Volume 6, Number 2, 1997

Pretty in pink...and lilac

614-carat kunzite donated to UD

This would easily pay for your next car," University of Delaware geologist Peter B. Leavens says, turning a pear-shaped pink and lavender gem in his palm. "Many people might be surprised to know that we have a gem of this quality and rarity right here."

The gem in question, a 614-carat cut kunzite recently donated to UD by William M. Ryan and a son, both of Wilmington, Del., may be the second-largest faceted specimen in the world. A somewhat larger kunzite gem is part of a Smithsonian Institution collection, Leavens notes, but UD's $27,630 stone is "exceptionally beautiful and exceptionally large."

It will complement a celebrated natural kunzite crystal already on display in the University's Irèné du Pont Mineral Room. Recovered from Heriart Mountain in California's San Diego County, UD's uncut crystal is among the specimens illustrated in an early authoritative guide to California gems, says Leavens, curator of the mineral room.

Kunzite is "trichroic," meaning that it changes color-from nearly clear to pink to lilac-depending on the viewer's perspective, Leavens explains. A few specialty jewelers sell kunzite, which is comparable to aquamarine in value. But, Leavens says, kunzite "remains a mineral of limited distribution."

Kunzite is a variety of spodumene, a lithium silicate named by a 19th-century minerologist from the Greek word for ashy, because of its usual dull color. The first kunzite crystals were discovered around the turn of this century in California. When the late Tiffany's executive George Kunz identified the beautiful lilac-pink crystals as a form of spodumene, he called them kunzite. After World War II, Leavens says, kunzite also was discovered in Brazil and Afghanistan.

Tiffany's kunzite and other crystals were purchased by the late Irénée du Pont, who became president of the DuPont Co. in 1918. The collector's family later donated his minerals to UD, which opened the Irèné du Pont Mineral Room on April 18, 1971. (Initial support for the museum also was provided by the Crystal Foundation.) Ten years later, Mrs. David Craven, Irénée du Pont's niece and a major patron of the museum, supported a renovation and expansion of the facility. It was rededicated on April 4, 1981.

Mrs. Craven's continued support has made it possible to assemble a collection that ranks among the world's best mineral displays, Leavens says.

The new kunzite gem hails from an unknown mine in Brazil or Afghanistan, says Ryan, a retired physicist who worked for the DuPont Co. before launching an investment management firm. Ryan and his son acquired the gem in the 1980s, while on a collecting trip to Tucson, Ariz., and San Diego County, Calif.

With an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Pennsylvania, graduate work in petrology from Harvard University and field work in geology at the University of Colorado, Ryan was well-qualified to recognize the value of his kunzite crystal. So, he commissioned gem-cutter John L. Ramsey of California to chisel it into a modified pear shape, measuring 4.5 centimeters by 5.5 centimeters by 4 centimeters. Appraised by Wayne C. Leicht of Laguna Beach, Calif., the stone was described as a well-cut, "fine, intense purple/pink" specimen that "displays well."

An instructor in the UD Academy of Lifelong Learning, Ryan had seen the school's kunzite crystal, and knew his family's polished gemstone "would be a good fit." The Ryans are long-time supporters of UD mineral museum.

Including 700 items worth more than $1.25 million, the Irénée du Pont Mineral Room "is widely considered one of the top 10 display collections in the country," Leavens says. Among college displays, he notes, UD's mineral museum is probably second only to Harvard's much larger collection.

Herbert Obodda, a leading independent mineral dealer, gives the UD museum high marks. "The specimens are unusually well selected," he says. "Many museums have random samples. From an aesthetic point of view, the UD collection is unique, with many beautiful, rare pieces of the highest quality, displayed in an intimate setting. It's warm, and you can relate to it."

Clearly, the UD collection reflects Leavens' appreciation for great art, as well as his understanding of natural geologic forms. "Italian futurists, in the early part of this century, said that the square does not exist in nature," he says, pointing to a perfect cube of pyrite, or fool's gold. "I call this my Square in Nature." Leavens describes quartz festooned with pyrite as "a tray of hors d'oeuvres made by a robotic chef with a short circuit." A hefty crystal of Tennessee calcite-the material in limestone, marble and Tums-looks like a football, he says.

A "Native Elements" case includes brilliant gold from California, plus shining silver pieces and reddish hunks of copper. One massive silver piece was pulled from a famous Norwegian mine, where crystals grew distorted, resembling thick cables. A remarkable copper crystal was owned by the late Baroness Burdett-Coutts, a famous 19th-century British noblewoman. Miniature specimens donated by the late DuPont Co. engineer Frederick Keidel, and locally collected items, such as Pennsylvania actinolite covered with hairy-looking fibers, are also displayed in the museum. Six cases are devoted to silicates, a category encompassing quartz, topaz, garnets and aquamarine.

The free exhibit is open from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., weekdays, in Penny Hall on Academy Street, between Courtney Street and Lovett Avenue, on the Newark campus. Items also may be viewed on the World Wide Web at http://www.udel.edu/geology/leavens/mineral. html

-Ginger Pinholster