Florida gem enthusiast is donor behind Smithsonian's new treasure

MIAMI Tue Dec 4, 2012 5:46pm EST

The National Museum of Natural History will permanently display the Dom Pedro Aquamarine, pictured, which is the largest single piece of cut-gem aquamarine in the world, beginning December 6, 2012. REUTERS/Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History/Handout

The National Museum of Natural History will permanently display the Dom Pedro Aquamarine, pictured, which is the largest single piece of cut-gem aquamarine in the world, beginning December 6, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History/Handout

MIAMI (Reuters) - A Florida gem collector who donated a stunning new treasure that goes on permanent display this week at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington said the act was like parting with a child.

Jane Mitchell and her husband Jeffrey Bland, who are retired now in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida after successful careers in the surgical tools and medical devices business, donated the Dom Pedro Aquamarine to the museum.

Crafted by Bernd Munsteiner of Germany, a contemporary artist known as the "Picasso of Gems," it is the largest single piece of cut-gem aquamarine in the world and considered one of the most exceptional gemstone sculptures anywhere.

It will take its place alongside famous gemstones including the Hope Diamond and Marie Antoinette's earrings when it is unveiled on Thursday at its new home in the Smithsonian's Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals.

In an interview late on Monday, the 64-year-old Mitchell, a gemologist herself, declined to say how much she and her husband paid for the piece when they acquired it about 13 years ago.

But blue-green aquamarines can rival emeralds in value and Mitchell said giving up Dom Pedro, so that it could go on permanent public display, was like parting with a child.

"It's like sending your youngster, who you've groomed and hope for with every good wish, off into the bigger world, to take their place in the bigger world. That's how I feel about Dom Pedro," she said.

Dom Pedro, named for Brazil's first two emperors, was fashioned from an enormous chunk of beryl crystal extracted from a mine in Brazil's Minas Gerais state in the late 1980s.

The obelisk-shaped finished work stands 14 inches tall and weighs in at 10,363 carats or 4.6 pounds (2 kg). But it was 23.25 inches long and weighed nearly 60 pounds (27 kg) before Munsteiner went to work on it with his diamond cutting blades.

Known for a pioneering faceting technique called "Fantasy Cuts," the starburst-like pattern Munsteiner shaved into the obelisk seems to reflect the light within the gemstone, giving it what Mitchell describes as a "three-dimensional color" and inner glow that's difficult to describe with words alone.

'IN THE FLESH'

"There's light and reflection of the light and refraction of the light. It's very different from any other kind of surface," she said.

"(It) really comes alive when you see it in the flesh and you see the way that it works with the light, the optical effects," she added.

Before donating the sculpture, and rather than letting it waste away in a bank vault, Mitchell said she and her husband had put it on display in both Houston and Paris for a total of nearly two years.

It was feedback from the show at the Ecoles des Mines in Paris, where experienced gemologists spoke about the marvels of Dom Pedro and its awe-inspiring brightness and appearance of being illuminated from within, that convinced Mitchell and her husband they had to donate it to a museum, she told Reuters.

"That sealed our belief that it really should go into a museum," she said, saying even some people with a trained eye for gemstones and all their earthly treasures couldn't believe what they were looking at.

"I guess man through the ages has always wanted to enhance or to put the human touch on raw material. That's an age-old thing that must just be a human instinct," Mitchell said.

"Certainly the crystal, had it never been touched or cut and polished, would have been bigger. But it would have lacked the beauty I believe that is what strikes awe," she said.

"The cutting and the polishing brings out the beauty that speaks to people and makes them go 'My goodness, where did that come from? What's the story behind it?'"

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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