Focus: Gems and Minerals - History

The Field Museum's physical geology collection has a long and unique history. It has grown over the years through a combination of purchases, scientific collecting and donations. The 1893 Columbian Exposition formed the foundation of the physical geology collection and the collection has grown to its current number of over 36,500 specimens.

The 1893 Columbian Exposition also known as the Chicago World's Fair was an extraordinary event. Exhibitors from around the world gathered to display advances in science, engineering and architecture. Also on display were cultural artifacts and curiosities from around the world. The Mines and Minerals building at the fair housed rocks and mineral specimens from Ward's Natural Science which was established in 1862.  Ward's was the premier collector of fossils and minerals and prepared collections for many institutions. Tiffany & Co. established in 1837 also had an exhibit on gemstones at the fair. Tiffany & Co. originally founded as a stationary goods shop which specialized in paper got into the gemstone business in an unusual way. Charles Tiffany (1812-1902) and his business partner John P. Young purchased gemstones from aristocrats fleeing the 1848 revolution in France. These stones would then be broken up and sold. Seeing the profitability of such a business Tiffany & Co. changed their focus from paper goods to gems and jewelry. They hired George Kunz (1856-1932), a young gemologist to purchase gems on behalf of the company.

Towards the end of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, prominent Chicagoans wanted to convert the fair's collection into a permanent natural history museum for Chicago. Retailor Marshall Field (1834-1906) purchased the Ward's collection and president of the World's Fair Harlow Higinbotham (1838-1919) purchased the Tiffany collection. With these and other collections the Chicago Columbian Museum was founded in 1894.

Harlow Higinbotham was president of the newly found museum from 1897-1909 and the named Higinbotham Hall of Gems became one of the most popular exhibits in the museum.; In 1985 the Grainger family made a generous donation through the Grainger Foundation to renovate the Gem Hall and the hall has since been named the Grainger Hall of Gems. 2009 saw the current renovation of the hall where the collection was increased and updated, many of the loose stones from the Columbian Exposition being set into modern jewelry with the help of prominent Jewelry designers.