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: