visit to the Smithsonian and I believe the collection would be truly diminished without them. I had first seen (coveted) these two crystals in a B&W photo from the Jan-Feb 1995 Mineralogical Record issue, and the photo was so well done and the crystals so spectacular that I had committed them to memory, wishing someday to see them in person. Viewing them up close here was another experience entirely. Their highly complex pyramidal face modifications coupled with insane glassy luster, limpid water clear gemminess and all in a super-large size (both are around two feet high!) Mineral collectors beware: when viewing these crystals - be sure to have a non-mineral person nearby to steady you, as you are likely to fall right over where you stand at the sight of these mineralogical monoliths.

The Tucson Ring Meteorite:
Though most folks would normally finish up with the hope diamond, I consider this remarkable specimen as another really good reason to make the pilgrimage to the Smithsonian. Not only is the Tucson Ring one of the most unique and aesthetic meteorites on this planet today - it has a rich and interesting history as well. To begin, it is stated as being a witnessed fall from the 1700's by local spanish/mexican indians. At the time, Arizona territory was Mexico, as the gadsden purchase had not yet occurred. The Tucson Ring's actual discovery is not really clear but what is clear is that it found its way into a Blaksmith's shop in Tucson and there served as an anvil for some years until both the shop and the Tucson ring were abandoned. During the year 1860, a medical officer by the name of Bernard Irwin found the abandoned ring and took possession of it on behalf of the Smithsonian, where it is on display today.

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Discuss this Article

6th Nov 2013 20:01 GMTPeter Szarka

Your article and photos inspired me and a friend to book a flight and go visit the Smithsonian next week. My last visit there was 1995 and at the time, the mineral galleries were closed for renovation. Thanks for providing the impetus to go visit.

7th Nov 2013 01:58 GMTJake Harper Expert

That's really great Peter -- your welcome and hope you have a great time!

11th Dec 2013 20:11 GMTJoseph Polityka Expert

Jake, Congratulations on your great report. I'm happy to see that you finally got the chance to visit this great museum.

13th Dec 2013 17:33 GMTJake Harper Expert

Thanks a million, Joe - though I am certainly no Joe Polityka when it comes to writing reports! I really hope to get another opportunity to spend more time at the Smithsonian - just know there were important pieces I missed and that I just glazed over quickly.
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