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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Dom Pedro Aquamarine

Bernd Munsteiner — Gem Artist

Bernd Munsteiner with the Dom Pedro Aquamarine

Bernd Munsteiner with the Dom Pedro Aquamarine. Photo courtesy of Bernd Munsteiner.

The first time Bernd Munsteiner heard about the large aquamarine crystal was from Jürgen Henn. Henn had been to Brazil to see this spectacular crystal in 1991, the largest he had ever seen in his life and had the idea that something special needed to be done with it. Munsteiner knew the crystal was extremely valuable and had never worked on gem rough that he had not owned. But this was a different situation. The aquamarine would be a joint venture: purchased by a consortium and then designed and fashioned by Munsteiner. He could not go to Brazil to examine the aquamarine, so he sent his son Tom. He felt it was very important that Tom see the crystal before any decisions were made. After Tom had the opportunity to examine the crystal and determine that it would be a project his father would want to be involved with, he and Axel Henn met with the Brazilian owner to finalize the deal. After much discussion and negotiation, the deal was agreed upon with a handshake.

The Dom Pedro crystal arrived in Idar-Oberstein in April of 1992, and it was "love at first sight" for Munsteiner. He has been in the gem business all his life, third generation, trained by his father and grandfather. Once in a while large crystals are found, but never an aquamarine with such clarity and color. This was an opportunity for Munsteiner to create something different, something really important. Most of these large crystals get cut into many small gemstones for the jewelry industry. In the gem business "people do not think about gem sculpture." Although Munsteiner had previously fashioned large gem sculptures, this would be his biggest undertaking. He studied the crystal for more than four months. He looked at it every day and made more than a dozen sketches.

"When you focus on the carat weight, it’s only about the money. I cannot create when I’m worried about the money."

Munsteiner had confidence in being able to work with the crystal because it had been dropped by the miners in Brazil. He felt that the crystal breaking into three pieces was indeed a good thing. It would ease his mind while cutting and polishing the gem, knowing that any internal stresses that might have existed were no longer a concern. It would be stable, and he believed it would not break or fracture during cutting. Bernd started in August 1992, and he cut eight pieces from the crystal. With each major cut, much rough was lost. But Munsteiner never looks at the carat weight – he focuses only on the cutting and the design. "When you focus on the carat weight, it’s only about the money. I cannot create when I’m worried about the money." The largest and cleanest piece was to become the Dom Pedro Aquamarine. Bernd had to use special equipment and acquire new larger wheels. It was a great investment of time and money. Once he decided on the design, the obelisk, the process began.

Munsteiner was fascinated to be working on such a project, "words can’t describe how I felt." He didn’t sleep much. He was constantly thinking about the crystal and dreaming about the crystal. Because he needed such intense concentration during faceting, Munsteiner never worked more than two hours at a time. The cutting and faceting was completely done by hand, something that is typically done by machine. One small mistake and the crystal could break and be ruined. Bernd explains that the fine wavy cuts were "born from the aquamarine; aquamarine is water of the sea – waves of the sea – and this you can see in the design – that was my idea." Dom Pedro was named after the first two emperors of Brazil. All of the big crystals get named immediately when found, and Munsteiner kept the name for the gem that he fashioned. However, he also incorporated his vision about the aquamarine and added the name Ondas Maritimas, which means "waves of the sea" in Portuguese.

Bernd Munsteiner's workshop

Bernd Munsteiner's workshop. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

Nearly six months went by until its completion in February of 1993. The pattern of tapering "negative cuts" precisely faceted into the two reverse faces of the obelisk reflect the light, making it appear to glow from within. Munsteiner is happy with the Dom Pedro. "I am fascinated with it – even when I see it today. It’s absolutely crazy!" Sometimes he thinks it is hard to believe that he created such a gem. Bernd said, "If you’d ask me today if I’d do it again, I’d say no! Not possible. But you know, at this time I was young and always I take risks in my life, and this was really the biggest risk." When asked how he feels about the Dom Pedro coming to the Smithsonian, he said, "This is the best place in the world to have this crystal. There’s no question! To display with what is there … WOW! Most museums are thinking very traditionally, thinking about the past. And you know what has happened in the last 100 years, but to look at what people are making today, contemporary – THIS is important for the future and for museums too." The Dom Pedro made its debut in 1993 in Basel, Switzerland and has been on display at numerous museums and exhibitions, much to the delight of visitors.

To understand this monumental feat of creating the Dom Pedro Aquamarine, one must first have knowledge about the master designer and gem cutter, Bernd Munsteiner, the "Father of the Fantasy Cut." Munsteiner was born in Mörschied, Germany, near Idar-Oberstein, the renowned area for gem cutting and carving for over 500 years. Munsteiner was never asked what he wanted to do; it was expected that he would follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps. He started as an apprentice at the age of 14 and learned the family trade. From 1962-66, Munsteiner was a student at the School of Design in Phorzheim where he graduated as a designer of precious stones and jewelry. It was here that he was given a challenge: take the traditional cameo to a new form. He started cutting and carving amazing pieces in agate that utilized the natural bands of color in the stone, and he cut different layers and added different finishes. Munsteiner continued to stretch the boundaries and defy the traditional methods and developed what some believe is the finest technique in cutting since medieval times. He started faceting the "backsides" and "bottoms" of gemstones, referred to as "negative cuts." This style of faceting became known as "Fantasy Cuts" and a modern era of gem art was formed. Bernd has won numerous awards and honors, and his pieces have been on exhibit in museums around the world and collected by gem connoisseurs. Munsteiner and his son, Tom, work together along with Tom’s wife, Jutta, a designer and goldsmith, as well as a handful of talented cutters and artisans who assist them with their projects at their atelier in Stipshausen, Germany, in the hills above Idar-Oberstein.



Dom Pedro In Depth

Learn more about the people and places that shaped the Dom Pedro on its long journey from Brazil to the Smithsonian:

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