HomeSuscribe TodayBack IssuesMembershipCarnegie Museums of PittsburghMedia Kit

PHOTOS: Ric Evans

Above: The story of this rare piece of yellowish-gold pseudomorphite after calcite, one of only six ever found, begins in a lead and zinc mine in Joplin, Missouri. Acquired by Andrew Carnegie in 1897, it’s still the signature piece of the collection.














“The acquisition of almost any world-class piece is a covert operation. That’s why we meet in little rooms in the dark and have discussions in dingy cafes.” - Marc Wilson












Right: Collection Manager Marc Wilson shows off the world’s only “triple ball” specimen of calcite with boulangerite, which came to the museum only after Wilson spent a few nervous hours at the Romanian border.







The 2005 Carnegie Gem & Mineral Show will honor Hillman Hall’s silver anniversary. Sponsored by PNC Advisors and Bailey Banks & Biddle, this eighth edition of one of the finest gem and mineral shows in the country will feature exquisite silver jewelry, silver crystal specimens, works by a famous silversmith, and the customary collection of artists, retail vendors, and jewelers displaying and selling their wares, including rare gemstones and crystals. It takes place Friday, Nov. 18, from
10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 19, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 20, from noon to 5 p.m. Mark your calendar!

Because of the generous support of PNC Advisors and Bailey Banks & Biddle, there will be no surcharge to attend this year’s show; it’s free with general museum admission. And there’s plenty for kids to do, including special mineral-related activities presented by museum educators and enthusiastic members of local rock clubs, held in the museum classrooms.

Silver Spectacular Gala Preview Party
Thursday, November 17, 7-10 p.m.
This Silver Spectacular pre-show event opens the floor first to discriminating buyers. Be the first to see spectacular gems, minerals, and jewelry from some of the world's most prestigious retailers, and start your holiday shopping early! Guests will enjoy a catered reception in some of the museum’s most beautiful halls.
Co-chaired by Judith and Dr. Ronald Linaburg and Catherine and Mark Loevner, the gala is black-tie optional. For tickets and sponsorship information, please call 412.578.2479.



















Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, boasts thousands of nature’s most dazzling pieces of sculpture—
each with a story to tell.

Should Carnegie Museum of Natural History ever produce a film about Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems, the location shoots would be all over the map, literally. A Carnegie Library in Montana. A Kaufmann’s window display in downtown Pittsburgh. A border crossing in Romania. A lead and zinc mine in Joplin, Missouri.

Scene One: Downtown Pittsburgh, outside Kaufmann’s department store. It’s 1969, and Pittsburgh businessman Henry Hillman, who graduated from Princeton University with a geology degree, notices the reactions of passersby to one of the store’s display windows—the one accentuated by a brilliant cluster of minerals. “People were oohing and aahing more over the minerals used as display props than the actual merchandise being sold,” recounts Ron Wertz, president of the Hillman Foundation.

“ That was one of the factors in our decision to fund the hall,” Wertz explains. But only under one condition: that the exhibits in the hall “present minerals in the manner of sculpture, shown for their beauty as well as their physical properties and economic uses.”

After 11 years of planning, construction, and more collecting, Henry Hillman got his wish. For the past 25 years, visitors have been oohing and aahing over the beauty that resides in Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems. The kind of beauty unmatched by “anything humans can try,” says Marc Wilson, collection manager and head of the Section of Minerals for the past 13 years, and a walking storybook of the who, what, when, and where behind every piece in the collection.

Turns out, Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems isn’t just a collection of priceless objects. It’s a collection of stories as varied as the shapes and colors of its stones, gems, and crystals. Twenty-five years’ worth of stories.

The Quest for Beauty
A professional geologist with a master’s degree in mineralogy, Wilson has traveled the globe—and, at times, negotiated it by phone—to strategically build the Museum of Natural History’s vast collection of minerals and gems. Unofficially ranked in the top five in the country for the depth and breadth of its holdings, Hillman Hall ranks number-one in Wilson’s eyes for its aesthetic beauty and dynamic display.

He’s not alone in his thinking. “It’s one of the most superb displays I’ve ever seen,” says Donald A. Palmieri, a master gemologist appraiser and a research associate with the museum’s Section of Minerals since 1983. “In my opinion, it outshines the [Smithsonian’s] National Museum of Natural History.”

To hear Wilson talk about the collection, there’s no other way to display such beauty than as art. Of the crystals on display in the hall, he says, “they represent a microcosm of the order of God’s creation. They are so perfect, so ordered, so beautiful. And each one is unique.” Of the process of finding such rare things of beauty—either by trade, purchase, or an actual trip into a mine—Wilson describes an amalgam of emotions often associated with other quests for the beautiful: “lust, greed, adventure, and vindication.”

No doubt it was the thrill of adventure—coupled with the most basic of human instincts, self-preservation—that Wilson experienced during a trip to the eastern bloc to secure a batch of minerals the likes of which the world had never seen.

Covert Operations
Scene Two: The border crossing of Romania. Marc Wilson is standing before a group of gun-toting guards as his latest acquisition—the world’s only known “triple ball” specimen of calcite with boulangerite (now displayed among Hillman Hall’s Systematic Collection)—lay tucked in a camera bag.

In the mid-’90s, Wilson had realized that Romania’s most prolific mineral district—one dating back to Roman times—would probably dry up within the next six years; and no one in the United States had yet to put together a comprehensive collection of specimens from the region.

“ A friend of mine had already successfully entered Romania and had learned about the ins-and-outs of getting specimens out of the country,” Wilson recounts. “So he and I decided to quietly, secretly put together a suite of the best specimens we could get from the district before other big museums realized we were doing it.”

Easy enough. Or not. As Wilson explains, “In any Third World country, especially one that is still so authoritarian and so recently communist, you have to know how to
‘ pay your fees.’” In other words, you have to know who to bribe. “That’s just how it’s done,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Unfortunately, when Wilson joined his friend in Romania to bring his newly acquired Romanian specimens home, he discovered that all the necessary fees had not been paid in advance. After lengthy deliberations at the border, his friend negotiated an opportunity for the specimens to be removed from the country on another day; and then, according to Wilson, his friend made a “side negotiation” for the valuable calcite piece to go home with Wilson that day. “He then handed it to me in a camera bag as I stood there in the middle of no-man’s land, somewhere between Romania and Hungary, and left.”

If it all sounds a bit like secret-agent work, that’s because it is. “The acquisition of almost any world-class piece is a covert operation,” Wilson says. “That’s why we meet in little rooms in the dark and have discussions in dingy cafes.”

Behind This Curtain
Wilson’s acquisition of what he considers one of the best Russian mineral suites went a little smoother. That is, after the Iron Curtain finally fell.

“ Some of the most significant mineral deposits on Earth had been sealed behind the Iron Curtain,” Wilson says. “Collectors risked Siberia, or worse.” But with the fall of communism, they became free to collect, buy, sell, and trade, and the rest of the world was more than ready to oblige. “It was an incredibly exciting time,” he says.

Wilson contacted a collector he had heard was obtaining Russian pieces at a good price. The man sold the best pieces he could gather to Wilson, and Pittsburgh soon became the repository of an outstanding suite of 168 minerals from Russia—some even better than those displayed in Moscow, Wilson professes.

Like 80 percent of what Hillman Hall has displayed before and after Marc Wilson’s tenure, the funding for these rare international purchases came from the Hillman Foundation.

“ Marc determines what we need and the quality of the item for sale,” says Wertz, who has become a close collaborator of Wilson’s. In the case of the 2000 Fluorescence and Phosphorescence exhibit that demonstrated how minerals react to ultraviolet light, Wertz fully supported Wilson’s dream of breaking new ground at the museum.

“ After he completed the exhibit, other museums called to ask how he did it,” says Collections Assistant Debra Wilson, Marc’s wife.

“ Marc does everything he can to make the hall shine,” Donald Palmieri says. “I’m in awe every time I go in there. Pittsburgh and the museum are very fortunate to have the Hillman Foundation as a stalwart supporter.”

Nice Surprises
Scene Three: The Carnegie Library in Kalispell, Montana. It’s the only source of
culture in this northwest-Montana town, and David and Stephanie Walker frequent it often. During one of their visits, the Walkers—who have built their own impressive collection of cut gems—learn about Andrew Carnegie’s museum of natural history in Pittsburgh and its renowned gem collection.

“ Three years ago, Mrs. Walker called me out of the blue to tell us she and her husband would like to donate some of their collection to the museum, starting with $11,000-worth of cut gemstones,” Wilson says. “I was totally taken by surprise.” Since then, the couple has donated two other parcels of their collection valued at $26,000. And they’re not done.

Personal collectors have been integral to the museum’s gem and mineral collection since the 1895 opening of Carnegie Museums. (See also Acquired Taste.) The 550-piece personal collection of Gustave Guttenberg, a curator at the Academy of Art and Science, was one of the first private collections purchased by the museum. In 1904, Andrew Carnegie purchased the 12,000-specimen collection of William W. Jefferis, a West Chester, Pa., collector, who had amassed one of the finest private collections in the country. It put the museum on the map as a mineral repository, and portions of the Jefferis collection are still displayed today—including a $15,000 wulfenite and an Arizona calcite still bearing its 1880s two-dollar price tag.

Still another private collector, Frederick H. Pough, through a donation/sale agreement, gave 800 rare and unusual gems during the planning of Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems. And then there was the Oreck family’s $2 million donation in 2003, which included a 379-carat cut aquamarine and two of the finest specimens of watermelon tourmalines known to exist. “We were shocked by the magnitude of that donation,” says Wilson. “The tourmalines put our collection on par with The Smithsonian.”

Acts of God—and Man
Scene Four: A lead and zinc mine in Joplin, Missouri. In this mining district, corporations and private collectors had been hitting pay dirt for years (and would continue to do so through the mid-1900s). On this particularly productive day in 1895, someone has struck the next best thing to gold: a yellowish-gold pseudomorph of hemimorphite after calcite.

Two years later and a few thousand miles away, Andrew Carnegie became the happy recipient of that rare and precious piece of calcite, which was donated to his museum by A.L. Means. Now encased behind glass in Hillman Hall’s Masterpiece Gallery, Wilson says “it’s still the signature specimen of the collection. There are only six in existence.”

While it was Andrew Carnegie’s international stature that gave him an edge in attracting and connecting with some of the world’s great collectors, it’s Marc Wilson’s never-say-never networking skills that have managed to do the same for Hillman Hall.

RIght: This year’s Gem & Mineral Show celebrates the 25th anniversary of Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems, which has a collection that rivals most others in the country.

Wilson calls finding a cranberry red tourmaline in 2004 “an act of God,” but it was also a testament to the value of his extensive network of “friends” and professional contacts. “I mentioned to a friend how much I’d love one for the collection and, as luck would have it, he’d just found one in his collection a few days earlier and didn’t know why he still had it.” He sold it at cost to Wilson. In another similar act of God or man, a Canadian friend of Wilson’s was downsizing his collection and sold Wilson a much-desired $5,000 quartz for $750.

The hall’s Quartz exhibit, created in 2002 with support from the Hillman Foundation, is its third most popular exhibit, according to Wilson. Exactly how he’s figured that out is hardly a scientific process. “It’s the ‘fingerprint index,’” he says, smiling. “We count the fingerprints left on the display glass at the end of a busy day to judge an exhibit’s popularity. The temporary birthstone display wins every time, followed closely by the gold and quartz exhibits.”

Wilson hopes to expand the popular birthstone display and make it permanent someday soon. “And I’d love to add a piece like the Hope Diamond that’s on display at The Smithsonian,” he says. “Something else that would help make Pittsburgh a destination place.”

If you’re the owner of just such a specimen, Marc Wilson would love to hear from you.

Back | Top