WASHINGTON — For a few more days, until Thursday, the Smithsonian’s newest and perhaps most stunning earthly treasure hides behind a thick metal door, like that of a bank vault, deep in the heart of the National Museum of Natural History, behind the galleries, beyond the cabinets stuffed with chunks of minerals, deep inside the “blue room," whose shelves groan under heavy crystals of a thousand sparkling hues.
The museum’s longtime curator of gems and minerals, Jeffrey Post, handles an unmarked white box. It’s the right size and shape to hold, say, a tall bottle of the world’s finest Scotch. Post marches the box into the blue room, so called for the thick carpet, and also the color of the cloth draped across a chest-high cabinet, upon which he sets the box.
Post dons a pair of white cotton gloves. Unlatches two clasps. Opens the lid.
“This," announces Post, “is Dom Pedro."
The museum’s new director, Kirk Johnson, is leaning against the cabinet. He lets out a low whistle.
This is Johnson’s first glimpse of the glittering azure obelisk, as clear and blue as the Caribbean at noon.
Unboxed and upright, Dom Pedro towers like a gemmy Washington Monument.
It’s the largest cut piece of aquamarine ever known — perhaps 10 times the size of the next largest. It’s 14 inches tall and weighs 10,363 carats. That’s the heft of a barbell, nearly five pounds.
The eye cannot rest on Dom Pedro. It is drawn upward to the pyramid tip by an eight-fold set of climbing carved starbursts that flare and shimmer like the beating wings of iridescent angels.
Dom Pedro’s sculptor, the German gem artist Bernd Munsteiner, strives for “total reflection," Post says. Most gems are faceted on the outside — like the typical brilliant or diamond cuts seen in jewelry. Munsteiner instead cuts into his gems, sculpts internal facets to bounce every beam of gathered light back at the viewer.
Gem without price
“Think of the gemstones that could be cut from a piece like that," says Post. “There’s millions of dollars worth of aquamarine in there."
The bluest aquamarines rival emerald in value, but Dom Pedro may as well be priceless. It’s off the market forever, donated to the Smithsonian Institution last year by a collector couple from Palm Beach, Fla., Jane Mitchell and Jeff Bland.
On Thursday, Dom Pedro — named after the first emperor of Brazil — will go on permanent display. Under spotlights in the entrance to the national gem collection gallery, Dom Pedro will shine like a beacon, a rival to the most famous gem in the world, resting not 30 feet away, the Hope Diamond.
“This piece will become one of the highlights for the Smithsonian," said Jürgen Henn, a German gem broker, former co-owner of Dom Pedro, and the force behind its creation. “It is strong competition for the Hope. In rarity and purity, it is at least the same."
When found, the Dom Pedro crystal stretched more than three feet long and weighed something close to 100 pounds. Sometime in the late 1980s a garimpero, or prospector, spied it. He and two buddies pried it loose and lugged it out of a mine in the state of Minas Gerais, famous for its gemstones. The garimperos dropped the crystal, shattering it into thirds, a seeming disaster that later proved serendipitous, indeed, crucial, to the carving of Dom Pedro.
The mine’s owner took possession. He sold the top two chunks, which were cut into typical jewelry. He kept the third, and largest, piece — still close to two feet long and 60 pounds — behind his bed. Or so the story goes.
Henn, a third-generation broker and dealer, soon heard of this monster crystal and hatched a plan. Only one gem cutter could handle such a piece: Bernd Munsteiner, Henn’s lifelong friend and business partner. In the 1970s and 1980s, Munnsteiner pioneered a new style, eyeing big crystals as Michaelangelo would a block of granite — with a sculpture inside. Crystals were art waiting to happen.
Sculpting a masterpiece
But first, Henn had to acquire the crystal. He partnered with Munsteiner and a second well-known dealer, Hermann Bank. In 1992, Henn dispatched his son Axel and Munsteiner’s son, Tom, to make a deal.
The younger Germans engaged in lengthy negotiations with the mine owner. But the owner was in no hurry. He flew the Germans to a remote river for a week of fishing.
When the deal was at last done, the German sons spirited the crystal out of Brazil. The Lapidary Journal article by Si and Ann Frazier paints a Hollywood scene. They hired sketchy pilots, bribed a few customs agents, persuaded a Brazilian general to shut down the Rio airport as the crystal landed in a small plane, stashed the thing in the control tower, and nonchalantly-as-can-be-toting-60-pounds hauled it aboard a Lufthansa flight in a duffel and stuffed it in the overhead bin.
Or so the story goes.
The artist Munsteiner then set to work. He agreed to the audacious job for one reason only. The shattering of the original crystal, he was convinced, had relieved any hidden stresses, made the largest chunk strong enough to withstand his diamond blades.
For four months, Munsteiner eyed the azure monster.
Munsteiner settled on a plan. He would shape an obelisk, preserving as much of the original length as he could. Into the backside, he would excavate dozens of spiky “negative cuts," the ascending starbursts, to achieve total reflection.
The cutter toiled for six months. He worked for just two hours a day to keep his mind clear, his arms strong. A treasure was his to create — or, with a slip, to destroy.
In 1993, Henn and Munsteiner at last unveiled Dom Pedro in Basel, Switzerland.