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 www.rocksforkids.com 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.

If I Owned a Jewelry Store

Ed. Note: At the age of nine, Joel Bartsch was shown a pyrite crystal, and became fascinated with gemstones and crystals from that point forward. After college, he worked in five museums around the country, returning to his native Houston in 1991, where he is now president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Bartsch founded a gem vault at the museum, which boasts one of the most extensive collections of minerals in the country, including a 1,869-carat natural emerald crystal, the largest ever discovered in North America. This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2008 issue of In Design Magazine.

My jewelry store would be a fascinating place to visit.

It would be underground, first of all. When people see gemstones that are cut, polished, and finished, the stones are so far removed from their natural environment that people really don’t make the connection between the fabulous jewel they’re wearing and Mother Nature. So, my store would be located under the earth – if not in a working mine, then at least in a replica. It would have crystals sticking out of air pockets in the walls, just as they’re found naturally. The whole thing would be like walking into an underground version of Aladdin’s cave, with several different caverns – all the rubies would be here, the emeralds here, the diamonds over there – and everything reinforcing the awe and mystery surrounding the origin of crystals.

Gem Crystal
Creative Commons License photo credit: lifelive~

I wouldn’t carry any jewelry that was anywhere near normal. Now, I love white, colorless diamonds as much as anybody. But they’ve become commodities. So I wouldn’t carry ANY white diamonds – only super-fancy colors, like purples and pinks. None of my store’s gemstones would have any enhancements. Really, once you have to explain to customers that it’s been thermally-enhanced, or irradiated, or had a laser treatment to remove inclusions, it sounds like a synthetic production. Again, I want to reinforce the link between these marvels and nature itself, which only adds to the value.

As for my customers, I would allow them in by appointment only… of course, kids are welcome at any time. Kids still have a sense of wonder and excitement about nature. If you show them the simplest piece of amethyst, they react with a big “Wow!” But when you see adults in a jewelry store, they act so unaffected, like they don’t want the salesperson to know that they like anything. So, adults would only be welcome in the store after they’ve passed a written test.

Gem
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Stephen Witherden

A test, you say? Let me explain. Back in the 17th century, there were lists of rules for visiting museums. In those days, museums weren’t public; you had to already have knowledge of a subject before you were allowed inside. My store would be the same way.

That may sound harsh, but really my point is that I want people coming in who truly appreciate what jewelry is. Perhaps they’d take a stonecutting course, or goldsmithing, or gemstone panning, all of which I would offer in the store. After all, the best customer is an educated customer. They may still have issues with the price, but at least they will understand how rare and unusual these gemstones are.


Finally, I would have a bevy of jewelry designers available for customers once they’ve chosen a gemstone. The designer would sit down with these customers and sketch out ideas, which would drive home the point that the design process adds more value to a piece of jewelry than anything else. Let’s face it: gold, silver, platinum, diamonds, rubies, emeralds – in today’s world, they’re commodities, like five pounds of beans or 50 pounds of flour. What really creates value is the design process.

Faberge was once asked, “How do you decide how much one of your pieces is worth, compared to your competitors?” He answered, “If you want to know what my competitors’ jewelry is worth, just put it on the scale.” The point he was making was that they had no design sense – that the only value in their pieces was the weight of the diamonds or gold. The reason his jewelry was so highly priced was that it had a tremendous amount of creative value added to it.

At the end of their time in my store, when my customer has a fabulously beautiful piece of jewelry that they helped design, made up of totally natural stones and materials, and they’re doing it down in this crystal cave in a natural setting, not only will they have a grand appreciation for the finished piece, but they’ll have an incredible story to tell about the entire process.