Web Extra Monday, August 4

On Exhibit: Gems at the Bruce Museum
Louise Palmer

With only a month more of summertime, consider taking a trip to the Bruce Museum of Art and Science in Greenwich, Conn. Its newest exhibit, dedicated to all things gem, is sure to delight the senses and stimulate the mind.

A magnificent quartz cluster from Minas Gerais, Brazil, welcomes you to "Unearthing the Allure of Gems," which opened in April at the Bruce Museum. This imposing sample shows off the qualities we love about gems: their intriguing form and color and their ability to play with light. Also at the entrance is a different kind of gem with similar allure: 1,200 diamonds adorning an early 19th-century French tiara. This juxtaposition of raw quartz and an exquisitely bejeweled tiara hints at the treasure that awaits you: a splendid and intelligent exploration of the transformation of minerals into gemstones and decorative art.

A Quartz cluster from Diamantina, Minas, Gerais, Brazil. From the Bruce Museum collection, gift of Tony Thurston. Photo courtesy of the Bruce Museum.

"Science is a dynamic, creative endeavor and we share the excitement of discovery through both interactive elements as well as objects," says Carolyn Rebbert, science curator at the Bruce Museum. More than 300 specimens and activities tell how minerals form, how they are mined, and how we endow them with special meaning. Videos and demonstrations illustrate how to mine, polish and facet gems. To complement the themes of the show, the exhibition includes lectures, field trips and hands-on activities for all ages. You can even try your hand at detecting fake diamonds! A diamond testing machine on loan from Tiffany & Co. can distinguish real diamond (by its thermal conductivity) from imitations such as cubic zirconium and YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet).

Former museum director Jack Clark says that the Bruce has a long history of collecting mineral specimens. Over the years, through acquisitions and generous gifts, the mineral collection has become "a small jewel in itself," he says.

Rebbert agrees that one of the museum's strengths is the mineral collection. "Minerals have a popular and enduring appeal," she says. This exhibition combines Rebbert's geology expertise with the fashion background of Pamela Soohoo, this year's Lillian Butler Davey Resident Intern at the Bruce. The result is a highly successful mix of science and art, "one of our hallmark interdisciplinary shows," Rebbert says.

A sapphire, diamonds and platinum ring created in 1997 and based on c. 1945 design by Fulco di Verdura (Italian, 1898-1978). Photo courtesy of Verdura and the Bruce Museum.

A series of exhibits display mineral samples beside decorative objects adorned with the corresponding gems to illustrate the transformation of mineral to gem. Each display draws you in, and several have you "oohing" and "ahhing" out loud. For example, a large piece of intensely colored beryl, variety aquamarine, is displayed next to a 1916 Tiffany necklace of aquamarine, on loan from Collection Neil Lane of Los Angeles.

The wonderful effects of mineral alignment on the scattering of light are evident in a piece of rich gold and brown tiger's eye quartz from the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University Collection, and a magnificent 35-carat star sapphire ring from the American Museum of Natural History Collection.

"Unearthing the Allure of Gems" also explores how a gem is transformed — figuratively and literally — into a jewel. Soohoo wanted the visitor to understand why humans use gems in jewelry and to appreciate the diversity of gem minerals. Three ancient Egyptian amulets on display — one of lapis lazuli (blue), one carnelian (red) and one feldspar (green) — show how gem materials gained amulet properties because of their color: Red signified blood and life-force, blue the sky, and green fertility.

Throughout history, jewelers have cut gems to maximize their beauty. For centuries, though, gemstones were not faceted. One superlative example of this is on display: the oldest surviving diamond ring, from third century Rome, with one clear, uncut diamond octahedron.

Contemporary jewelry and decorative objects show the range of techniques used in lapidary art today. Some showcase the physical properties of the gems, such as a necklace by Bernd Munsteiner in which the rutile inclusions — fine, reddish-gold needles — in the clear quartz are the focus of the piece, and a wonderful ring by Chaumet, cut and polished entirely from one geode.

For those of you with a utilitarian streak, the exhibit includes a wonderful section devoted to gems at work. A diamond anvil cell, diamond cutting tools and blades, watches with diamond and ruby movements are displayed, as well as two more unusual items: paperclips and golf club heads coated with a diamond composite. The coated paperclips reportedly have 40 times the regular gripping power, and, in robotic tests, the coated golf club heads hit the ball 7 percent farther than non-coated clubs!

A mine tunnel lamp with bail and hook c. 1850, made of European cast iron. From the collection of Bruce Jarnot, Ph.D. Photo by Denis Finnin, courtesy of the Bruce Museum.

"Unearthing the Allure of Gems" is a well-designed show that leaves you with an understanding of the allure of minerals and gems and a memorable picture of a wealth of beautiful objects. The show will continue at the Bruce Museum through September 7 — a perfect end to the summer.

For more about this and other exhibits at the Bruce Museum, visit the museum Web site.

Palmer is a freelance editor and writer who specializes in medicine and science. She lives in Greenwich, Conn., with her husband and two children.

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