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.

Marvel: Faberge [12 Days of HMNS]

Today is the Sixth Day of HMNS! In the spirit of the classic holiday carol, we’re taking 12 days to feature 12 different videos that preview or go behind-the-scenes of a holiday museum activity, here on the blog (or, you can get a sneak peek at all the videos on – we won’t tell).

Of the 12 videos we produced, this is my favorite – our President, and curator of Gems and Minerals, Joel Bartsch, gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the Empress Josephine Tiara (now on display in the excellent Faberge exhibit), and it. is. STUNNING. Plus, it has a really cool story behind it.

Click play to see for yourself!

Need to catch up?

The First Day of HMNS – Explore: Snow Science
The Second Day of HMNS – Preview: The Chronicles of Narnia Exhibition
The Third Day of HMNS – Preview: Disney’s A Christmas Carol
The Fourth Day of HMNS – Investigate: The Star of Bethlehem
The Fifth Day of HMNS – Shop: The Perfect Gift

Get into the holiday spirit! Visit our 12 Days of HMNS web site to see the videos and get more information about each event, exhibit and film:

Happy Holidays!

Gems and Minerals

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is currently hosting a special exhibition, The Nature of Diamonds, so this month our booklist features Gems and minerals.

According to a mineral is the same all the way through, and  there are about 3000 known minerals on earth.  A rock, on the other hand, is made from two or more minerals. 

For young children, Let’s Go Rock Collecting by Roma Gans is a great introduction to rocks.  The book begins by saying that people collect many things, and that the oldest thing you can collect is rocks.  In simple terms, with wonderful illustrations and photographs, Ms. Gans explains the three types of rocks—igneous rocks, sedimentary rocks and metamorphic rocks.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Walter Rodriguez

You will learn how magma becomes lava which becomes igneous rocks. You will also see photographs of granite, quartz and basalt –  all igneous rocks.  Sandstone and limestone are examples of sedimentary rocks.  The Egyptian pyramids were made from limestone. In modernt times, limestone is mixed to make cement. Metamorphic rock means changed.  Slate is a metamorphic rock that used to be shale before being exposed to intense heat and pressure.

Children are encouraged to collect rocks, and examples of simple rock collections are pictured.  Rocks are everywhere, so collecting rocks is an inexpensive introduction to science.  And, who knows?  You might grow up to be president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science!

Byrd Baylor’s Everybody Needs a Rock begins “Everybody needs a rock.  I’m sorry for kids who don’t have a rock for a friend.”  Baylor gives the reader rules for finding a special rock, something you might keep forever.  The rules say you can find a rock anywhere, but make your choice when things are quiet.  You need to look the rock in the eye to make sure it is the perfect size, color, shape and smell.  Do not let anyone help you make the choice — the decision is yours alone. 
Baylor’s words paired with Peter Parnall’s simple black and bronze drawings work together to create quite a book that will make children anxious to begin the search for their own rock.

Gemstones by Ann O. Squire is a nonfiction introduction to gems.  You learn that deep within the earth, high temperatures and pressure transform minerals into crystals which can be cut, polished and sold for thousands of dollars.  A crystal must pass 3 tests to be considered a gemstone:  it must be rare; it must be beautiful; and it must be hard enough to resist scratching or breaking.

bariteSquire says that gemstones began forming millions of years ago up to 100 miles beneath the earth’s surface.  The intense heat caused the rocks to become magma which contains tiny mineral crystals.  Pressure caused the magma to erupt from the earth as a volcano or flowing between layers of rock.

Diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds are inorganic minerals, meaning they have never been alive.  A pearl, however, comes from a living source — an oyster.  Amber comes from the sap of trees that lived long ago and coral is made from the skeletons of tiny sea creature.
Squire briefly explains some of the superstitions involving gemstones and tells how the idea of birthstones began.

Don’t miss the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals including the Lester and Sue Smith Gem Vault on the second floor of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  You will see the most incredible collection of gems and minerals in the world.

Installing New Exhibits – Terra Cotta Warriors and Diamonds

The Collections staff has been busy!  With all the various and sundried exhibits going out and coming in, at times it seemed we morphed into spinning tops.  But here are a few moments from the behind the scenes of the installation of The Nature of Diamonds and the Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor exhibits.

First off, let me confess, I’m a jewelry hound.  Due to budget limits, my own personal stash is less than stellar – but my appreciation of gemstones and precious metals knows no bounds.  Thus I couldn’t wait to work on the Diamonds installation and I enjoyed it immensely.  One thing did surprise me though.  Who knew rough stones could be so interesting?  Not many of us have the opportunity to hold and closely examine a diamond before it’s been cut and polished, so it was really cool to get the chance to do so.  Despite what I thought I knew about diamonds, I hadn’t a clue that nature could provide perfect geometry on a rough stone.

 Bracelet belonging to Mae West

Really close-up inspection (and I mean really close up, like peering through 10x magnification) sometimes reveals tiny triangle shapes called trigonals on the stone.  I got a little fascinated with the trigonals, being sure to spot them whenever a condition report indicated them on a rough stone.  These perfect equilateral triangles are not easily discernible without magnification, so I’m not sure you’ll be able to see them in the rough stones that are in the exhibit.  But just like Horton hearing a Who, trust me they’re there!  Pretty amazing.

Another thing I learned was the etymology of the word carat.  I’m not giving this one away; you’ll need to look for it yourself when you visit.  It makes sense but it would have never occurred to me on my own.  While you’re looking for the lingual origins of carat, linger for a while at the Mae West bracelet.  It caught me off guard because I’ve always thought of her as being rather statuesque.  The bracelet’s wide but its circumference is small.  Apparently she was quite petite; it was her personality and jewelry that loomed large.

 Milky Way Galaxy Necklace

As for the actual sparkly stuff, forget all the song lyrics and advertising copy and just say WOW.  And say it multiple times.  Let me assure you that the HMNS Collections staff maintains a detached and professional attitude towards all museum objects, each one treated with the utmost care and regard.  However, the women in the department are only human and we couldn’t help but play the “What’s Your Favorite?” game.  (Our male colleagues were disinclined to play; they mostly shrugged their shoulders and walked off.)  Lisa is partial to all of the tremblant pieces because she likes the motion in them.  Bryanna can’t decide between the Frank Gehry necklace and the Selma Hayek tiara bracelet.  The dragon pin with the ruby eyes is the one for Eydie.  Beth favors the yellow heart-shaped diamond ring because the stone is so perfect “you can walk right into it.”  Yours truly has to have two favorites – the vintage diamond and emerald brooch with a small pendant watch and the twenty-first century Milky Way Galaxy sculptural necklace.  After you’ve seen the exhibit, let us know what your favorite is.  If you can decide, that is.


Then, there’s the impressive Terra Cotta Warriors.  The details in the figures are absolutely stunning.  Even the horse’s teeth are perfectly done.  Obviously, the objects are ancient and fragile.  We never rush around museum objects but there were times I held my breath as I slowly moved through the installation.  Yet when I stood still, the figures didn’t seem inanimate at all.  Especially once they all got their heads!  I did have a Night in the Museum moment when I briefly wondered if they all step off their mounts at night and march around HMNS.

Our Chinese colleagues are very congenial.  We had a good laugh when one of them showed us an NBA jersey she bought for her 15 year old son.  No, not Yao Ming – but Monta Ellis of the Golden State Warriors.  Since pretty much everyone in China has a Rockets Ming jersey, her son will be particularly cool for wearing the NBA jersey of another favorite player.  I wonder what the terra cotta warriors would think of men chasing after a ball who also call themselves warriors.

I’m ending this on a somewhat unrelated to HMNS note.  If you’re visiting Philadelphia this summer, be sure to see the Galileo, The Medici and The Age of Astronomy exhibit at the Franklin Institute.  It features one of the two surviving telescopes belonging to Galileo.  I saw the exhibit a few weeks ago and thought it was quite good, very worth the time.  Unfortunately, this exhibit’s only venue is in Philadelphia before returning to Italy.  If you’re a fan of astronomy and science history, you won’t be disappointed.