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Pierpont Morgan 1912–1931 showcase © MNHN - Bibliothèque centrale
Pierpont Morgan 1912–1931 showcase © MNHN - Bibliothèque centrale

History of the mineralogy collections

At its very origin, the mineralogy collection was based on the medicine chest (the "droguier") of King Louis XIII, founded in 1626. Enriched by four centuries of discoveries and acquisitions, it now includes almost 130,000 objects.

The start of the collection dates back to 1626. In the seventeenth century, mineral substances were believed to be endowed with healing properties, and were kept alongside medicinal plants in the Medicine Cabinet of the Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants. Under the management of Guy-Crescent Fagon, the first doctor of Louis XIV, the collection expanded considerably. In 1739 the collection grew again with the addition of the collection of precious stones bequeathed by Charles-François de Cisternay Du Fay, another Jardin's intendant. The medicine cabinet was renamed the Cabinet of Natural History at around this time. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, a French botanist, added samples of stones collected during his travels.

During the forty-nine years of his management (1739–1788), the great naturalist Buffon played a major role in the organisation and development of the Cabinet. In recognition of his work, Louis XV entrusted him with a number of admirable mineralogical specimens and a set of furniture adorned with stones. Buffon first opened the Cabinet to the public in 1745.

That same year, Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton arrived at the Cabinet as acting curator. Daubenton had the extensive financial resources required acquire new objects, among which minerals and gems purchased by the Earl of Angiviller. Collections made during the expeditions of Commerson, Bougainville, Dombey, Dolomieu and Faujas de St Fond - first holder of the Chair of Geology - were added as time went by. Daubenton undertook the first systematic classification of the Cabinet's contents. In doing so, he was the first to unify the disciplines of mineralogy and geology. After the French Revolution, in 1793, Daubenton was appointed the first director of the new Museum of Natural History. Also appointed head of the Department of Mineralogy, he selected a series of precious stones and remarkable hard stone objets d'art from the former royal collections. The Grand Sapphire of Louis XIV was added to the Museum's collection by him in 1796. René Just Haüy, a pioneer of crystallography, took the chair of Mineralogy in 1802 and remained in the post until his death in 1822. Haüy extended the collections, not only by selecting from items originating in the scientific expeditions of Vauquelin, Berthier and Berzelius, but also by the highly significant acquisition of the Weiss collection, with its very high quality mineral specimens.

In 1824, the Museum came into possession of certain pieces collected for Louis XVIII by Jacques-Louis de Bournon. In 1835 government funding allowed the Museum to take the considerable collection of former Inspector of Mines, Gillet de Laumont, into its care. That acquisition included the collection of minerals collected by Jean-Baptiste Louis Romé de L'Isle during his work on the geometry of crystals.

From 1822 to 1847, Alexandre Brongniart, the son of the architect of the Palais de la Bourse in Paris, donated numerous minerals and geological samples collected during his travels. The French Academy of Sciences also made several successive transfers of specimens, among which are nuggets of gold and platinum that once belonged to Tsar Nicholas I. Scientists in the Chair of Mineralogy: Ours Dufrenoy in 1848, Gabriel Delafosse in 1857, Alfred Des Cloizeaux in 1876 and Alfred Lacroix in 1893. The efforts of these remarkable men allowed the Museum to become host to a startling array of magnificent collections before the First World War. These included those of Haüy, Dusgate, Pierpont Morgan, de Frossard and the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture and others. The Director of the Department of Geology from 1819, Pierre-Louis Cordier, was particularly prolific, multiplying the number of geological samples by ten. His successor, Gabriel Auguste Daubrée, started the meteorite collection.

After the Second World War, Jean Orcel, a professor working at the Museum and holder of the Chair of Mineralogy in 1937, welcomed numerous trophy pieces found by the prospectors he had trained, as well as the magnificent minerals of Colonel Louis Vésignié. The administration of Jacques Fabriès lasted until 1998. His tenure was particularly notable for the acquisition of 80 giant crystals in 1982, and the addition of the "Pierres de Rêves" (dream stones) collection of Roger Caillois in 1988, thanks to the fund-raising of Henri-Jean Schubnel, the curator of the mineralogy collection and friend of Roger Caillois himself.

Today as yesterday, the collections of mineralogy and geology continue to grow, as its researchers discover new specimens on their expeditions, but also thanks to the donations of enthusiasts and acquisitions made possible by its sponsors and patrons. The Total Foundation, for example, made it possible to add to the list of cultural property of major heritage interest a specimen of exceptional red fluorite, nicknamed the "Laurent," found in the Mont-Blanc massif in 2006.

Pierpont Morgan 1912–1931 showcase © MNHN - Bibliothèque centrale
Pierpont Morgan 1912–1931 showcase © MNHN - Bibliothèque centrale