Starling DarlingsDr. Raquel Alonso-PerezCurator of the Harvard Mineralogical and Geological Museum
I strongly believe in a bright future for women and the jewelry industry, starting from the common ground of sustainable practices, equality and the understanding that resources are not infinite, and our current methods of extraction can cause irreversible damage.
We love digging into the story behind the gemstones and fine metals that leave us mesmerized. That’s why we were so excited to find a kindred spirit in Dr. Raquel Alonso-Perez, Curator of the Harvard Mineralogical and Geological Museum (MGMH). After over 230 years of collecting and curation, the MGMH stands as one of the oldest and continuously operated museums of its kind, with collections dating back to 1798, housing over 400,000 objects and among them, 1600 gold specimens.We love digging into the story behind the gemstones and fine metals that leave us mesmerized. That’s why we were so excited to find a kindred spirit in Dr. Raquel Alonso-Perez, Curator of the Harvard Mineralogical and Geological Museum. After over 230 years of collecting and curation, the MGMH stands as one of the oldest and continuously operated museums of its kind, with collections dating back to 1798, housing over 400,000 objects and among them, 1600 gold specimens.
Tell us a bit about your personal relationship to jewelry?
That’s an interesting question! I do have three rings and a few sets of ear rings that mean a lot to me, but I just admire the creators of beautiful pieces, Earth being the first and most important! I am currently the president of the Women’s Jewelry Association, Boston Chapter (WJA), an association I have been part of for a few years now. I strongly believe in a bright future for women and the jewelry industry, starting from the common ground of sustainable practices, equality and the understanding that resources are not infinite, and our current methods of extraction can cause irreversible damage.
When did you first become fascinated with geology / gemology
Geology was an easy one for me, since an early age I was fascinated by the fact that I could not understand how rocks formed. Gemology came after, at college when I was exposed to one semester in gemology; the rest is history!
Can you share with us a bit more about your process for curating the museum? What do you look for while “treasure hunting?”
My role as Curator is to provide access to the world-class Earth Science collections at Harvard University, encouraging its use for teaching, research and public education. My favorite part of the job is research, but I also enjoy teaching and academic related activities, in addition to working with the dedicated team of people at the MGMH, the Earth and Planetary Science Department and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture (HSMC), where our public gallery is located. Treasure hunting can be described in three challenge levels; high, medium and low. The greatest challenge occurs when I go out on the field. Over the past years, Madagascar and specially the emerald deposits have been my field area of research and there is nothing like collecting gemstones from the field! The middle-level of challenge occurs at mineral and gem shows, such as the Tucson gem and mineral show and the Munich gem and mineral show. There I walk around, talk to people, friends and colleagues, gather information about new findings, old collections back in the market, and finally make some decisions on acquisitions to grow the collection and keep it as relevant. The low-level challenge is when donations come to the museum, the easiest hunting of all. The combination of all of these challenges makes the collection grow and evolve.
Do you have any favorite pieces in the museum?
Many! Although I am fascinated about how minerals and gems form, the individual histories of how those pieces where discovered and how they became part of the MGMH collections are often as fascinating. These aspects make every piece a favorite one the moment I learn about it. However, what most of my favorite pieces share are pretty colors and cool shapes! I must admit, color, brightness and luster does it for me. Our gold collection is unique, the best crystalline gold collection not in a private collection. I am, therefore in a privileged position that I can study them every day! Currently my colleagues and I are investigating the natural formation of gold wires. My other favorite pieces belong to the gem collection, which consist of more than 1300 gemstones, and among those emeralds are my favorite, and guess why? I am studying how the more than 40 world-wide emerald deposits have formed through-out Earth history.
Also, we can’t help but ask to learn more about the famous Hamlin Necklace?
Of course! The Hamlin Necklace is a period piece created in 1890, by Augustus Choate Hamlin, a pivotal piece in the American Jewelry industry since, until then, tourmalines were not being used in fine jewelry. Hamlin saw beauty in the blue, green, and pink tourmaline gemstones his father mined in Maine, the first tourmaline discovery in the USA. Not surprisingly, since A.C. Hamlin was a surgeon, he created a detailed book with beautiful drawings of the pieces of jewelry he designed. While there are many rumors about what the necklace might have originally looked like, one fun story is that in 1960, the Hamlin Necklace was worn to a gala by Dr. Ursula Marvin, geologist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the first female research assistant in Harvard's Geology Department.
Looking at the jewelry industry at-large, we were wondering if you have any opinion on synthetic diamonds?
Good question. While synthetic diamonds might appear like the environmentally conscious option compare with natural diamonds, according to the study by Saleem Ali in 2011, this relationship is not clear-cut. He compared energy usage of diamond mines with the energy consumed in making lab-grown diamonds. From this he concluded that energy usage comparisons can provide a rough estimate of comparative impact, but that measurements vary considerably by geographic location of the mine versus the kind of process used in the diamond synthesis. On the other hand, sustainable development in mining practices together with an awareness of artisanal gem mining allows rural areas to growth and develop, especially in African countries such as Madagascar and South Africa.
In your opinion, what is one of the most exciting innovations or discoveries in geology / gemology today?
In Gemology, treatments and production of synthetic materials. Ultimately, I am a material scientist!
As an expert in your field, what are the top things you wish people knew while purchasing jewelry?
An important aspect in this industry is to know from whom you are buying, having a sense of where the raw materials are coming from, and especially if you are buying jewelry that has gemstones.
Lastly, especially being based in Los Angeles, some people really value the power of crystals. Is there possibly a scientific answer to the positive effects of crystals?
Well crystals are composed of atoms of different elements. Each crystal has a different make up of atoms with different amounts of electrons, protons and neutrons. For example, tourmaline is a mineral with piezo-electric properties; one end of the mineral is negatively charged, the other positively. These differences, I might add, are tiny. However, some people might argue that they can feel those properties and therefore use minerals as tools fit-for-purpose.
Thank you so much Dr. Alonso-Perez! It was such a treat to meet you and tour the Harvard Gem and Mineral Museum. If you ever find yourself in Boston, we highly recommended visiting their collection.