Behind the scenes at the National Gem and Mineral Collection

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, April 28, 2014

The spectacular multicolored specimen of elbaite, a variety of tourmaline, known as “The Candelabra,” from the Tourmaline Queen Mine, San Diego Co., California, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, April 25, 2014. // all photos by David J. Eicher
Before heading to the USA Science & Engineering Festival on Friday, April 25, 2014, I had the great opportunity to visit some friends at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Thanks to Paul Pohwat, collections manager of the nation’s mineral collection, I had a whirlwind private tour of both minerals and meteorites (see my previous blog and photos about the meteorite collection).

Here I share a few images from the mineral collection, which contains about 380,000 specimens and is the greatest in the United States and certainly at least one of the greatest in the world, if not the greatest. Why am I writing about minerals? Because minerals are an important part of planetary science. The universe forms crystals in mineral form; rocks are simply jumbled minerals without the precise atomic structure nature prefers to assemble atoms with. So studying minerals not only tells us how a planet like Earth formed, but also how other planets in the universe form and about their nature.

The Smithsonian’s Hall of Minerals, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, April 25, 2014.
I cannot thank Paul enough for this opportunity. For anyone who loves minerals as I do, it was a dream to go behind the scenes and see not only the collection that is normally on display, but also hundreds of other specimens in secret storage. From the Hope Diamond to the famous “Candelabra” tourmaline, to incredibly huge crystals of aquamarine, rhodochrosite, fluorite, and other favorites, well, it just went on and on.

I spent a couple hours with Paul and also had the great fortune to meet Dr. Jeff Post, curator of the Gem and Mineral Collection, who is also a longtime Astronomy magazine reader. We went back into the collection storage and rifled through many specimens, taking photos and discussing stories of mineralogy and astronomy. I share a few of these images in a gallery now, and I’ll also share more of them later on.

It was an incredible glimpse at a national treasure, and I encourage you to check out the collection when you are in Washington, D.C.

Happy fluorites!

See the gallery of all the minerals.

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