Glimpsing Eternity: Notes from the Museum's keeper of gems

Lee-Anne Jack, managing editor of ROM magazine

Katherine Dunnell

Department of Natural History


2012 Final exam pending, FCGmA Gemmology certification, Canadian Gemmological Association
1996 BSc (Honours) in geology and geochemistry, University of Windsor
1992 BA (Honours) in physical geography, University of Windsor

This 10-carat black opal ring set in platinum is on display in the ROM's Gallery of Gems and Gold. It was made for Birks and Sons by Peter Kochuta.

It's hard to miss the spectacular engagement ring on Katherine Dunnell's finger, its unusual purple gem glistening as it catches the light. A mineralogy technician who has shared the responsibility of caring for the ROM's 77,000- piece mineral collection since 1997, Dunnell knows her gems down to their crystalline essence. At eight gem and mineral shows a year, she and her colleagues in Earth Sciences display the ROM's collection and scour the offerings looking for new specimens.

"These shows are an education on who is producing what," says Dunnell. Right now, China is mining beautiful display-quality minerals. Keeping on top of new finds enables the team to get pieces into the collection while they're still affordable. "Its supply and demand, and once mining stops or moves on, the prices tend to go up on the fabulous minerals that came out," she says. The shows are also a chance to glimpse incredible things. The talk of the circuit right now? "There are raspberry Tanzanian spinels and Nigerian yellow tourmalines I lust after for the collection."

Dunnell is partial to spinels, the gemstone in her ring, describing the normally multi-coloured stones as under appreciated. Found in gem gravel along with sapphires, these gem minerals have been used in crown jewels and Mughal courts, and historically misidentified as rubies. "They're gorgeous," says the Windsor, Ontario, native. "I think spinel has gotten a bum rap because synthetic colourless spinel was historically being used as a diamond simulant. The coloured varieties of spinel have a more interesting depth of colour than sapphire."

Knowing what not to buy—keeping up on the latest treatments and enhancements—is a key part of building the gem collection, although the ROM does purposely pick up examples of enhanced and synthetic gems for its teaching collection, most recently glass-filled rubies, which regularly turn up on the market. Dunnell began specializing in gemmology after arriving at the Museum, where a colleague noticed she had the eye for it. Now, it's not just ROM staff knocking on Dunnell's door for advice. All three of Toronto's jewellery schools send classes to learn the science and mineral side of their craft from the team in Earth Sciences. She herself is taken with design of all kinds, evident in the décor of her calming office in the ROM's basement.

A great proponent of Canadian jewellers, Dunnell dispels the idea that a custom piece is necessarily pricey. "We have world-renowned goldsmiths here [in Toronto] eking out a living," she says. A custom-made piece has the added advantage of supporting Canadian design and manufacturing.

But buying gems and jewellery isn't like learning which flat-screen TV is the best. "An engagement ring is the third-biggest purchase most men will make after a house and a car, yet there's a real lack of inherent knowledge on what to buy and where to go," she says. "You have a relationship with your dentist and your GP. You should have a similar relationship with a jeweller." It was advice her parents, who owned a collection of Victorian mourning rings, lived by, and perhaps part of what attracted her to gemmology.

Next on Earth Science's wish list for the ROM is the gem mineral–heavy Kirwin collection from Thailand, which comes with the added bonus of a revamped collection room. It will be a great addition to a collection that already holds its own in the world.

To learn more about spinels, search the ROM's blog.

The task of identifying new mineral elements in a specimen got easier in 2010 with the acquisition of state-of-the-art lab equipment, which makes the ROM one of the few museums capable of single-crystal X-ray diffraction. Watch for details in future issues of ROM magazine about how the Museum is using this cutting-edge technology.

Have jewellery or gemstones that you need identified? Check out the schedule for the next ROM ID Clinic