Kirk Johnson, the new director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural… (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON…)
For a few more days, until Thursday, the Smithsonian’s newest and perhaps most stunning earthly treasure hides behind a thick metal door, like that of a bank vault, deep in the heart of the National Museum of Natural History, behind the galleries, beyond the cabinets stuffed with chunks of minerals, deep inside the “blue room,” whose shelves groan under heavy crystals of a thousand sparkling hues.
The museum’s longtime curator of gems and minerals, Jeffrey Post, handles an unmarked white box. It’s the right size and shape to hold, say, a tall bottle of the world’s finest Scotch. Post marches the box into the blue room, so called for the thick carpet, and also the color of the cloth draped across a chest-high cabinet, upon which he sets the box.
Post dons a pair of white cotton gloves. Unlatches two clasps. Opens the lid.
“This,” announces Post, “is Dom Pedro.” Post enunciates with a flourish, bouncing along the final syllables. “You have to use the Portuguese accent,” he says with a laugh and a nod to the gem’s Brazilian origins.
The museum’s new director, Kirk Johnson, is leaning against the cabinet. He lets out a low whistle.
This is Johnson’s first glimpse of the glittering azure obelisk, as clear and blue as the Caribbean at noon.
Unboxed and upright, Dom Pedro towers like a gemmy Washington Monument.
It’s the largest cut piece of aquamarine ever known — perhaps 10 times the size of the next largest. It’s 14 inches tall and weighs 10,363 carats. That’s the heft of a barbell, nearly five pounds.
It’s a gift of the earth, sculpted by a master cutter into a gem of outlandish proportions.
“Look at the clarity. Look at the color of the aquamarine here,” says Post.
The eye cannot rest on Dom Pedro. It is drawn upward to the pyramid tip by an eight-fold set of climbing carved starbursts that flare and shimmer like the beating wings of iridescent angels.
Dom Pedro’s sculptor, the German gem artist Bernd Munsteiner, strives for “total reflection,” Post says. Most gems are faceted on the outside — like the typical brilliant or diamond cuts seen in jewelry. Munsteiner instead cuts into his gems, sculpts internal facets to bounce every beam of gathered light back at the viewer.
“Think of the gemstones that could be cut from a piece like that,” says Post. “There’s millions of dollars worth of aquamarine in there.”
The bluest aquamarines rival emerald in value, but Dom Pedro may as well be priceless. It’s off the market forever, donated to the Smithsonian Institution last year by a collector couple from Palm Beach, Fla., Jane Mitchell and Jeff Bland.
On Dec. 6, Dom Pedro — named after the first emperor of Brazil — will go on permanent display. Under spotlights in the entrance to the national gem collection gallery, Dom Pedro will shine like a beacon, a rival to the most famous gem in the world, resting not 30 feet away, the Hope Diamond.
“This piece will become one of the highlights for the Smithsonian,” said Jürgen Henn, a German gem broker, former co-owner of Dom Pedro, and the force behind its creation. “It is strong competition for the Hope. In rarity and purity, it is at least the same.”
Like every gemstone, Dom Pedro’s story begins in the craggy crust of the earth. A sister to emerald, aquamarine crystals are born in mineral-rich water. The first step is the trickiest: atoms of silicon, beryllium, aluminum and oxygen must join together in a molecular handshake. When they do, they form a hexagonal pattern. This nucleus makes a template. As mineral-rich waters flow, a torrent of atoms piles on, each following the plan, snapping into place like Lego bricks, elongating the crystal. If the source water holds traces of chromium, the mineral grows green — that’s emerald. But the part of the Earth that grew Dom Pedro held iron instead, whose inclusion turned the crystal blue: aquamarine, spirit of the sea, treasure of mermaids, protector of sailors.
If the temperature and other conditions stay steady, and if the chamber in which the mineral waters run is large enough “you grow a big crystal,” said Post.
When found, the Dom Pedro crystal stretched more than three feet long and weighed something close to 100 pounds. Sometime in the late 1980s a garimpero, or prospector, spied it. He and two buddies pried it loose and lugged it out of a mine in the state of Minas Gerais, famous for its gemstones. The garimperos dropped the crystal, shattering it into thirds, a seeming disaster that later proved serendipitous, indeed, crucial, to the carving of Dom Pedro.
The mine’s owner took possession. He sold the top two chunks, which were cut into typical jewelry. He kept the third, and largest, piece — still close to two feet long and 60 pounds — behind his bed. Or so the story goes.