Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Website Search Box
Search Item

Department of Mineral Sciences

Izalco Volcano

National Gem and Mineral Collection

The Smithsonian Institution mineral and gem collection consists of approximately 350,000 mineral specimens and 10,000 gems, making it one of the largest of its kind in the world. The collection is used for scientific research, education programs, and public exhibitions. Every year hundreds of specimens are loaned to scientists around the world for research projects in geology, materials science, health, chemistry, physics, etc.

The collection traces its origins to the minerals that were bequeathed by James Smithson, along with the money to establish the Smithsonian Institution, over 150 years ago. Unfortunately, the Smithson collection was destroyed in a tragic fire in 1865, but the gem and mineral collection has grown ever since. The collection adds specimens in many ways: gifts, purchases using private endowments established for that purpose, field collection, and rarely by exchange. In particular, the gem collection has been built almost entirely with gifts from individuals. Continuing acquisitions of minerals and gems enhance the public’s awareness and understanding of the Earth’s basic building blocks, and expand a scientific research collection that will be used in perpetuity. A variety of spectacular specimens from the national collection can be seen online in our Gem and Mineral Galleries.

National Meteorite Collection

Meteorites provide invaluable clues to the origin and evolution of our Solar System, and meteorite scientists are almost completely dependent on a small number of major meteorite collections for research materials. The U.S. National Meteorite Collection, housed in the Deptartment of Mineral Sciences at the National Museum of Natural History, is one the largest and one of the best museum-based collections of meteorites in the world.

James Smithson, who donated the funds for the founding of the Smithsonian Institution, was a chemist and mineralogist by training and his original collection included meteorites. Regrettably, these samples were lost in an early fire. The modern meteorite collection began in 1870 and now numbers more than 45,000 specimens of more than 16,850+ distinct meteorites. In addition, the National Collection houses almost 10,000 polished thin sections - thin wafers of rock mounted on glass and used for studying the mineralogy and texture of the rocks. These meteorites are available for study by qualified scientific investigators.

While the collection contains pieces of every type of meteorite, it is particularly strong in iron meteorites. We also have 9 of the 50+ known Martian meteorites. Many of our best specimens are on exhibit in the Moon, Meteorites and Solar System Gallery of the Geology, Gems and Minerals Hall. A selection of meteorites from the collection can also be seen online in our Meteorite Gallery.

National Rock and Ore Collections

The National Rock and Ore Collections are divided into subcollections, and the specimens within each are indexed and retrievable by lithology, locality, museum catalog number, metal/commodity, or volcano name when appropriate, and many are retrievable by original field number and donor name. Many are mentioned specifically in publications, have thin sections available, and/or include a chemical analysis in the database. Because the collection is always expanding, the subcollection number estimates are subject to change.

[ TOP ]