Nature's Bling


The Natural History Museum of LA County has its share of gems. A whole room of them, in fact. Hundreds of rubies, topaz, opals, obscure formations of marvelous multi-colored rocks and minerals -- even asteroids -- a veritable pageant of dramatically lit geological psychedelia. There are gems on top of gems, gems growing out of one another; there are glow-in-the-dark gems, gems carved into shapes, there's a gem called "Hambergite," a whole panoply of vibrant pinks, emerald greens, ghostly whites, and over 300 pounds of natural gold. The darkness of the room in comparison to these glowing wonders only hyperbolizes the feeling of having walked into a galactic spiral arm. It reminds me of a pretty ludicrous quotation I picked up once from a Timothy Leary book called "The Politics of Ecstasy," which described the LSD experience as "crystal palaces soaring thousands of miles into a velvet void." If I am making this place sound like some kind of stone-sober Grateful Dead dreamscape (seriously, all it lacks is the roses and dancing bears) it is because it is. Believe the hype!!

However, your average Deadhead, though equipped with a thorough knowledge of crystal healing, may not know much about the universe of gemology displayed in the Natural History Museum Hall of Gems and Minerals. Frankly, for most of us, knowledge of gems is limited to the five types of stones traditionally considered to be precious: diamond (of course), ruby, sapphire, emerald, and amethyst. These five, long referred to as the Cardinal Gems, occupy a pretty arbitrary position in the upper echelons of value; there are, after all, thousands of varieties of gems, a great deal of which share characteristics with the top five. In current usage by gemologists, all gems are considered precious, although four of the five original Cardinals are usually, but not always, the most valuable. This is because they are the most famous, the most generally durable, and because their quality is pretty consistent. And, above all, because the homies are shiny.

Humanity is an advanced race: one that has seen its planet from outer space, that has been trying since the 17th century to organize all of the other creatures on earth, that can breathe underwater, and that has invented things as insane as lasers and raves. The fact we still really like putting shiny rocks around our necks is difficult to understand in the context of our progress. After all, we break our backs (or rather, we break the backs of other people) mining them from their nests of stone; throughout history, people have been spending their lives panning muddy rivers just for a chance at finding something lustrous. The history of the state of California would have been irrevocably different without the Gold Rush, while Sierra Leone would not be so apocalyptically screwed if it didn't have any diamonds. On the other end of the market, rich consumers ever since Egypt-times have been forking over fortunes for these fancy rocks. Lauren Bacall doesn't ever appear in a movie or television show without a real diamond necklace. Hippies trade crystals at Phish concerts with a reverence rarely seen since ecclesiastical ritualism.

This is even more impressively strange given the fact that artificial production of almost every kind of gemstone has been possible since the 1900s: the French chemist Auguste Verneuil revealed his process of creating synthetic rubies from crystals of aluminum oxide in 1902. Simulating the chemical processes that form real minerals has only become progressively more developed and feasible ever since. The General Electric Company has been producing small synthetic diamonds for industrial purposes since about 1960, while synthesized emeralds that are more durable and often just as valuable as real emeralds have been on the market since the 1930s. The Natural History Museum has a large collection of these synthetic gems in its gem vault, all of which are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, because they have the same chemical composition as the real thing. There is nothing wrong with making synthetic gems, in the eyes of the industry, yet trying to pass one off as natural is highly illegal and bears severe penalties. This is due, in part, to the threat they pose to deeply engrained monopolies which large diamond cartels like De Beers have on the gem market.

Why this mania? Why do we exploit one another and demand exorbitant prices for these beautiful little freaks of nature? One answer might be found in a quotation from the Roman scholar and statesman Pliny the Elder, which adorns the main wall of the Natural History Museum Hall of Gems. The words stand boldly over the room, quelling the doubts of cynical visitors like myself:



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Also perhaps vaguely relevant, if not necessarily "of interest" per se, are the prevalence of diamond (and, since you mention it, aluminum oxide) in abrasive applications ~the good thing about being very very hard is that other things are softer than you, so in certain interactions the 'winner' is very predictable~ and the not-to-be-overlooked factoid that IT IS JUST CARBON, totally the same as, yet totally totally different from, graphite.

Wikipedia Diamond entry

Further, to theorize that the categorization of gemstones is part & parcel of the process of taxonomy you refer to as humankind's effort to "organize all of the other creatures on earth" (your use of the words 'organize' and 'other,' is telling & excellent), the first division being "animal, vegetable, or mineral." [or technically I suppose, that's before the first division in what is usually thought of as taxonomy. Apparently the phenomena of categorizing thusly may have arisen with the game 'twenty questions', according to the internet.]

Lastly: Don't crows collect shiny things too? (or is that a, ... well, I guess a 'rural legend'?)

Totally! It is interesting to note, of course, than human beings are "just carbon," too, in a manner of speaking.

Taxonomy, as an effort, is something which really interests me. Why did this movement from Renaissance symbolism to the Age of Enlightenment bring with it a desire to catalogue all of the natural world? I read recently: "The ordering of words and things represented a new articulation of the material world, [in which] experience was to be ordered in terms of order, hierarchy, and difference. Of course, this was originally done with the symbolic intention of representing man's dominion over the natural world, a goal which museum curators, gem collectors, whatever, have now at least nominally eliminated from their display choices.

I say "nominally," of course, because the dream of the Natural Sciences to document and order the natural world through taxonomy remains as vibrant as it was in the 17th century. And it's still as difficult to separate the motivations of this quest for order from our desire to separate ourselves from nature by creating a hierarchy of it: of which we are, notably, at the top.

Stephen Jay Gould, a pretty epic evolutionary biologist, said (in his book "Wonderful Life," which my noble roommate A.K. O'Malley recently lent me) that "the fatuous idea of a single order amidst the multifarious diversity of modern life flows from our conventional iconographies and the prejudices that nurture them;" that is to say, the nature of the order into which scientists parse the natural world is dependent upon a human choice -- which is an iconographic one.

But yeah: animal, vegetable, or mineral -- or animal from other animal, mineral from other mineral -- as if these things didn't have a constant interplay with one another.

Oh yeah, and magpies collect shiny things. Maybe crows, too?

like so much, it seems magpie/crow is a taxonomic, which is to say semantic (in a manner of speaking [no pun{as such}intended]) distinction.

With all due respect to Stephen Jay Gould (note: measurable in tons, not teaspoons as is sometimes intended with that phrase), I don't think it is fatuous to perceive a unity to the mind-blowingly vast and multifariously diverse complexity of life. Likewise attempting to observe and decrypt the dialectical interplay of, for example, 'nature' and 'nurture' in shaping animal behavior, is a radically different process than arguing which is the only important factor in all cases- though they are definitely related endeavors (logically speaking, the former can usefully be understood as literally the child ~or grandchild~ of the latter, no?).

cheers! (btw)

Speaking of great taxonomies, your first sentence just correctly used every form of parenthetical bracketing offered to us by English punctuation.

I really like your writing, especially in the way that you mix social commentary, elements of pop culture and humor.