Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


The Splendor Of San Diego's Gems

Tourmaline crystal with lepidolite, morganite, and albite.
Van Pelt
Tourmaline crystal with lepidolite, morganite, and albite.
The Splendor Of San Diego's Gems
San Diego's history as a gem mining and gem producing center is one of the county's best-kept secrets. The new exhibit called ALL THAT GLITTERS at the San Diego Natural History museum uncovers those sparkling secrets. We'll speak with the exhibit's curator and the owner of a present-day gem mine in San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): San Diego is known for many things, from Navy homeport to biotech research to avocados. But one thing that does not automatically spring to mind about San Diego is mining, specifically mining for minerals and gems. A new exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum explores the range of gems and crystals that San Diego has produced. In just about every color and form of jewelry and carving, it's an exhibit that traces the steps in a gem's life from underground pocket to major bling. Joining me to talk about the gems on display is my guest, Elise Misiorowski, curator of the exhibit, “All That Glitters: The Splendor and Science of Gems and Minerals.” It’s at the San Diego Natural History Museum. And, Elise, good morning. Thanks for coming in.

ELISE MISIOROWSKI (Curator Gems and Minerals Display, San Diego Natural History Museum): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: We all know that miners came to California to try to find gold…



CAVANAUGH: …in the 19th century but mining for gems is sort of a well kept secret. What kind of gems were found in San Diego and Southern California?

MISIOROWSKI: The miners, in their hunt for gold—and they did find gold here as well—found deposits of tourmaline. They were actually – they discovered the tourmaline, the host for the tourmaline, which is lepidolite, and that is actually a lithium ore, and they were using the lithium to grease the wheels of their locomotives…


MISIOROWSKI: …in the 19th century. So the tourmaline was actually a byproduct and initially not really valued that much. They actually allowed a lot of the Chinese miners, who were the workers in the mines, to send the tourmaline back to China where it was carved and highly valued in the courts of the last empress of China. She loved the pink tourmaline and she loved to wear it with the green Imperial Jade.


CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. Tell – For those of us who don’t know what tourmaline looks like, can you describe it for us?

MISIOROWSKI: Yes. Tourmaline is a fascinating gemstone because it comes in a wide range of colors. The ones that are found most in Southern California, and the mines that we know of are in the Fallbrook and Pala area in North County, are red. So red tourmaline, tourmaline also comes in green. Sometimes it’s intergrown so you get red and green in the same crystal. It also comes in a beautiful blue and in yellows and brown so it’s quite an amazing gem material. Here, at each mine in the San Diego area produces a slightly different type of – form of the crystal.

CAVANAUGH: I know that there’s a gemstone also that’s sort of native to San Diego, the kunzite gem. It’s also known as the evening gemstone. Why is that?

MISIOROWSKI: Kunzite is a pink form of spodumene and it is a beautiful gemstone but it can fade in sunlight, in strong sunlight, so that it is called the evening gemstone for that reason. It was found in the mines. Sometimes it occurs in the same area as tourmaline and it was identified by George Frederick Kunz, who was the gemologist for Tiffany & Company in the 1890s. He was an avid geologist and mineralogist and he traveled from New York all the way out to California to look at this new gem material and to identify it, and it was named for him.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. I understand that in your exhibit “All That Glitters” people can basically trace these gems from the way they look in their natural state…


CAVANAUGH: …to the way they look when they’re polished and worked and basically become jewelry or become part of jeweled objects, is that right?

MISIOROWSKI: That’s correct. What – The amazing things about gems and minerals is that they are – have a magnetic attraction to all of us in some way. We respond to them. And what I wanted to put on view was a combination of the gemstones in their natural state, the way they come out of the mine. Some of them look like they’ve been polished but they haven’t. I mean, they are just perfectly formed. I wanted to show cut gemstones and carvings, so this is one way that we can make them more accessible to us. I wanted to show them in jewelry because, of course, we have adorned ourselves with gemstones for millennia. And I also wanted to show jeweled objects because these are fascinating things that are beautiful to the eye and they may have some utility, like a beautiful jeweled box that you can keep something very precious in.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Elise Misiorowski. She’s curator of the exhibit “All That Glitters” at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Joining us on the phone right now is Bill Larson. He’s president of Fallbrook’s Pala International gem house. And, Bill, good morning. Thanks for joining us.

BILL LARSON (President, Pala International): Good morning to you.

CAVANAUGH: I understand several of your large gemstones were chosen for display in the “All That Glitters” exhibit.

LARSON: Well, we were very fortunate. I’ve known Elise for many years and from her times at the GIH, she’s one of the great experts in the world on antiquarian jewelry and so when she was named by Mick Hager to be the curator and they came up, I said you can, you know, take whatever you – I have pretty extensive collections. We’ve done many different mining projects. I’ve been a worldwide collector for years and years.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the 150 carat blue tanzanite.

LARSON: Well, it’s an exciting stone. I got it in the 1980s as a nodule from one of my African friends and I gave it to a performer in Idar-Oberstein named Horst Krupp. He actually lives here in Carlsbad now. And it was cut in EDAR by a master cutter and it’s just extraordinary and what’s exciting about it is it’s got a certification from Heidelberg that it’s not heat treated. Not that that’s a big deal but it’s just fun for those of us who like things that are absolutely natural.

CAVANAUGH: Bill, you’ve been in the gem mining business in North County, owning and leasing mines and tunnels, I think that’s fascinating to a lot of people. What is that business like now in the present day?

LARSON: Well, it’s difficult because, you know, with the oncoming of certain terrible acts, dynamite is very hard to procure. I mean, we did it completely—and still do—legally but the hoops you have to jump through these days to do mining is incredible. Fortunately, there are still a few guys doing it. We’re in the process, we’re trying to get two different mines in San Diego County. I won’t say which ones because we have competition but there are two or three that are under our sights. We’ve done 14 mines, 36,000 feet of underground tunnel in Mexico and in California, mostly in Southern California. We did – In Pala, we did the Stewart mine. We had about 12,000 feet there. We did the Tourmaline Queen mine, about 6,000 feet, and then the Pala Chief where we spectacularly got nothing in several hundreds of feet, and then, you know, later on Dawson – Bob Dawson came in there and found a magnificent pocket right there near where we were and, see, and that’s the gamble of mining. I’m a geological engineer but I sure missed it. And we hit things in the Queen mine which other people had missed a century ago.

CAVANAUGH: You tell the story of a gem called the Candlabra Tourmaline that, you know, you found when everything seemed lost and there it was.

LARSON: Well, we – you know, mining is a tough business. I mean, we were at the ends of our financing because it was 1971 and money was very tight and it was a dream to do and we actually had gone overseas to try and find stones to sell just to keep the mine going. And John McLean, our mine foreman, who still works for me, has worked for me for 40 years—or with me—and he hit into a soft area and we started mining and we started taking these little tourmalines and we got bigger tourmalines. And one day he called me and said, you should come up at about seven o’clock. We rendezvoused in the evening, and I remember driving the four-wheel drive, the Queen mine’s on top of Tourmaline Queen Mountain. And it was kind of foggy and, you know, the lights are going off into the sky and we were up there. And we mined until just about midnight, because I wrote the story for the Lapidary Journal, and my father and I were there with John McLean, and we pulled out this incredible large piece of quartz and cleavelandite that had two tourmalines sticking on it and there was a third one that was missing. And we dug back about 18 inches through the clay and pocket material and all of a sudden we found the other one and, sure enough, I stuck it right on there and it made this incredible piece which is – and I knew Desautels very well when he was a curator at the Smithsonian. I think Jeff Post will confirm that it is the number one object as a mineral specimen in the Smithsonian Institution.

CAVANAUGH: Bill, I have to thank you. I mean, it’s just amazing to hear about this rollercoaster ride of people who are actually in the gem mining business in North County today. I want to thank you so much for your time.

LARSON: You’re welcome. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Bill Larson, president of Fallbook’s Pala International gem house. Elise Misiorowski, curator of the exhibit “All That Glitters,” used some of the gemstones that Bill has in his collection for her exhibit. I want to talk about the jewelry past and present…


CAVANAUGH: …that you have in one of the displays because it just shows how people have always wanted to adorn themselves.

MISIOROWSKI: Yes, we – That case came about as – and it was the inspiration to sort of introduce people to looking at jewelry as something – it is a continuum. And we have used pre-Columbian jewelry from, you know, a century ago to – or, more than a century ago. What am I saying? A millennium ago…

CAVANAUGH: That’s right.

MISIOROWSKI: …to contrast with pieces that date from 19th century all the way up to 1998. And the jewels that we’ve used, for example, the more things change, the more they stay the same, so as – even though technology has changed and the materials that we wear or use for jewelry has changed, the way we adorn ourselves remains the same. So necklaces with pendants, earrings, and even down to ear spools and nose ornaments there, which we also have on view.

CAVANAUGH: That’s funny. That’s the latest thing.

MISIOROWSKI: Yes, it is. And so it was wonderful to be able to have people look at things in a different way, and that’s one of the objectives of this exhibit is to stimulate people’s interest in all levels of the gem and mineral world. So splendor in science, that’s what we want to show them.

CAVANAUGH: You have some really outstanding pieces of jewelry. You have the Aurora Butterfly diamond…


CAVANAUGH: …on display. You also have a beautiful benitoite?


CAVANAUGH: Is that it? Butterfly on display. I mean, spectacular things. But I wonder if it’s part of the goal of this exhibit to make people realize that there’s more to gemstones than perhaps what we know: diamonds, rubies and emeralds.


CAVANAUGH: Yet these – this whole range of gems and colors that they display.

MISIOROWSKI: Yes. What we wanted to introduce people to a lot of gem materials that perhaps they didn’t know about and notably introduce them, if they didn’t know about it before, to benitoite, which is the California State gemstone. It is a beautiful gem. It has – it is dark blue in one direction but if you turn the gem and look through it through a different direction, it is colorless. It is unique to California. In gem form, benitoite has been found nowhere else. It was found in the late 19th century near – in San Benito County in California.

CAVANAUGH: Hence the name.

MISIOROWSKI: Hence the name, exactly. And it is – that particular deposit has been mined out. So as far as we know, all benitoite that exists in the world is now above ground. There may be other deposits there but currently they aren’t mining that area. And we do have a wonderful display of benitoite, and thanks to Bill Larson we have some of the largest specimens as well as largest cut gems. Because of the size and the nature of benitoite, gemstones over a carat are very rare. And Bill was kind enough to lend us several pieces that are over a carat.

CAVANAUGH: Elise, we didn’t even get a chance to talk about some of the most spectacular objects you have. You have the Star of Bombay sapphire, you have the Balboa Park Carousel egg, so people will just have to go to the exhibit.

MISIOROWSKI: They will have to come, and we welcome them. Luckily, the exhibit will be in place for two years and over that two years different things will change but – which will invite people to come back and see it again.

CAVANAUGH: Elise Misiorowski, curator of the exhibit “All That Glitters: The Splendor and Science of Gems and Minerals,” thank you for speaking with us.

MISIOROWSKI: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And as she said, this will be on display at the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park through April, 2012. If you’d like to comment on what you’ve heard here on KPBS, you can go to Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.