A Gem of a Gift
By Albert Raboteau
A donation by a retired orthopedic surgeon who collects and cuts gemstones as a hobby allowed Virginia Tech to obtain a massive, gem-quality aquamarine crystal.
Arthur Kirk, biology '37, had already given dozens of valuable gemstones to the university's Museum of Geosciences, including a 2955 carat blue topaz, known as the "Hokie Topaz," that he cut himself.
The Portsmouth, Va., resident said that when he saw an extraordinary aquamarine crystal that a dealer he works with had for sale, he was struck by how nicely it would fit into the museum's collection. The crystal, found in Brazil, is four inches across, eight inches long, and weighs about eight pounds.
The "Hokie Topaz"
A rival bidder from Spain was interested in buying the crystal to cut up for jewelry, but the museum was able to compete, and acquire it on very short notice, thanks to a $180,000 donation by Kirk.
"That's extraordinary for a gift to the museum," said Professor Robert Tracy, the geosciences department chair. "Some of the gems that Dr. Kirk has donated over time have had an equivalent value but this, as a natural crystal, is exceptional."
Aquamarine is the common name for a blue- or blue-green crystal made up of the mineral beryl.
The birth stone for March, aquamarines get their color from trace amounts of the element iron. Emeralds are made of the same mineral colored differently by small amounts of chromium.
"We are extremely pleased to have it," Tracy said of the crystal, which is about the size of a small loaf of bread. "Cut gems are really nice to have. But this is primarily a teaching and learning museum. So having a raw crystal as it occurs in nature like this one is of enormous extra value to show to the students and public."
For a crystal to be able to grow to the size of the one Kirk donated takes a very particular geological circumstance, Tracy said.
Crystals grow within fissures, cavities or spaces within rock. If there is an unusually large cavity, filled with the proper combination of water and dissolved minerals, extraordinarily large, well-formed crystals can grow.
Kirk said he was taken by this particular aquamarine because it had very few fractures or flaws within it. Fewer fractures make for a rarer, more valuable specimen, whether the rock is to be cut into jewels or kept intact.
Museum of Geosciences officials expect to have the new crystal on display in the next month or so. Kirk has asked that the display indicate the crystal was given in memory of the April 16 victims.
Kirk, who is 92, has a long family connection to Virginia Tech. His father, J.R. Kirk, graduated in 1907. His older brother, Stokes Kirk, graduated in 1933. His daughter, Ann Kirk Mendes, a tax attorney in Portsmouth, studied at the university for a while. A nephew also attended.
Kirk said "the glitter" of gemstones was what got him interested collecting and cutting them. He took up the hobby about 30 years ago. He said some of the skills he employed as a surgeon -- such as a steady hand and attention to detail -- may have served him well while cutting gems, but working on a stones is very different from operating on patients.
"You can take your time with stones," said Kirk, who retired from medicine 1996. "You have to finish fixing a broken hip right away."