Naperville native behind new Field Museum gems, jewelry exhibit

  • Gemologist and Naperville resident Alison Neumann played a key role in the makeover of the Grainger Hall of Gems at the Field Museum in Chicago.

    Gemologist and Naperville resident Alison Neumann played a key role in the makeover of the Grainger Hall of Gems at the Field Museum in Chicago. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Updated 1/25/2010 11:05 AM

Diamonds aren't Alison Neumann's only best friend. So are tourmalines, beryls, garnets, and amethysts.

The Naperville gemologist got the fever as a kid when she visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and saw the Hope diamond.


"I had a poster of the Hope diamond hanging over my bed for the longest time. That started my love affair with jewelry," Neumann said.

She's channeled that passion into a career that most recently led her to the Field Museum's Grainger Hall of Gems.

It was an exhibit room that even Field Museum staff described as dark and claustrophobic.

Just recently, Grainger Hall was transfigured as a bright, airy space that showcases a rainbow of 600 emeralds, rubies, diamonds and more. The renovated hall's reopening dovetailed with a bright, new Field exhibit "The Nature of Diamonds," which runs to March 28.

Museum experts realized they had a stellar collection of gems living a Cinderella existence.

Curators removed replicas of famous jewels featured in the old exhibit and put their real gems into the limelight. They also asked jewelry designers from Chicago and New York to create new settings for some of the more spectacular stones.

Now, "I love it when people get really excited and run across the room to see a raw tourmaline," Field project manager for exhibitions Anna Huntley said. "Before, it was a little bit of everything." With the replicas gone, "everything in the museum is the real deal."

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The real deal captured Neumann's attention when she gazed at the Hope diamond at the Smithsonian as a child. The jewel is said to be cursed and once may have belonged to doomed French King Louis XVI, but it wasn't the colorful history that grabbed Neumann's attention.

"It was a beautiful necklace ... so bright and vibrant," she recalled.

After graduating from Naperville North High School, Neumann, 30, studied metal-smithing, fine art and art history at the University of Kansas. She continued her studies at the Gemological Institute of America, graduating as a gemologist.

After returning to Illinois, Neumann worked as the fine jewelry and timepieces department director for an auction house. Interested in volunteering at the Field, she went to a luncheon and happened to sit next to a top museum administrator.

The serendipitous moment led to a contract job as a content specialist for the Field. Neumann was responsible for cataloging the collection of Field gems, a number of which are vintage pieces from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.


It was painstaking work - identifying myriad gemstones and assessing their carat weight.

Treasures in the priceless collection - Field staff won't put a price on it - range from an ancient Egyptian garnet necklace to the 5,890-carat Chalmers topaz.

The renovated hall meshes art and science, exhibiting gems based on their chemical makeup.

Displays include samples of actual minerals, gems and jewelry, which tells the public an important story, Neumann said.

"It shows consumers how jewelry evolves from a mineral to a new necklace."

Rock solid facts

The Field Museum's Grainger Hall of Gems recently reopened in an eye-popping setting that showcases a rediscovered Tiffany stained-glass window. A complementary temporary exhibit, "The Nature of Diamonds" runs through March 28.

For information, visit or call (312) 922-9410. The museum is at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago.

Did you know?

• Red rubies and blue sapphires are actually chemical cousins because both consist of aluminum oxide - making them part of the corundum species.

• A carat equals two-tenths of a gram.

• Deep-green emeralds are worth more than pale ones.

• Zircon is the oldest mineral on earth.

• The Tiffany diamond worn by Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is featured in "The Nature of Diamonds" exhibit.

• The name topaz originates from the word "fire" in Sanskrit.