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New hall of gems is set to open Museum: Smithsonian updates display areas for spectacular jewels and minerals.

Turn, stop, click. The pedestal pauses in its rotation and then after seconds of darkness, the lights flick on.

No, no, no. The pedestal must stop and the lights must come on simultaneously.

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Turn, stop, click. Shimmer, shimmer, shimmer.

The big blue Hope Diamond, the most famous jewel in the world, pivots and turns in its new home while nervous technicians synchronize the slow dance designed to show off its unparalleled beauty.

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Outside on Constitution Avenue, Washington's morning rush-hour traffic is winding down from its jaw-clinching frenzy. In less than 60 minutes, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History will open to the day's visitors. The moms and pops, school kids and seniors -- 6 million of them a year -- will be expecting to see the legendary blue diamond. It better be back in its showcase by then.

The security guard, upon whose shoulders rests responsibility for the gem, is taking no guff from the frazzled museum staff or from photographers taking pictures of the Hope Diamond during this dress rehearsal.

So many parts must come together, and there is so little time before the acclaimed $13 million Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals opens at high noon Sept. 20.

The new hall, named after the 92-year-old Annenberg Hooker, who donated $5 million and her Starburst Diamonds, has been almost a decade from dream to completion, and the road of fund-raising, design and construction has been nothing if not challenging.

Like the National Gem Collection itself, the hall was built one private donation upon the next until, voila, an unprecedented amount of private funding was amassed, to renovate 20,000 square feet of the museum with fiber-optic lighting, granite floors, a "walk-through mine" and interactive computers.

The new hall will showcase everything from a 4.5 billion-year-old iron-ore meteorite to fragile crystals in rainbow hues to a 106-pound crystal ball and the National Gem Collection.

"It has been an interesting journey," says Tiane C. Benson, the museum's associate director for development and public affairs. When we finally open the doors on Sept. 20, we will be thrilled."

Preparations

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Electrical wires snake down from the ceiling, and the gleaming hardwood paneling in the Harry Winston Gallery is still wrapped in protective paper as Jeffrey E. Post, curator of gems and minerals, takes a visitor in late August through the new hall on the second floor of the museum. Scant weeks remain until the curtain goes up, but Post is not worried.

More than 100 people worked on the project, but if there is one midwife, it is Post. Mineral names, people names, historical dates, scientific properties, construction specifications -- he could recite them in his sleep and probably does. All manner of details have received his touch. Even the salt crystals scanned for a gigantic display photograph came from a McDonald's french fry he swiped from his 5-year-old daughter's Happy Meal.

"I suspect that this would be the first place that James Smithson would want to visit if he could come back," says Post, pausing before a hunk of Smithsonite, an aqua-green mineral discovered in New Mexico, first analyzed by and named for the English nobleman whose bequest established the Smithsonian Institution.

The museum today has more than 300,000 gems and mineral specimens, though most are homely but important rocks kept for research.

The specimens that have made the cut for display are the stars of the mineral universe. Arrayed in a kaleidoscope of purple amethyst crystals, dark blue azurite, ruddy rhodochrosite, spiky orange crocoite, green-veined malachite, watery aquamarines and pale green tourmalines, they are a breathtaking reminder of the beauty beneath the Earth's surface.

The mineral gallery is one of seven discrete sections in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall. Despite its vastness, the new hall is designed to accommodate hurried visitors and those for whom no rock is too arcane.

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"Fast-track" glass cases spotlight the most significant specimens while side rooms and computer displays provide endless detail.

The first section -- or the last, depending upon one's path -- is the Harry Winston Gallery, built with a $1 million donation from the Harry Winston Research Foundation expressly to showcase the Hope Diamond. (The late Harry Winston bought the Hope Diamond from the estate of Washington society doyenne and mining heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean and gave it to the museum in 1958.)

In the old hall of gems and minerals, the Hope Diamond rested in a small and badly lighted wall safe behind thick greenish glass that distorted its color and muted its brilliance. A modest plaque told its name but nothing else.

The Hope Diamond now will reside in a four-sided glass vault, which in turn sits on a columned dais. The walls of the vault, built by Diebold Inc., are "water clear" but allegedly tough enough to withstand a hail of bullets. At night, the pedestal recesses into the floor for even safer keeping.

Along the walls of the Winston gallery are some of the collection's more spectacular specimens, including a ring-shaped meteorite found near Tuscon, a 325-pound copper sheet and a 1,300-pound Namibian quartz cluster.

A display on the wall traces the known history of the diamond -- from the early 17th century when a French merchant purchased a 112-plus carat blue diamond to the late 18th century when the ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette flaunted it to 19th-century gem collector Henry Philip Hope, who gave the stone its name, and finally to McLean, who paid $184,000 for it in 1911. Along the way, the stone was cut and refined to its present 45.52 carats.

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Because blue diamonds are so rare -- the blue comes from traces of boron in the carbon that comprises the stone -- and because this one is so large, its history has been fairly easy to establish. The alleged curse, however is another matter.

McLean, who lost a husband, two children and much of her fortune, talked of the curse -- noting that other previous owners, including Marie Antoinette, fared none too well. Post, however, scoffs at the notion that the Hope Diamond brings bad luck.

"In general, we consider the Hope Diamond really good luck," says Post, who notes that its presence catapulted the National Gem Collection from "respectable" to world-class.

But doesn't talk of a curse make those who must handle the Hope Diamond a bit nervous?

"Well," says Post. "I was hit by a taxi leaving the museum in February. Broke my leg."

Storage

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Since the old hall was closed in 1995 for renovation, most of the jewels in the National Gem Collection have been stored in the museum's vault, little more than an oversized cinder-block closet, tucked into yet another unassuming back room of the mineralogy department.

The name plate on the door reads simply, "The Blue Room." The door is locked with many locks and alarmed to the teeth.

Inside is a work space and storage for mineral specimens, including an unfortunate foot-bath-shaped malachite bowl given to former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. ("There never was a question. The bowl was not going on display in the hall," Post says.)

Behind the worktables, where a 111-pound topaz crystal (about 3 feet tall) is being readied for display, is the door to the vault, secured with yet another multitude of locks.

Inside the vault, stored in wooden specimen drawers, freshly cleaned and wrapped in white paper, are goodies from some of " the world's wealthiest women.

"Ah, the good old days when women wore their jewelry," says Post as he unwraps an enormous emerald. "The goal was to be noticed."

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In his recent book, "The National Gem Collection," illustrated with photos by Smithsonian employee Chip Clark, Post provides engaging detail about many of the 550 jewels within the museum's collection. (Only 40 of the most significant pieces will go on display.)

There is, for instance, the show-stopper 423-carat sapphire shoulder broach (bigger than a Grade AAA egg) once owned by Rebecca "Polly" Guggenheim Logan. (Ex-hubby Charles Guggenheim was briefly ambassador to Portugal but was sent home at the Portuguese's request after he flipped a spoon into a woman's cleavage at a state dinner and then went after it.)

Teardrop diamond earrings as big as chandelier crystals once dangled from Marie Antoinette's ears, and the champagne-colored Victoria Transvaal diamond, a mere 68 carats, was worn by Dorothy Hart's Jane in the 1952 movie, "Tarzan's Savage Fury."

The 127-carat Portuguese diamond, thought to be the world's largest cut diamond, was worn on a choker by Peggy Hopkins Joyce, a Ziegfeld Follies girl whose obituary reported her claim of more than 50 marriage proposals. (A carat, by the way, weighs 200 milligrams and is about two-thirds the size of an aspirin tablet.)

And on the worktable, restored from its once "ratty condition," is a diadem worn by Napoleon's bride Marie Louise and later by Marjorie Merriweather Post. (The tiara's emeralds were long ago sold off by jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels and replaced with turquoise.)

"Most of the things in the collection are truly one of a kind," says Post, who recently flew to San Jose, Calif., accompanied by armed U.S. marshals to bring back the 356 carats of Hooker Starburst Diamonds and the MacKay Emerald (168 carats) that had been traveling with the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary exhibition.

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Even with the mission accomplished, Post won't divulge details.

"Secrecy is the major part of our operation," he says.

As for the value of the National Gem Collection or the Hope Diamond, Post is equally mum.

"We don't talk about values in principal. You start talking about money and some people get crazy ideas," says Post. "Besides, how do you put a value on something that is like the Mona Lisa? These things are one of a kind."

Pub Date: 9/07/97


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