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.
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.