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Where to See the World's Treasures

Updated on September 10, 2011
Russian Tsarist regalia at the Kremlin in Moscow
Russian Tsarist regalia at the Kremlin in Moscow

If you love breathtaking jewelry and captivating gemstones, there are many opportunities to see some of the most priceless pieces in the world. Fortunately, many of the ultimate in rare jewelry treasures are on display for the public in museums. This is a guide to where to one can see the world's treasures up close and in person.

The Hope Diamond is one of the most popular attractions at the NMNH
The Hope Diamond is one of the most popular attractions at the NMNH
Marie Antoinette's earrings
Marie Antoinette's earrings

See The Hope Diamond And Marie Antoinette's Earrings

An excellent place to begin any tour of the world's most remarkable gems and jewelry is right in our nation's capitol. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History is home to the National Gem Collection, which boasts some of the most famous jewelry in the world. The collection, one of the most important in the world, is displayed in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals. This is where one can find the legendary Hope Diamond. The breathtaking 44.25 carat diamond is equally renowned for its supposed curse as for its exceedingly rare dark grayish-blue color. Once part of the French Crown Jewels, the Hope diamond passed through a number of private hands, as well as those of two of the world's best known jewelers. It was Cartier who set the Hope Diamond into its current pendant form, and Harry Winston who eventually donated the gem to the Smithsonian, where it became the showpiece of the National Museum of Natural History.

There are over 7500 other displays of remarkable gemstones at the National Museum of Natural History, including a number of pieces of jewelry which once belonged to royalty. This is where one can see Marie Antoinette's earrings, which she is reputed to have worn while fleeing the French Revolution. There is the stunning Logan Sapphire, which at 423 carats is one of the largest known blue sapphires on Earth. Set into a brooch surrounded by 16 carats of white diamonds, the cushion cut Logan Sapphire is a perfect example of the ideal shade of blue for the precious stone. The NMNH's broad collection also features many loose cut gems, gemstones in their natural rough material, and even meteorites. Best of all, this world class collection has free admission, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to visit some of the most special gems and jewelry articles that belong to this nation.

The Patricia Emerald is a crowd favorite at the AMNH
The Patricia Emerald is a crowd favorite at the AMNH

Gems Shine Brighter Than The Lights On Broadway At The AMNH

Another great place to see famous gems in the United States is the American Natural History Museum in New York. Founded in 1869, the AMNH's mission statement is: “To discover, interpret, and disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.” Among the museum's vast holdings is the Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals and the Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems. One of the world's most famous gems, the Star of India sapphire can be visited in the Hall of Gems. The Star of India is a 563.35 carat star sapphire, which is believed to be the largest specimen in the world. Imagine a sapphire the size of a golf ball! That is what visitors to the AMNH are treated to when they visit the Hall of Gems. The Star of India was donated to the museum by J.P. Morgan, one of the institution's co-founders. The massive gem was actually part of a jewelry heist in 1964, and was eventually recovered in a bus station locker in Miami, after which it was returned to a place of honor at the American Natural History Museum.

The Star of India is certainly not the only spectacular thing which visitors to the AMNH can see. Another favorite is the Patricia Emerald, which is an enormous uncut emerald in a rich vivid green. The gem offers a rare chance to see an emerald in its uncut state, but even more exciting is the size of the stone – a whopping 632 carats! Discovered in the Andes mountains of Colombia in 1920, the Patricia Emerald is unique not only for its size, but also the twelve sided shape of the natural crystal (most uncut emeralds are six sided). This impressive gem is a must-see for anyone who is interested in learning more about gemstones in their natural state, before they are cut, polished, and turned into jewelry. Also part of the American Museum of Natural History's permanent collection is a large and varied display of vivid opals. The museum remains a favorite place for gem and jewelry aficionados to revisit year after year, as it often has new and fascinating traveling exhibitions, such as The Nature of Diamonds exhibit, of which the highlight was the dazzling Tiffany Diamond.

The Tower of London
The Tower of London
St. Edward's Crown
St. Edward's Crown

The Crown Jewels Are Living History

There are many other marvelous museums which will amaze visitors with their gem and jewelry treasures. London, England boasts not one, but two of these. The Tower of London is famous for many things, including its priceless display of the British Crown Jewels. The array of royal artifacts is sure to take the breath away of anyone who has the privilege of seeing them firsthand. One of the most unique things about the British Crown Jewels is that the Coronation regalia is still used for ceremonial functions. This sets it apart from the regal regalia of other royal families, and allows guests to see not only some of the most incredible crowns, orbs, and scepters ever made, but to gaze upon living history as well.

The British Crown Jewels have been stored in the Tower of London since 1303, where they were relocated following a theft from their previous home at Westminster Abby. The Irishman Colonel Blood and his accomplices very nearly made off with the Imperial State Crown, the Scepter, and the Orb from their home in the Tower of London in a 1671 robbery, but were thwarted at the last minute. Disappointed that you cannot try on a royal tiara? You have Colonel Blood to blame; prior to his attempt at theft, visitors had been permitted to handle the Crown Jewels. The Yeoman Guards, better known as the Beefeaters, stand guard outside the Tower today to ensure that no subsequent attempts at thievery will be successful.

When visiting the Tower of London, there are several pieces which every visitor will want to see. Chief among these treasures is the Cullinan Diamond, also known as the Great Star of Africa. The Cullinan I is one of the most legendary diamonds the world has ever known. In its current form, it weighs in at an impressive 530.20 carats. It was cut by talented diamond expert Joseph Asscher, from an astonishing 3106.75 carat rough diamond. The Cullinan I is currently mounted in the Scepter with the Cross. It's sister, Cullinan II, or the Lesser Start of Africa is the premier gem in the Imperial State Crown.

The Koh-I-Noor Diamond is yet another famous diamond which belongs to the British Crown Jewels. Those who go to see it at the Tower of London will not be disappointed; not only is the Koh-I-Noor 108.93 carat rose cut diamond one of the largest precious gems most people will ever see, it also has a fascinating history. The notorious gem is reputed to carry with it an ancient Hindu curse, originating from its discovery in India, which proclaims: "He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity." After many a male ruler had misfortune come his way while in possession of the Koh-I-Noor, the British royals wisely decided that it should only be owned by a female monarch or the wife of the male heir to the crown.

Emerald and diamond jewelry suite, 1806 France
Emerald and diamond jewelry suite, 1806 France
Swedish bridal crown from 18th or 19th Century
Swedish bridal crown from 18th or 19th Century

The World's Foremost Fashion And Decorative Arts Museum

While in London, those who appreciate great beauty should visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a unique institution, dedicated to the decorative arts and design. Founded in 1852 as the Museum of Manufactures, it was originally an arts and science museum, which set the future Victoria and Albert apart from the institutions whose purpose was promotion of the fine arts: painting, sculpture, and drawing. Renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899, the V&A, as it is frequently called, now boasts the most comprehensive collection of the decorative arts in the world, with over 4.5 million objects in its possession.

The V&A has magnificent holdings in the area of costume and jewelry, and also takes a special interest in historical weddings. It is the place to go for anyone with an interest in the finest vintage and modern fashions in clothing or jewelry. The jewelry collection hosts over 6000 objects, with approximately 3500 from the permanent collection on display at any one time. The Victoria and Albert's marvelous jewelry is primarily displayed in the new William and Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery. The V&A's vast collection of jewelry dates back to the ancient Egyptians, although the emphasis is on European pieces which were created in the last 800 years.

A trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum will give one the chance to see jewelry which was owned by royalty, such as pieces from Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette, and Napoleon's adopted daughter Hortense de Beauharnais. In addition, guests can delight in jewelry which was created by premier jewelers, including the Mountbatten Bandeau by Cartier, as well as works by Tiffany, Fabergé, and Lalique. A wonderful thing about the V&A is that it has done an excellent job of cataloging its works of art to show online. Those who cannot make it to London to visit the museum can still have access to images and educational information on many of the museum's fabulous jewelry and costume holdings on the V&A's extensive website.

Gold, bronze, and garnet diadem, dating from the late 4th - early 5th Century Russia
Gold, bronze, and garnet diadem, dating from the late 4th - early 5th Century Russia
The Winter Palace, home to the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg
The Winter Palace, home to the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg

Treasures In a Palace

On to Russia! Within the borders of Russia lie two more of the museums which hold the world's most exquisite treasures. First there is the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The museum itself is a work of art, housed as it is within the magnificent Winter Palace. The palace was a former residence of the Russian Emperors, and it was created with the splendor due the royal family. More than 3 million artifacts are owned by the Hermitage, which is one of the oldest museums in the world. Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, the Hermitage was opened to the public in 1852, and has been receiving visitors for over 150 years now.

The Hermitage's jewelry collection is displayed in what is aptly known as the Treasure Gallery. Within the Treasure Gallery are two main divisions: the Gold Room and the Diamond Rooms. Viewings of the jewelry are by appointment only. The Gold Room covers the period from the 7th Century BC to the 19th Century AD. The Diamond Rooms show more finished jewelry, and are designed to follow the historical development of jewelry making techniques over the centuries from the third millennium BC to the early years of the 20th Century AD. Within the walls of the Diamond Rooms, one can marvel at everything from ornate sabers, to diadems, jewelry, and religious relics.

The Imperial Crown of Russia
The Imperial Crown of Russia
The Orlov Diamond in the Royal Sceptre
The Orlov Diamond in the Royal Sceptre
The Moscow Kremlin Fabrege egg
The Moscow Kremlin Fabrege egg

An Egg Sized Diamond And Diamond Eggs

The other site in Russia at which one can view decorative masterpieces is the Kremlin Armoury. Located within the Kremlin building, the museum has some of the most breathtaking works of imperial art which one will ever see. The Kremlin Armoury was founded in Moscow in 1808, and possesses an extraordinary group of Russian and international jewelry, royal regalia, sumptuous household and military artifacts, and applied art. Many of the remarkable items in the Kremlin Armoury once belonged to the Czars and Czarinas of pre-Revolutionary Russia.

The Diamond Fund is the special section of the Kremlin Armoury which is devoted to jewels and jewelry. It can be seen by guided tour, and is truly not to be missed. The Diamond Fund has holdings which date from the 5th Century to the 20th Century, including some of the most important pieces in the world. The famed Orlov Diamond is one of the best known gems located in the Diamond Fund. It has a long and fascinating history, with its final stop being Russian Empress Catherine the Great. The 189.62 carat diamond was a gift from one of her former lovers, Count Grigory Orlov, who gave the impressive gem to Catherine the Great in a failed effort to win back her love. The Empress declined Orlov's affections, but accepted his diamond, which was set into the Imperial Sceptre. Not only is the Imperial Sceptre an imposing piece of regalia, but the Orlov Diamond itself is one of the most distinctive in the world. It is a large oval shape, much like half of an egg. What makes the Orlov particularly unique is that it was left in its original Indian rose cut form, unlike most of the legendary diamonds, which have been recut to modern proportions.

In addition to the Orlov Diamond, there is something else at the Kremlin museum which makes a visit well worth the trip. The Diamond Fund holds ten of the awe-inspiring Fabergé eggs which were created for the Czarinas of Russia. Of the 42 eggs still in existence, the collection of ten at the Diamond Fund is the largest group which can be seen anywhere. The Fabergé eggs are intricate wonders created in painstaking detail in gold, with precious gems like diamonds, and colorful enamel. Each one is a true wonder. The first Fabergé egg was commissioned by Czar Alexander III in 1885. He wanted a jeweled Easter egg to present his wife Empress Maria Fedorovna in celebration of the most important Orthodox holiday and their 20th anniversary. He turned to young jeweler Carl Fabergé to create an egg which would dazzle his wife.

The first egg, called the Hen Egg (which is owned by a private collector, not the Kremlin), was a huge hit with the Empress, and from there on, each year, Fabergé had a commission to design and craft another of his magnificent eggs. The only stipulation was that each should contain a surprise, just as the original Imperial Easter egg did. When Czar Alexander died, his son Nicholas continued the tradition, commissioning a Fabergé egg each year for both his mother and his wife, up until the time of the 1917 Revolution. The ten Imperial eggs on view in the Diamond Fund are works of art whose quality has not been seen since the Renaissance.

Other Museums Around The World Also Hold Spectacular Gems

In addition to these incredible sources, there are many other wonderful collections of jewelry and gemstones available for public viewing around the globe. From the 15th and 16th Century gold jewelry on display at the Louvre in Paris to the Grainger Hall of Gems at Chicago's Field Museum (which was founded in part by gems purchased from Charles Lewis Tiffany at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago), there are stupendous pieces of jewelry in almost every corner of the world. The joy which comes from feasting the eyes on these treasures is an experience not to be missed.


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    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thanks for that really comprehensive, and fascinating account.

      I think I want to be a jewel thief when I grow up.


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