Organic gems unveiled in GIA Museum exhibit

Organic gems such as amber, coral, ivory, and pearls are as diverse as nature itself. The Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the world’s foremost authority in gemology, will tell the story of organic gems in a museum exhibition at its Carlsbad, Calif. world headquarters. “All-Natural, Organically Grown Gems from Plants and Animals” debuts in mid-July and will be on display through April 2004.

The exhibit, to be presented in the Institute’s S. Tasaki Graduation and Student Lecture Hall, will feature a rare tusk from a mastodon, an extinct elephant-like beast that roamed the earth as far back as 35 million years ago. The tusk, originating from the Russian Chukotka Peninsula, has been carbon dated at around 30,000 years. In addition, organic gem material in its rough form and intriguing organic-gem jewelry from GIA’s own collection will be on view, as well as pieces on loan from private collectors.

Unlike gemstones, which form deep within the earth, organic gems are the products of living organisms, and are formed by biological processes. Some organic gems come from materials that are millions of years old. Other sources are living today. A number of sources are endangered and protected by environmental laws. For instance, African and Asian elephants, a source of ivory, and the Atlantic hawksbill sea turtle, used to obtain tortoise shell, are both protected animal species.

Some examples that visitors will want to see include amber, a tree resin that has hardened over time. Probably because of the movie “Jurassic Park,” amber is best known for its inclusions of insects. Though it looks like a plant, coral – also on view – is actually a skeletal structure that houses colonies of tiny marine animals called polyps. Ivory, essentially tooth material, will be displayed, as well as tagua nuts, a variety of vegetable ivory. The exhibit also contains natural and cultured pearls.

In addition, GIA will introduce some of the lesser-known organic gems. Jet, a type of coal formed 180 million years ago from fossilized trees, is one. Shell and tortoise shell are also included.

Organic gems have been used for centuries in jewelry ornamentation and adornments. Timelines and locality charts in the exhibit will uncover how these exceptional gems are formed over thousands—even millions—of years, and how they are fashioned into innovative jewelry.

“The important features that distinguish organic gems from other gem materials are represented in this collection,” said Terri Ottaway, GIA’s Museum curator. “We teach about organic gems in the Institute’s courses, but a gorgeous display like this brings them to life for both students and the public.”

GIA Museum Director Elise Misiorowski said, “It’s an extraordinary exhibit that takes an exciting approach to teaching about the history, localities, and beauty of these organic gems.”

“The Magical World of Ilya Schar,” a unique collection of creations that resemble paintings but are composed solely of gem material, will also be on display. The artist, Dr. Illya Schar, cuts, grinds, and polishes selected gemstones, layers them in a process he calls “three-dimensional works of art.” He then arranges and adheres them to the canvas using his patent-pending technique. Natural subjects such as butterflies are featured in these innovative pieces.

Both of the exhibits will be on display through April 2004, and are free and available to the public through scheduled tours, except when the Institute is closed for holidays.