HMNS in the news: Newly discovered mineral has ties to our permanent collection

Did you know that HMNS has a link to a big bit of science news that hit last week?

A brand new mineral was discovered embedded in the Allende meteorite, called panguite.

Allende meteorite fragment
A fragment of the Allende meteorite

The Allende meteorite collided with earth in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1969, and since 2007 has been under scrupulous study by a CalTech geologist named Chi Ma.

Using an electron microscope, Ma has discovered nine new minerals in the meteorite, including panguite.

Panguite is one of the cooler discoveries because it existed even before the earth had formed, and was one of the first solid materials in our solar system to come together. Instead of primordial goo, panguite is primordial rock!

The best news? We have samples of the Allende meteorite in HMNS’ permanent collection and currently on display at HMNS Sugar Land and the George Observatory.

To learn more about panguite and what it means to scientists hoping to gain new understanding of the conditions that gave rise to our solar system, read more and visit one of our satellite campuses to see for yourself!

Not your average Easter egg: Find the Fabergé Imperial Diamond Trellis Egg at HMNS for one week only

We’ve seen people get pretty intricate with their Easter egg dyeing (like this guy, and this one, and also this) but we’ve never seen an Easter egg quite as impressive as the one Tsar Alexander III presented to his wife, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna in 1892.

Imperial Diamond Trellis Faberge Egg

Called the Imperial Diamond Trellis Egg and created by renowned Fabergé workmaster August Holmström, the egg is on display exclusively at the Houston Museum of Natural Science beginning on April 6 — Good Friday.

Made from Jadeite, gold, rose-cut diamonds and silver, the egg is delicately hinged and originally opened to reveal an Easter surprise — a miniature elephant, which has since been lost, made from ivory, gold, enamel, and rose-cut and brilliant diamonds.

The Imperial Easter Egg has been displayed as if it is floating off-kilter in the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals Vault, but was originally propped on top of three cherubs thought to represent the three sons of the Imperial couple — the Grand Dukes Nicholas, George and Michael.

The egg is on loan from the McFerrin Collection and will be on display for one week only, so plan your visit soon!

Rock Steady!

In addition to the wonderful movies and exhibitions we put on at HMNS, we also offer unique learning experiences. Our paleo hall is a great place to pick up new skills, such as sifting through seashells millions of years old or learning how to cut gemstones.

Most days throughout the summer, a volunteer is stationed in our Paleo hall cutting facets in rock and explaining to the interested visitors how to carve the perfect gem.

Our volunteer starts with a mineral, usually quartz. They set the stone to the holder, and using a protractor measure out the angle at which they are going to grind their quartz. The spinning wheel, which is a diamond gritted lap (diamond is the hardest natural substance known and can cut through anything) is then used to grind the stone and create a facet.

This lap is used in the final stages,
to polish the almost finished stone.

After one side is cut, the stone is rotated so another side can be ground down. Our volunteers use different laps to make larger cuts, or to polish the stone as it nears completion.

Check out the beautifully cut quartz stones pictured below. Notice that the gems can be cut into different shapes with a different number of facets.

An experienced volunteer can craft one of these in a little over an hour.

Interested in becoming a volunteer and learning how to cut gems yourself, or how to lead tours or get more behind the scenes opportunities? Contact Sibyl Keller at 713-639-4656 or check online here.

Want to learn more about gems, diamonds and jewelry? Don’t miss Faberge: Imperial Jeweler to the Tsars, at HMNS until July 25.

Lessons from Faberge: Skill Trumps Modern Technology

Today’s guest blogger is Neal Immega. He has a Ph.D. in Paleontology and is a Master Docent here at HMNS. In his post below – originally printed in the Museum’s volunteer newsletter – Neal discusses the lessons that can be learned from Puabi, Pharaohs and Peter Carl Fabergé.

I sometimes think that I can surely produce objects that are superior to those on display in our halls. After all, my technology has to be superior because it is thousands of years more recent and that should make up for my lack of training in whatever skill is being used. I do get commissions to produce “Nealafacts,” things for the touch carts that mimic ancient originals. I fancy that my copper chisel would please a workman on Pharaoh’s tomb, but what about more difficult things? I can just see my father, raising one eyebrow at me, as if to say “Can you do it?”

The exhibit “Royal Tombs of Ur” contained drilled agate beads, some more than 2 inches long and with walls about a millimeter thick. I fancy myself an expert in making jewelry from agate but I would have trouble drilling thin-walled beads like those even with sintered diamond tools. The craftsmen from Ur accomplished this task 4,500 years ago!

In the “Birth of Christianity” exhibit there was a limestone drinking cup that appeared to have been turned on a lathe, except that its handle stuck out and would have gotten in the way of the turning process. In the Egyptian exhibit that used to be on the first floor, there was a pot (borrowed from the Menil Collection) that was made out of hard igneous porphyry. It also looked like it had been turned on a lathe but, this time, it had hanging lugs would get in the way. I wonder how they did that?

My most recent humbling experience comes from the Fabergė exhibit.  One signature Fabergė technology is transparent enamel over patterned metal. The process used to draw the swirling lines on the metal is called guilloche after the gentleman who created the process in order to make banknotes hard to counterfeit. The process uses gears that run inside of other gears to make the pattern – you can readily see the mechanism if you look at the modern toy called a Spirograph. Select a toothed wheel, a toothed circle for it to run in, and a position inside the toothed wheel for your pencil and, wow! you get perfect mathematical loops. If you used a cutting tool, you could mark the engraving plate used to print bank notes or stock certificates. Though the US Mint probably has a much better ruling engine (because it draws on printing plates) the process is the same.

Spirograph, a plastic toy used to draw curves.
Picture taken from a specimen produced and
old in the USSR (kept in author’s private collection). 
Photo by: Alexei Kouprianov

Marking up bank note printing plates is comparatively easy compared to ruling this little egg.  This is because it has the pattern turned all the way around it, above and below it. I bet there is a pattern follower that can track about an object but I do not know.

The engraved surface on the egg has been enameled:  covered with ground up glass and metal oxides, all melted together. The Faberge factories were famous for the fancy colors they could produce. Ladies of the court would have dresses made to complement the new colors. I suppose it just would not do to clash with your cigarette case color. The large number of colors (maybe 170) made it possible for the factory to claim that each object is unique.  The Fabergé craftsmen used transparent but colored enamels to allow the fancy guilloche patterns to show through.

I guess it is a bit retro to be using machines built in 1920, but the results are fabulous. Almost no one but the high end watch companies still use them because it can take an engraver many hours to do a watch face. Embossing a finish on metal with a hydraulic press is a much more common technique. If you need to do better, computer-controlled milling machines are now priced within the range of many shops (say $20,000) . We might expect to see some really new designs from these in the future.

Want to try your hand at guilloche? There is an interactive site where you can vary all the parameters and produce the most amazing patterns in real time. This is what I wanted – the ability to create an infinite number of patterns without the cost of carving them into metal. The only problem is how to transfer the pattern on to metal, but that is a problem for a 21st century Fabergé shop.

I think my father would be pleased with my discovery that there are no shortcuts to producing quality work. A craftsman today might have better tools than someone in the past, but skill does seem to trump technology.

Rats, I guess there are no easy solutions.

If you are interested in reading more by our guest blogger Neal, click here to read his previous post.


Puabi Beads picture

Rights to use Puabi beads photo.

Guilloche explained

Discussion on the technique of creating Faberge designs

A nice photograph of a ruling engine.


Computer controlled Milling Machine

Hobby Grade Milling machine

Mathematically construct guilloche patterns