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Gems in the Rough: A Visit to Harvard’s Museum of Natural History

Karin Jacobson gem news jewelry design opals sapphires travel

After the trunk show at Alchemy 925 in Belmont wrapped up, my husband Adam and I spent some time touring around Boston and Cambridge. We visited Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, where we spent some time ogling their fantastic collection of mineral specimens. (OK, Adam looked, I ogled.) As a self-proclaimed gem nerd, I loved poring over gems and minerals that I use in my designs in their natural state.

Here are some photos of mineral specimens and a few of the pieces that I’ve made with their cut gem versions!

This is beryl, which in its blue variety is also called aquamarine. And although my jewelry examples only show aquamarine, beryl also comes in pink (morganite); green (emerald); yellow (heliodor); colorless (goshenite) and red beryl (which, for some reason, is just called red beryl. Guess the naming committee’s creativity ran dry at the end!). I particularly love using uncut, rough aquamarine in my work because I think it looks exactly like tiny icebergs.

Rhodochrosite is a gem I’ve started using in my designs only recently. I learned about it from a client whose wife fell in love with the mineral at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which was the location of their wedding. Recently, he requested I make an Origami pendant for her for their anniversary. (Which they ALSO planned to celebrate at the very same museum!) I was happy to oblige and promptly fell in love with rhodochrosite. It comes in a beautiful range of pink to red shades, some pieces with the gorgeous opaque luster shown above and others with interesting patterns. Congratulations to Andria and Tim, and thanks so much for the suggestion!!

Anyone who has been following my recent work knows that I’ve started to use lots of opals! They are most commonly mined in Australia, but some are found in Ethiopia as well. Being fairly soft, I don’t generally recommend them for rings, but they make fabulous earrings and necklaces and come in the most amazing colors. I love how the flashing colors within the stones play against the harder black lines of the oxidized silver.

Corundum is another gem that I’ve used in dozens of designs over the years. Little-known fact: sapphires and rubies are both corundum, but ruby is just the name for a particular pink-red color range of the mineral. Recently, I posted about the many color variants of sapphires, and how much I love using them because they’re so durable. For this photo group, I chose to feature some natural, unfaceted cuts of ruby and sapphire to show their similarity to the original mineral specimens.

Elbaite, more commonly known as tourmaline, is another fun gem that comes in a wide variety of colors. The reddest version (top right) is referred to as rubellite, and a common variety that fades from green to red is called bi-color tourmaline or more aptly, “watermelon tourmaline.” It also comes in black, brown, clear, yellow, orange, blue, violet, pink - and not only in bi-color but tri-color varieties as well!

Quartz is a common and fairly inexpensive gemstone, but when it is high quality and well-cut, it’s quite a stunner. This necklace features a pear-shaped faceted quartz from Arkansas (along with some fair trade yellow and green Australian sapphires and a couple of tiny diamonds).

And I didn’t just find gemstone specimens at the museum, I also stumbled on some gorgeous examples of other minerals that I use in my work every day. It’s pretty obvious why I’d include gold and silver - but did you know that the chemical that I use to oxidize sterling silver (turn it black) is called liver of sulfur, and it’s primarily made of … you guessed it … sulfur. What I didn’t realize until this museum visit is that sulfur is downright spectacular in its crystalized form. And borax is used to make boric acid, which I use for exactly the opposite task - to prevent silver from oxidizing while I’m soldering it (which can make it difficult for the solder to flow, and also difficult to clean up afterwards). In its natural state, it’s a bizarre and cool looking mineral!

Hope you enjoyed this little before-and-after post! If you did, check out more of my side-by-side comparison and design process posts.

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