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Gems of Arkansas Series, Part 1: Let’s Talk Diamonds

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will be closed Monday, May 13, to prepare for the visit of Antiques Roadshow. We will return to normal hours of operation Wednesday, May 15.

This blog series is inspired by the exhibition: Cross Pollination: Martin Johnson Heade, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and Our Contemporary Moment. Inspired by the museum’s beloved collection of Martin Johnson Heade’s Gems of Brazil, this interdisciplinary exhibition draws connections and comparisons between artists who all share an intense appreciation for the systems of nature but present it from very different perspectives. From large paintings of vast landscapes to work that shows the miniscule details of shimmering wings, guests will undoubtedly draw connections between the “fragile web of relationships that sustain our environment.” It is in this spirit that we are pleased to present Gems of Arkansas, an environmental journey exploring the places, animals, and, of course, gems, that make Arkansas such a unique place.

image of For the Love of God by Damien Hirst, a sculpture of a skull encrusted with diamonds
Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007, platinum, diamonds and human teeth, 171 x 127 x 190 mm | 6.7 x 5 x 7.5 in. Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012.

So let’s talk diamonds! It’s the obvious choice, I know. It’s our state gem, found on our license plates, state flag, and literally at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas. Human interaction with diamonds has a long history. The earliest diamonds were found in India in the fourth century BC. Paintings in the caves of Ajanta from 2,000 years ago show bejeweled royalty and celestial beings, including imagery of Buddha as a prince (before he renounced worldly goods). More recently, diamonds were a key feature to British artist Damien’s Hirst’s piece, For the Love of God, where he covered a platinum cast of a skull with over 8,600 diamonds. They were also on view in works featured in Crystal Bridges’ 2019 exhibition Crystals in Art: Ancient to Today. Diamonds have had a profound effect on the human psyche, causing wars and human suffering, yet have also endured for centuries as the eternal symbol of love and wealth.

Despite the human conflict over these gems and the roles we assign them in society, from a scientific point of view, they are fascinating. Diamonds are a form of carbon with atoms arranged in a diamond cubic, a repeating pattern of eight atoms. This arrangement of atoms is very rigid which means few types of impurities can contaminate it. When contamination does happen (usually by boron or nitrogen), you’ll get varying colors of diamonds, from yellow and brown, to green or red. Now here is the “wow!” factor: most natural diamonds have ages between 1 and 3.5 billion years. That’s “B” for billions! It’s only within the last tens to hundreds of million years that they have been brought to the surface, likely carried by volcanic eruptions.

Unidentified man points to the spot where the first diamond in Arkansas was found, near Murfreesboro (Pike County); circa 1920.
Unidentified man points to the spot where the first diamond in Arkansas was found, near Murfreesboro (Pike County); circa 1920. Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System.

Here begins the story of Arkansas diamonds and Crater of Diamonds State Park. The park, located in Pike County, sits on 911 acres but is most well-known for a tract of 37.5 acres that features the world’s only diamond-bearing site open to the public. How did diamonds get there? Well, this area also happens to be home to a volcanic pipe that is part of a 95 million-year-old eroded volcano.

That’s right. Arkansas has a volcano. A very deep volcano that only the movement of magma has ever seen. Volcanic pipes are far below the earth’s crust, formed as narrow cones of solidified magma. They are rare and known as a primary source of diamonds.

The first diamonds were found in Crater of Diamonds in 1906, creating a “diamond rush” around the town of Murfreesboro, and shortly thereafter, several attempts were made at creating a commercial mine. Neither phenomenon lasted very long as it soon became apparent that the costs involved for mining here far outweighed the financial reward. Eventually, the state of Arkansas purchased the land, allowing modern-day gem hunters to try their luck at finding a precious stone. With over 121 diamonds found here, the next big find could be yours!

rock wall of quartz boulders

While we may not have diamonds at Crystal Bridges, we do have some beautiful crystals. Be sure to visit our crystal grotto next time you are here, located on the west walkway on the south side of the museum (across the stream from the Art Trail/South Lawn).

Written by Samantha Best, outdoor interpretation specialist.


Read more from the Gems of Arkansas Series: 

Part II: The Ozark Hellbender Salamander

Part III: The Tallgrass Prairies

Part IV: The Ozark Big-Eared Bat