Gems on display

Gemmologist Gayle Sutherland has been instrumental in curating a new gem display that features some stunning examples of the cutter’s craft.

Gayle Sutherland

Gayle Sutherland
Photographer: Carl Bento © Australian Museum

The Museum has a large and historic gem collection, of which about half is Australian material. It is considered the best public gem collection in the country. Some of the gemstones now on display were acquired in the nineteenth century, while others are more recent acquisitions.


The oldest is the group of diamond crystals from the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, which entered the Museum collection before a separate register of minerals was begun in 1887. Diamonds were discovered in South Africa in 1866, so these crystals arrived here shortly after that historic discovery.

Almost as old are three fine quartz gemstones: an oval rock crystal, a round, orange-brown cairngorm and an oval amethyst. Their entry into the minerals register on 25 February 1895 gave no locality, but their beauty has survived the intervening 116 years and they are as displayable now as they were then.

Topaz and other favourites

Early specimens are also on display in the topaz section, including a large, blue-zoned stone registered on 28 February 1895 and some outstanding colourless and blue topaz from the Oban River (NSW) district, part of a sizable private mineral collection purchased in 1901. The pink topaz from Brazil is from the same collection. Its bright pink colour, fashionable in nineteenth-century jewellery, was achieved by heating less valuable brown material.

Each gemstone has its own beauty so it is hard to pick favourites. I am particularly fond of the ‘rainbow’ of cut sapphires because it demonstrates the large colour range of sapphires from the Australian fields. I admire the superb faceting of a number of unusual stones – the fabulous ‘eye cut’ scapolite from Tanzania, the translucent freeform prehnite from the Northern Territory and the green fluorite from Emmaville, NSW, a perfectly cut triangular gemstone. The latter was cut from material already in our collection by a great faceter, Maria Atkinson, who specialises in rare and difficult material. The result surpassed our expectations and produced a perfect Australian stone. I could go on.

It’s personal

Yet the stones I care for most are those that hold personal memories for me and, oddly enough, these have cost the Museum nothing. The Sri Lankan sapphire and diamond ring – a head turner if ever there was one – came from a delightful French lady. I remember sitting talking with her years ago when she brought in some gemstones for identification. She was the sort of gentle, refined lady one does remember. Imagine our surprise when her solicitor told us that she had left the Museum a large and valuable sapphire ring in her will.

Another very special stone to me is the bright orange sapphire from ‘Kings Plains’, Australia’s largest sapphire mine. A former owner of the mine kept the stone in his personal collection because of its rare colour. When I admired it and suggested lightly that he might like to donate it to the Australian Museum, he looked amused and said, ‘It’s too good for a museum’. So I was thrilled when he did donate it after all.

A large, green peridot intrigued our whole department when it was offered to us years ago at a price we could not afford. But we went into battle to raise money for the stone – one of the larger cut peridots in the world. We asked for donations and gave talks to raise the funds. Now the stone is here for all to see.

Perhaps these stories tell us something about gemstones. Although they are minerals, their beauty can affect us in a very personal way, as anyone who has ever owned a beautiful piece of gemstone jewellery can testify.

Gayle Sutherland Technical Officer, Mineralogy

Story first published in Explore magazine 33(2) winter 2011, pp 2–4.

Brendan Atkins , Publications Coordinator
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