Grainger Hall of Gems
Explore the natural beauty of Earth’s gemstones along with stunning gems crafted by artisans at The Field Museum’s renovated exhibition, Grainger Hall of Gems. Unusual natural formations, dazzling cut gems, and incomparable jewelry settings await you. Discover beautiful Tiffany & Co. pieces from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, exquisite rare stones and gold objects from around the world, and never-before-seen creations from top jewelry designers.
The Field Museum’s gem exhibition has been a favorite destination since it opened in 1921, the Museum’s first year in its present location. The hall was renovated in 1941 and again in 1985 when it was named the Grainger Hall of Gems, after its sponsor, The Grainger Foundation of Lake Forest. Now completely redesigned and updated, featuring dazzling displays of 600 gemstones and gems, and 150 pieces of magnificent jewelry, the new hall is the most comprehensive exhibition of its kind between the east and west coasts, and is designed to awe visitors with a beautiful presentation enhanced by state-of-the-art fiber optic lighting.
“The exhibition combines the beauty of nature with the creativity of human artistry,” explains Lance Grande, PhD, the Museum’s senior vice president and head of collections and research, and curator of the Grainger Hall of Gems. He continues, “Featured are most of the true major gemstone varieties, including those known for thousands of years as well as some discovered in recent decades. From an Egyptian garnet necklace more than 3,400 years old, to the Aztec Sun God Opal thought to have been mined about 500 years ago, to one-of-a-kind pieces made by leading designers using world-class gems already in The Field’s collection, the exhibition contains breathtaking pieces from all over the world.”
A Unique Approach
The Field Museum’s renovated Hall of Gems takes a unique approach to understanding the natural history of precious stones. All the gems are arranged according to type, for a greater understanding of their relationships. Each display features a gemstone still embedded in ancient rock, or matrix (left), in which it was found. Alongside the gemstones in matrix are cut and polished stones (right), and placed next to those stones are beautiful finished pieces of jewelry. With the gems organized in this way, visitors experience the complete story of how a stone is found in its raw state, then cut and polished, and finally transformed into a dazzling ring, necklace, or brooch worthy of being worn on the red carpet!
The exhibition showcases many gems notable for their size or rarity. They include a highly unusual, 11.65-carat color-changing alexandrite that appears emerald green in the daylight and then raspberry red in incandescent light (left). Other exhibition highlights include a 97.5-carat ruby topaz and a 341-carat aquamarine.
What is a Gemstone?
There is no strict definition of what constitutes a gemstone. It may be a mineral or organic matter that can be cut and polished for jewelry. Once a gemstone is cut and polished, it becomes a gem. Beauty, durability, and rarity determine if a material is gem quality.
·Beauty is judged by color and clarity, as well as the way the gem reflects and absorbs light. Cut just right, transparent minerals such as zircon act like prisms to break rays of light into all the colors of the rainbow and exhibit multicolored “fire.”
·Durability is desirable because the harder the stone, the less likely it will scratch or chip. Diamond is by far the hardest gem – it’s 140 times more durable than second-place ruby. Certain softer organic materials, such as pearl and amber, are also considered gem quality.
·Rarity adds to a gem’s value – the more difficult to come by, the more precious it becomes. Visitors to the Hall of Gems will see world class examples of these rarities, such as the ruby topaz (right). Not only is this stone rare, The Field Museum also has one of the world’s largest specimens.
Discovery and Mining
Gemstones are formed over millions of years, yet some have been discovered only in the past century or so. Imagine the excitement felt by mineral collector Thomas Maynard Bixby when, in 1904, he discovered a rare form of red beryl in the mountains of Utah. Today, the gem is called bixbite in honor of him. It’s one of the rarest gems in North America and is mined only in Utah. In 1967, Maasi cattle herders came across an unusual blue stone that turned out to be one thousand times rarer than diamond. Today we call the gem tanzanite (left), and it’s found only in Tanzania and Kenya. The Hall of Gems showcases samples of both bixbite and tanzanite, giving visitors an extraordinary opportunity to see these rare stones.
Of course, many gems have been known and prized since the dawn of human cultures and some methods of mining gems go back to ancient times. The exhibition explains different mining methods. Gems are often mined in pits dug into flood plains. Miners scoop clay and gravel into conical baskets and begin a process of washing away unwanted material in hopes of finding gemstones. In contrast, diamond mines use modern equipment and techniques to move tons of earth, or to drill below the surface of the ocean.
The exhibition also examines how gemstones are cut for maximum beauty. For instance, brilliant-cut diamonds have 58 facets that are mathematically proportioned to bounce light around in the stone and produce the most dazzling sparkle. Step-cuts create a flat surface, or table, that shows off rich colors to their best advantage. Dome-shaped cabochons display the color of opaque and translucent gems, revealing iridescence, play of light, and effects such as “stars” and “cat’s eyes.”
Gems may also be engraved. The exhibition features a delicate diamond stick pin (right) carved in the late 19th century by C. M. deVries showing a portrait of his monarch, King Willem III of the Netherlands, and took five years to create. The carving was achieved using delicate diamond-tipped tools because the only substance that can cut diamond is diamond.
Varieties and Species: Families of Gems
Gem varieties are grouped into species based on their chemical composition. Often, gemsthat do not look alike are, in fact, closely related. For instance, ruby and sapphire are chemically similar, consisting of aluminum oxide – both are in the species corundum. The red in ruby is due to trace amounts of chromium, while blue sapphire contains trace amounts of iron and titanium.
Emerald, aquamarine, heliodor (left), and morganite all belong to the species beryl. All are featured in the gem hall, and it’s interesting to see how different they appear as natural crystals in matrix. A stand-out specimen in the Hall of Gems is a beautiful 877-carat emerald crystal from Brazil.
From Gemstone to Jewelry
The magical transformation from rough stone, to gem, to precious jewelry is represented by beautiful pieces such as a regal platinum necklace containing more than 90 carats of rubies and several hundred diamonds (left), a Kashmir blue sapphire necklace with a 60-carat gem carved to resemble a human face, and a dramatic 25-carat diamond brooch. Simpler, but no less eye-catching, is a brilliant red natural-form coral necklace (right).
Another exhibition highlight is the solid gold Aqusan Image, one of the most famous archaeological discoveries ever made in the Philippines. The Hindu or Buddhist deity from the 13th century tips the scale at more than four-and-one-half pounds!
The tremendous variety of jewelry pieces in the renovated Grainger Hall of Gems is sure to delight visitors. The Field Museum is especially pleased to present the works of distinguished jewelry designers who worked with stones from the Museum’s collection. The designers include Chicago’s Lester Lampert, Marc Scherer, and Ellie Thompson, and Oak Park Jewelers. Also included are Mish Tworkowski of Mish New York and the late Jean Schlumburger for Tiffany & Co.
Field Museum Admission
Admission to the Grainger Hall of Gems is included in Basic admission to The Field Museum. Discounts are available for Chicago residents. Visit fieldmuseum.org or call 866.FIELD.03 for current admission prices. Special rates are available for tour operators and groups of 15 or more. Call our Group Sales office toll-free at 888.FIELD.85 (888.343.5385).
The Field Museum is open 9am – 5pm every day but Christmas.
Location and Travel Information
The Field Museum is located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive. Visitors can get to the Museum via CTA bus lines #6 and #146, or by taking the Metra electric and South Shore train lines. Indoor parking is available just steps from the Museum’s main entrance. For more travel information, call the Illinois Department of Transportation, 312.368.4636, or the RTA Travel Center Hotline, 312.836.7000.