They Will Rock You GemFest Shines at Natural History Museum
Silver wire from Konigsberg, Norway, just one of the specimens in the museum's collection. photo by Harold and Erica Van Pelt.

The Natural History Museum has 80,000 gems and minerals, but the collection doesn't always get the rock star status it deserves. To spread the word about the hoard, the NHM hosted the Mineralogical Society of Southern California's (MSSC) GemFest for the first time last year. The event returns Dec. 13-14.

In addition to the NHM's permanent display, more than 50 gem and mineral dealers will show, and sometimes sell, their wares. There will be a display of fluorescent minerals, as well as gems and minerals from private collections and other museums.

GemFest also features the Rockhound Corner, its version of TV program "Antiques Roadshow." There, experts will identify rocks, gems, minerals and even meteorite samples brought in by guests. "A lot of people have that weird rock from Uncle Joe's yard," says show chair and MSSC member Carolyn Seitz. "They have a sentimental attachment to it but have no idea what it is."

Seitz says the festival will feature jewelry demonstrations, including silver working and bead making. Kids can create holiday decorations in gem and mineral motifs, and there will be a treasure hunt, mineral identification games, and exhibits that reveal how minerals are translated into things used in everyday life. Junior rockhounds walk away with free mineral samples.

This year's theme is "Silver," in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the opening of the NHM's Hall of Gems and Minerals. "Most museums would like to hide the fact that they have a gallery that old," says Dr. Anthony Kampf, museum curator. "But even after 25 years, ours is one of the best in the world."

Kampf says the NHM's collection didn't take off until the 1960s, when the number of specimens grew from 17,000 to 80,000. He says those come from donations ("We could use a big diamond, if you know of anyone," he says) and purchases with funds from the museum's rock solid support group, the Gem and Mineral Council.

Highlights in the NHM cases include the wire silver from a deposit in Norway, a newly discovered tourmaline from San Diego County and an impressive 300 pounds of gold. The NHM's California mineral collection is the largest anywhere, a bragging right because the state is the most mineralogically diverse in the country.

There are dozens of gem and mineral societies in southern California, but the MSSC's focus is on the mineral collector. It offers opportunities to hunt specimens, and provides outreach and educational programming.

Although MSSC members will be out in full force, they won't be the only ones. Seitz says it's hard to pin down a gem and mineral crowd; it includes collectors of minerals in their crystallized (natural) form, jewelry lovers who are seduced by cut and polished gems, and kids still young enough to admit delight in the idea that intrigues us all - that if you're either experienced or lucky, sparkling things can be found in plain old dirt.

GemFest is Dec. 13-14, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 Exposition Blvd. GemFest is free with admission to the museum, which is $9 for adults, $6.50 for students and senior citizens, and $2 for children ages 5-12. (213) 763-DINO, or

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