Over the years, the mineralogy and geology collections have gradually expanded thanks to donations and acquisitions of remarkable pieces, often preserved by enlightened enthusiasts and scientists before their arrival at the museum.
Following its creation in 1626, the King's medicine chest (the Droguier du Roi) was continually enriched with numerous pieces from royal collections in connection with pharmacopoeia, the natural world and from "primitive" civilisations, in the language of the time. Louis XV made many donations to the Royal Cabinet as did some of the great rulers of Europe, including Christian VII of Denmark, the Emperor of Austria and many others.
After its creation in 1793, the Museum became home to many revolutionary confiscations from the royal collections, such as the French Crown Jewels, and artworks taken from aristocrats and the Church. Most of the lapidary works of art currently housed by the Museum arrived during this period.
The Weiss collection
In 1802, thanks to the intervention of Napoleon himself, René-Just Haüy acquired the collection of Austrian mineralogist Christian Samuel Weiss. This was his first great success as the Chair of Mineralogy. Composed of nearly 1,700 minerals, including specimens from Central Europe and Russia, it has contributed to the worldwide renown of the mineralogical collection at the Muséum national d'Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History).
The Sage collection
Balthazar-Georges Sage, a professor of mineralogy at the Hôtel de la Monnaie in Paris, became head of the Ecoles des Mines located there in 1783. To support his research and teaching work, he amassed a collection of almost 3,500 minerals throughout his career. Sage died in 1824. His personal collection was divided into two parts, one of which is housed at the Museum, and the other remains at the Ecole des Mines.
The Gillet de Laumont and Romé de l'Isle collections
Gillet de Laumont resigned as captain-commander of the Royal Grenadiers in 1784 to pursue a career in mineralogy. He became the national Inspector of Mines, travelling often to Brittany and the Pyrenees. His discovery of new mineral species deepened the description of the geology of these regions. In 1790 he bought the collection of Jean-Baptiste Louis Romé de L'Isle, one of the world's first crystallographers. When Gillet de Laumont died, the Government acquired his magnificent collection for the Museum, along with his models of terracotta crystals, his scientific instruments and the violet Schorl - termed 'axinite' by René Just Haüy in 1797 - from Romé de l’Isle.
The René-Just Hauÿ collection
Professor and Chair of Mineralogy from 1802 to 1822, René-Just Haüy made a great impression on the early days of crystallography. Along with Romé de l'Isle, he was one of the first to work on the geometry of crystals. Having laboriously studied their facets, angles and structures, he surmised that they were built from elementary molecules. He used these criteria to suggest a classification of the mineral world, and presented his results in his Traité de Minéralogie, in 1801. When he died in 1822, the Duke of Buckingham acquired his collection. In 1848, Armand Dufrénoy, who had just been appointed to the Chair of Mineralogy, supervised the repurchase of this collection from the Duke's heirs. Preserved in its original state, its value is inestimable! It contains the original type-specimens used by Haüy during the preparation of his master-work. Each is carefully fixed with wax to a wooden support, labelled by the scientist.
Gifts of the Third Republic
When the state made further pieces from the Crown of France available for sale in 1887, the Museum acquired many royal and imperial gemstones that significantly expanded its existing stone collections. These included various gemstones extracted from the crowns of the Empresses Marie-Louise and Eugenie, and from that of Marie-Amélie, consort of Louis-Philippe I who was himself a keen mineralogist. He ordered the construction of the mineralogy gallery that today houses the collections of mineralogy, gemology, meteorites, gemstones and works of art. He laid the foundation stone on 27 July 1833.
Donations by John Pierpont Morgan
An American banker at the head of a financial empire, John Pierpont Morgan donated three separate collections of minerals to the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. In 1902 Alfred Lacroix, Chair of Mineralogy from 1893 to 1937, was the first to receive a donation from Morgan, a set of 403 American minerals brought together by mineralogist George Frederick Kunz, for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. Another 162 minerals, first showcased at the Saint-Louis World's Fair, followed in 1905. Finally, in 1912, a third series of exceptional azurites, tourmaline, but above all kunzites and morganites, were donated by John Morgan's son Jack.
The Louis Vésignié collection
Colonel Louis Vésignié is considered to be one of the most important collectors of his time. He arranged with Jean Orcel, successor of Alfred Lacroix as Chair of Mineralogy, to bequeath nearly 5,000 exceptional minerals to the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Fifteen thousand other pieces from his collection were also bought from his heirs by the Museum, some ten years after his death. A selection of these minerals was exhibited for many years in the Vésignié hall, specifically designed to accommodate it in 1967.
The giant crystals of Ilia Deleff
Ilia Deleff, born in Bulgaria, first visited South America at the end of his studies. In the 1950s, in the Amazon basin of Brazil, he discovered his first diamonds. He continued to prospect the country, focusing more generally on mineralogy. Throughout his career, he was impressed by the many giant minerals he watched being smashed by mineworkers, to produce the industrial crystals they sought. Working pre-emptively, he began to collect some immense and beautiful specimens. In 1982, eighty of the finest pieces saved by Ilia Deleff were purchased by the Museum. They were first the subject of a temporary exhibition. Its outstanding success allowed the loan granted by the State for their acquisition to be repaid early, and the Salle des Trésors hall and the Giant Crystals hall in the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie (Gallery of Mineralogy and Geology) were created.
As early as 1983, Elf, which was to become Total, financed the acquisition of numerous pieces for the Mineralogy and Geology collections. This patronage continues today through the Total Foundation, created in 1992. Over the last thirty years, Total's patronage has helped the Museum to acquire more than 1,600 pieces to expand its collections. Among them is the Laurent Fluorite, a specimen composed of red fluorite and smoked quartz, found in the Mont Blanc massif in July 2006. It is the first mineral specimen ever to be classified as having major heritage interest. The Galerie Virtuelle de Minéralogie (Virtual Mineralogy Gallery), which went on line in 2008, and the renovation of the giant crystals hall, which currently hosts the Trésors de la Terre exhibition, were also made possible by the patronage of the Total Foundation.
To find out more about the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie (Mineralogy and Geology Gallery) today, click here.