21 nov

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Ten of the World’s Rarest Gemstones
Ten of the World’s Strangest Gemstones & Minerals
World’s Rarest Things
World’s Rarest Metals
And here’s some super-rare CHEESE

Holy Grails

You could also call these selected items nonpareils or classical exemplars. Naturally some are rare if not priceless; but they range all the way down to a few bucks so feel free to get out your wish list. Here it’s more a combination of significance and romance than monetary value. And unlike the Holy Grail[s] of song and fame their existence is, or at the very least was, undisputed.


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Libyan desert glass

 Science Club Treasure & Splendor

Libyan desert glass
Libyan desert glass
(Tutankhamen c. 1323 bce)
Photo: Jon Bodsworth
In 1932 geologist Patrick Clayton, the same individual played more recently by Julian Wadham in the film The English Patient, discovered deposits of a chartreuse-colored glass in a remote area of the Libyan desert and managed to lug back 50 kilograms of it.

Normally it’s safe to assume that this sort of material is a form of obsidian, a volcanic glass used since ancient times for various ornamental purposes and to make super-sharp knives. Indeed there is some volcanism in that area.

But Libyan desert glass is very different. While obsidian averages between 50% and 70% in silica content, here we’re seeing about 98% which is equivalent to that of modern glass. Also, we now know through cosmic ray track analysis that LDG is about 28 million years old versus nine thousand or so for the nearby volcanoes.

If you rule out pre-human atomic warfare that pretty much leaves the heat of a meteor impact as the culprit. Glassy fragments formed that way are called tektites and you’ll find lots of them elsewhere in the world — that New Age favorite Moldavite being an example. But LDG stands alone in its chemistry, clarity and color. Clayton didn’t know this, but local cultures going back thousands of years had also prized it. Note the scarab to the left.

Demand for a semi-obscure novelty like LDG from collectors and gemstone hobbyists is modest, so at the moment you can pick up high quality rough for what comes out to around $2000 per pound. My own favorite fantasy (I think it’s safe to assume no one has tried this yet) is to melt several pounds together, blend well, and cast from that a set of drinking glasses.

In 2006 a Boston Universiy team announced that a heavily eroded circular formation now known as Kebira Crater may well have been formed by the meteorite responsible for LDG. It’s about 23 km (14 miles) in diameter, centered about 292 km (182 miles) due north of where the Egyptian and Sudanese borders intersect. Fire up Google Earth or the like and fly to 24° 40’ north, 24° 58’ east if you’d like to take a look.


 Treasure & Splendor

Heliogabalus (203-222)
Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto / CC
Most of us nowadays associate the word murrhine with that intricately multicolored glassware from the Venetian island of Murano.

But the real murrhine was a mysterious semitransparent synthetic stone that artisans fashioned into goblets and other tableware for the ultra-upscale market. It started out as a liquid that they poured into a mold and either baked or possibly left to harden exothermically on its own (like plaster of Paris or Portland cement). But the formula got lost and forgotten sometime leading into the Middle Ages and the finished articles were so rare and precious that we don’t have any recognizable samples to analyze.

Pliny the Elder (23-79 ce) tells us in his Natural Histories “The chief merit of [murrhine vessels] is the great variety of their colors, and the wreathed veins, which, every here and there, present shades of purple and white, with a mixture of the two; the purple gradually changing, as it were, to a fiery red, and the milk-white assuming a ruddy hue. Some persons praise the edges of these vessels more particularly, with a kind of reflection in the colours, like those beheld in a rainbow.”

We also learn that although murrhine felt rather oily and emitted a characteristic smell, its connoisseurs savored those qualities also. Roman statesmen and other elites took enormous pride in their murrhines and dined and drank from them especially when they wanted to put on the dog. Nero even smashed a couple to show everyone who was boss. We know that crazed meteorite-worshiping, ostrich brain-eating Heliogabalus was also an avid collector so this extends the treasure’s survival well into the third century.

It’s quite possible someone will eventually dig up some shards of murrhine or glean some more details from the literature (there’s an ample backlog of carbonized first century scrolls waiting for restoration and decipherment, for example) and then we’ll have a better idea how and from what it was made.

The Edwin M. Stanton Fancyback

 Treasure & Splendor

Stanton Fancyback
Courtesy National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution
Ah, yes, the days when money looked like money.

This one dollar U.S. Treasury note of 1890 isn’t the rarest paper currency of that genre — others exist in far shorter supply, such as the 1891 thousand dollar General Meade that changed hands for $2.5 million in April 2013 — but it’s quite widely acknowledged as the most legendary and as the most elaborately yet elegantly designed.

Despite posing the ultimate 19th century counterfeiter’s nightmare, the Fancyback’s layout doesn’t even seem cluttered. Note the enormous dimensional diversity among the various elements on the front side and the overall squint-your-eyes density contrasts on the back. As with most paper currency the stock was 100% cloth pulp made, in those days, by grinding up scraps of cotton and linen purchased by the wagon load from rag pickers.

There would have been a devoted team of master artisans attacking a project like this. Some would specialize in portraits, others in the lettering or organic ornamentation, and finally engineering types who would design, build, and operate the geometric lathes. Through elaborate systems of cams and gears, these latter Spirograph-like devices drove engraving tools to cut the rosettes and other fishnet-like embellishments.

Millions of Fancybacks were minted and circulated (a blacksmith in 1890 would make about $11 weekly), but it’s estimated that only 900 to 1300 exist today. Values nudge past $3000 for specimens in the very finest condition.

Note: A textual sockdolager like this should represent the ultimate challenge for an optical character recognition (OCR) application. Any takers?

The silent Messiah Stradivarius

 Euphony Treasure & Splendor

Messiah Stradivarius
© Pruneau / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Those fortunate enough to own stringed instruments from the Baroque-era Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari workshops are scrupulously fussy about who — if anyone — they allow to poke and prod them. Although much of their vaunted superiority would seem to stem more from cachet than reality (blind listening tests reveal them sonically indistinguishable from many of their top-drawer peers), there are many nuances in their physical makeup that do set them apart and make them exquisitely responsive to their players.

Back in the 80s and 90s there was a lot of press about the more finely packed growth rings in the spruce and maple available to those makers, owing to the Maunder Mininum’s reduced growing seasons between 1645 and 1715. Other articles have cited the effect of microbes eating away tiny resonance-encouraging voids in the wood as it soaked in the Venetian lagoons awaiting the sawyers, and the presence of finely pulverized grains of quartz, calcite, aluminum oxide (white sapphire), garnet, and/or other minerals in the varnishes.

More recently we’ve seen physics professor William F. “Jack” Fry demonstrate how intimately attuned these makers were to the way various twisting and pumping actions of the instrument’s body contribute to its sound. They modulated the thicknesses of the front plates in meandering patterns, and applied their varnishes in similarly uneven coats, both to optimize these quiverings and to compensate for the flexibility quirks of the wood that differed for each instrument.

About 500 Stradivarius violins survive, but among them the Messiah-Salabue from 1715 is unique. It was found unsold in Antonio Stradivari’s workshop after he died in 1737, and since at least the early 19th century it has scarcely if ever been played.

You’ll notice from the photo that the C-shaped rims at its waist show no wear from errant bows and that it has no chin rest or E string tuner. The idea here has been to preserve one Stradivarius in as pristine a condition as possible so that violin makers and other researchers will always have a sample to analyze. It’s on display on the second floor of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

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