face timeFall 2007

Ron Wertz
By Betsy Momich 

Ron Wertz, President of Hillman Foundation, probably would have chosen to celebrate his 39th anniversary with the Foundation the same way he celebrates just about anything else that’s all about him: quietly, and without an iota of fanfare. But two years ago, without Wertz’s knowledge, Henry Hillman announced that a new Hillman-funded gallery at Carnegie Museum of Natural History would bear the name of his longtime associate and foundation head. And so it is that on September 28, 2007, capping off the spectacular renovation of the Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems, the new Wertz Gallery of Gems and Jewelry will open to the public.

No tribute could be more fitting. Because if you really want to see this soft-spoken, gentlemanly man’s eyes light up, ask him about his favorite mineral-finding excursion. In recounting one of those stories, Wertz is quick to point out that he’s “not an expert” on minerals. Still, since 1969, when the Hillman Foundation made its first grant to help grow the Museum of Natural History’s tiny gem and mineral collection, the museum’s now world-renowned collection thankfully has had three constants: The Hillman and Henry L. Hillman Foundations, and Ron Wertz.   



Is it true that Henry Hillman was inspired to create a gem and mineral exhibit after seeing people gathered around a Kaufmann’s window adorned with minerals?

Yes, it is.  Henry noticed that the people were more interested in the minerals than the actual merchandise.

At that time, Jim Walton, the president of Carnegie Institute, was developing a long-range plan for the Museum of Natural History, and he asked Henry Hillman if he would have an interest in supporting some part of it. Henry was interested and wanted to do something new as opposed to renovating an existing exhibit. They decided on a mineral hall.

The museum had a small mineral collection at the time, consisting of only one case; Mr. Carnegie bought it in the late 1800s from the Jefferis family in Philadelphia. Our first grant was made in the fall of 1969, and that was to bring to Pittsburgh two leading mineralogists who could evaluate the collection. Unfortunately, the assessment wasn’t too promising. So we spent the next six to seven years quietly buying quality pieces to build up the collection. Then, in about 1978, we started to plan for Hillman Hall, which opened in 1980.

Did you have to become a gem and mineral expert to see this through?

I did not expect to be an expert; and I’m definitely not an expert. As I’ve said on   several occasions, I know enough about minerals to be dangerous and not enough to be helpful to anyone.

This was the first major project that our board approved after I joined the foundation. And, at that time, we had no idea that it was going to be an ongoing partnership for as long as it has.

We’ve made a contribution in support of the hall and purchased minerals every year since 1969. So we’ve gone from what was, at the opening, a very average mineral collection to, now, what is probably one of the three or four best museum collections in the country. And the hall itself is considered by most in the mineral business to be the best; not probably, it is considered the best presentation of minerals anywhere in the world.  

Have you enjoyed playing such an integral part in creating the Hall and building the collection?

Yes, I’ve loved it. It’s been rewarding and a lot of fun.

I’ve worked closely with Marc (Wilson), the museum’s gem and mineral collection manager. We go to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show every year to purchase pieces and to maintain our contacts with dealers and collectors.

Marc is an excellent curator and he’s developed a system where individuals who have the minerals—the mineral dealers—know where our voids are and what pieces we’re trying to acquire to upgrade the collection. They contact Marc directly, and all I do is tag along with him. He’s the guy who makes the decisions.

We also worked with the museum to establish the Carnegie Mineralogical Award, which is presented each year at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Nothing like this ever existed before, and it honors individuals and organizations for outstanding contributions in mineralogical preservation, conservation, and education that match ideals advanced in the Hillman Hall. The award consists of a bronze medallion, certificate, and $2,500 cash prize.

We’re really proud of that.

Do you have a favorite story about finding a specimen?

There are a lot of stories to tell from over the years. One year, at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, I was approached out of the blue by two individuals who had a Wulfenite specimen and wanted to sell it to us. The offer was presented to me in a fashion that you either take it now or you don’t take it at all—that kind of thing. When I looked at it I immediately recognized it was a Wulfenite, and the quality I thought was outstanding.  Not a mark on it. So I took it.

Fortunately, it turned out to be a great piece. Later that very same day, representatives from another museum came up to me and offered a very nice profit if we would sell it to them. So I knew I had made the right decision. I carried it back to Pittsburgh on the plane in my lap.
How do you feel about being forever immortalized in the new gallery?

It’s special. To have the gallery as part of the Hall means a lot to me. Having the Wertz name associated with the Hillman name and to have all this in a place like the Museum of Natural History is an honor.

What’s the plan for the Wertz Gallery?

It will consist of two kinds of cases: one set of cases for permanent exhibits developed by the museum, primarily for educational purposes, including a birthstone collection, and the other for changing exhibits. The hope is that we can locate and contract with traveling exhibitions in addition to developing our own exhibitions.

Our first exhibition is being curated by Charlie Scheips (freelance curator, art advisor, writer, and cultural historian). We got in touch with Judith Price, President of the National Jewelry Institute in New York, and she told us about Charlie. He had done a couple of exhibitions, including one on jewelry. He’s been in the publishing business for a while and also has written a couple of books, so he appeared to have the kind of experience and contacts that we needed. For the gallery opening, Judith Price has agreed to loan us up to 70 pieces, if Charlie wants them, from her Masterpieces of American Jewelry exhibit.

After 39 years, what are you most proud of from your work at the Foundation?

I think it’s the ongoing commitment to our originally stated mission to improve the quality of life for the residents of the Pittsburgh and southwestern PA region. Also, to recognize the quality of the larger projects that we have supported over the years is very rewarding. Projects such as Hillman Cancer Center, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Hillman Library, Allegheny Valley School, and the 15 endowed chairs we have established, nine of which are with Pittsburgh agencies, and all are held by individuals who are leaders in their respective fields.

And, of course, there’s Hillman Hall.
Also in this issue:

Inside Out  ·  100 Years Ago  ·  Art on a Grand Scale  ·  The Real Deal  ·  Hidden Treasure  ·  Adding More Andy  ·  Giant Steps Toward Building the Future  ·  Director's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Now Showing  ·  About Town: Summer Sleuthing  ·  First Person: Tracing the Making of a Collection  ·  Artistic License: Dissecting Art  ·  Science & Nature: Mind Games  ·  Another Look: The Warhol's Film & Video Collection  ·  Then & Now: Body Language