Empress Dowager: Passion for Pink

August 22, 2011

The Smithsonian has mounted an exhibit of interest to enthusiasts of Southern California tourmaline, but you won’t find it at the National Museum of Natural Sciences. Through a series of black-and-white photographs, the exhibit at the Institution’s Asian museums, titled “Power | Play,” looks at a pivotal time in the life of China’s Empress Dowager, Cixi (aka Tzu Hsi), whose passion for pink kept tourmaline flowing from San Diego County.

China’s Empress Dowager was wild about San Diego’s tourmalines. Her love of this gem triggered the California boom in the early 1900s. According to the Smithsonian, this photograph actually was taken by a diplomat’s son, Xunling, who was in his early 20s (Library of Congress)

China’s Empress Dowager was wild about San Diego’s tourmalines. Her love of this gem triggered the California boom in the early 1900s. According to the Smithsonian, this photograph actually was taken by a diplomat’s son, Xunling, who was in his early 20s

(Library of Congress)

Two Imperial University students wearing white arm bands on left arm of military uniform; mourning death of the Empress Dowager, 1908?, Peking. San Diego County producers of pink tourmaline had much to mourn as well. (Library of Congress)

Two Imperial University students wearing white arm bands on left arm of military uniform; mourning death of the Empress Dowager, 1908?, Peking. San Diego County producers of pink tourmaline had much to mourn as well.

(Library of Congress)

At the turn of the 20th century following the Boxer Rebellion—a complex struggle that involved issues of imperialism, religion, nationalism, hubris, and more—Cixi felt it was time for a makeover. Just at the time when her lust ripened for the rosey-hued stone, she posed for a series of photographs in 1903 and 1904 that have been mined for clues to her designs, as outlined in this month’ Smithsonian magazine. Show curator David Hogge told the magazine’s writer Owen Edwards that the images, on display at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries until January 29, owe more to Cixi’s emulation of Queen Victoria than they do to any tradition in Chinese art. In anonline introduction to the exhibit, Hogge discusses the visual hints dropped, which would have spoken to recipients of the photographs: American and European diplomats.

As David Federman wrote in his article, “California Gem Mining: Chronicle of a Comeback,” the Empress Dowager’s yen for the pink gem translated into 120 tons of gem-grade material being mined between 1902 and 1910—in Mesa Grande, the site of Pala’ newly acquired mine. This statistic originally was reported by Peter Bancroft in his classic, Gem and Crystal Treasures.

Early 20th century tourmaline snuff bottle, from the Tourmaline Queen Mine, Pala, CA.

Early 20th century tourmaline snuff bottle, from the Tourmaline Queen Mine, Pala, CA.