UArizona Gem & Mineral Museum is open and ready for gem show crowd
After four years of renovations, the Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum has officially opened in its new space in the Pima County Historic Courthouse – complete with a world-class collection that includes Tucson's "own little Hope Diamond" and other rare items.
What sets the University of Arizona's Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum apart from similar museums around the country? The answer might be found in the ampersand in its name.
That "&" declares the museum a world-class destination to see both minerals and gemstones, which is not typical for other museums focused on mineralogy or gemology, said geologist Elizabeth Gass, the museum's exhibit specialist.
For the uninitiated: Minerals are inorganic solids that occur naturally in Earth's crust. A gemstone is a mineral plus anything else – organic, inorganic or even synthetic – added for aesthetics.
"When you take something that looks pretty and make it look prettier, that's a gemstone," Gass said as she stood in the museum's Mineral Evolution Gallery, where display cases filled with many "pretty" things caught and refracted the showroom lights around her.
As the city gears up for the world-renowned Tucson Gem and Mineral Show to take over the Tucson Convention Center from Feb. 10-13, the UArizona's Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum is ready to welcome visitors to its new home in the Pima County Historic Courthouse, just a few blocks north of the convention center. The museum marked its grand opening on Feb. 3, about four years after renovations began in 2018.
The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show is the central event of the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, a collection of events that takes place every winter in Tucson.
"We have more people from around the world engaged in gems, minerals, fossils, meteorites that come to Tucson three weeks out of the year than to anywhere else in the world," said Eric Fritz, the museum's director. "We sometimes say we're at the center of the gem and mineral universe, and I think we really are, since we have a forward-facing public venue that really addresses that long history of the gem show in town and makes it into a year-round destination."
On display at the museum are more than 2,200 gems and minerals that have been donated or are on loan – a collection more extensive than many visitors might realize.
"Everybody who comes says the same thing – they're just blown away," Fritz said.
From Arizona to Tanzania
The longest-held pieces in the University of Arizona's mineral collection date back to 1892, when they were housed in Old Main as part of the Territorial Museum, which later became the Arizona State Museum. Those mineral samples, which remain in their century-old vials with handwritten labels, can be seen at the entrance to the new museum's Arizona Gallery.
But the story told by the museum begins long before the late 19th century – by about a few billion years. The Mineral Evolution Gallery, the first major gallery visitors enter as they step into the museum, gives a detailed look at the roughly 60 original minerals that could be found on Earth in the earliest days of the solar system, and how evolution has turned that into about 5,600 minerals today.
The Arizona Gallery, devoted to the rich history of mining in Arizona and northern Mexico, centers on a recreation of a Bisbee copper mine cave, and features one of Fritz's favorite pieces: a 210-pound azurite specimen from the 1880s that a mining engineer once used as office decor.
"They recognized that it was so beautiful that it didn't need to be crushed up and turned into copper," Fritz said.
The museum's Gem Gallery highlights jewelry and gem science, and includes the Crystal Lab, an area where visitors of all ages can get hands-on with polished rough minerals and test their magnetism and more.
Inside the museum's Treasury, visitors can see some of the rarest gems and jewelry, including the 117-carat Lion of Merelani, the largest gemstone of its kind to be cut in the United States. The gem came from a rough tsavorite – a variety of garnet – mined in Merelani, Tanzania, and is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution.
Tucson's 'own little Hope Diamond'
The most recent precious object loaned to the museum is a jeweled tapestry, measuring about 4 feet long by 3 feet wide, made up of 35 pounds of gold and more than 26,000 rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds from all over the world. Designed by the Paris-based jeweler Christofle, it took 10 artisans more than 18 months in the 1980s to complete.
Joaquin Ruiz, the museum's executive director and the university's vice president of global environmental futures, described the tapestry as Tucson's "own little Hope Diamond."
Ruiz saw the tapestry in person for the first time one morning in late January. A renowned geochemist and former dean of the UArizona College of Science, Ruiz said his professional expertise gave him no special advantage in analyzing the piece; its beauty took center stage.
"If you look at all the emeralds and if you look at all the sapphires, they're all exactly the same size, they're all cut in a way to show the light the way that it does," he said. "It's just remarkable."
Ralph Applebaum Associates led the design and planning of the museum's exhibits. The firm's previous work includes the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Hall of Gems and Minerals at the Museum of Natural History.
The firm is known for its ability to tell stories with its museum design, said Fritz, who was brought on as director to manage the buildout in the new space. Rather than creating distinctly separate exhibits throughout the museum, Ralph Applebaum Associates set out to tell a story about minerals and gemstones that seamlessly leads visitors from one area to the next.
"I think we came up with a very comprehensive and linear story," Fritz said. That story begins with the origins of the solar system and its original minerals and takes visitors through the history of mining and the art and inspiration of faceted gemstones and jewelry.
"It's pretty much a continuous story we've been able to write, which is very unique for any natural history museum," he added.
The new space also allows the museum to bolster its community outreach offerings and support for university research. In the museum's basement – steps away from the vault where Pima County administrators once kept scores of paper records – is a classroom and lab where community members can learn more about minerals. The lab, though currently empty, will soon be outfitted with state-of-the-art instruments that can analyze and identify minerals and gemstones.
At the center of the gem show's 'new age'
The UArizona mineral collection was separated from the Arizona State Museum and became the focal point of its own museum in 1918. For decades, the museum moved between several buildings on the university campus, primarily those that housed mining and geology programs.
Since 1993, it was located in the lower level of the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium on the UArizona campus. The move to the courthouse brought the museum's exhibit space to 12,000 square feet – about three times its previous size.
Built in 1929 and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, the Pima County Historic Courthouse served the county until 2015, when it was replaced by the Pima County Public Service Center a few blocks north. The historic building now serves as headquarters for Pima County Attractions & Tourism, Pima County Administration, Visit Tucson and the Southern Arizona Heritage and Visitor Center, in addition to the museum.
The museum's renovation and move to the courthouse were made possible by a gift from Allan and Alfie Norville, cofounders of the Gem and Jewelry Exchange, a wholesale gem show that began in the 1990s and still runs alongside the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show.
Allan Norville told Arizona Alumni Magazine last fall that his wife, Alfie, who died in 2015 and for whom the museum is named, "was the best ambassador that Tucson could ever have for the gem show."
Fritz, a zoologist by training, turned to a career in gemology in his 50s and began regularly attending the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase as a gem and mineral dealer before eventually moving to Tucson in 2014. Fritz said the Norvilles' gift is likely the start of a new chapter for a crucial partnership between two Tucson institutions – the university and the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase.
"Even though the gem show's been around for 50 years," Fritz said, "I think we're coming into the new age of the gem show, where we are going to be the center of things on an ongoing basis."
If you go
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Masks are required for visitors.
Admission: Tickets may be purchased in person at the museum front desk. Prices are $15 for adults (ages 13-64), $10 for seniors (age 65 and older) and active military with ID, $5 for children (ages 4-12) and Arizona college students with ID, and free for children 3 and under.
Location and parking: The museum is at 115 N. Church Ave., in the historic Pima County Courthouse. There are multiple parking garages nearby, and there is metered street parking near the courthouse.
Additional information is available at the museum's website.
University of Arizona in the News