Passing the Torch, Part I: Dr. Jeffrey Post Retires from the Smithsonian & Reflects on 32 Years as Curator

By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief

Dr. Jeffrey Post may be as full of wonder and reverence for the gemstone and mineral industry today as he was 32 years ago when he embarked on the professional adventure of Curator and Research Mineralogist at the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian Institute. Post retired in May but still hasn’t left (yet).

“I’m continuing on as a research associate and Curator Emeritus,” he tells AGTA. “There are still papers to finish and projects that need to be wound down, so they don’t burden someone else. When you join the Smithsonian family, you never really leave.”

At some point in the years to come, though, he and his wife plan to return home to the Madison, Wisconsin area—where, coincidentally, the new Curator, Dr. Gabriela Farfan, hails from, too—but he’ll linger in D.C. for a while longer. (AGTA talks to Farfan next week on her plans for the museum.)

While in this geographic holding pattern between the East Coast and the Midwest, which appears to be a hotbed of Smithsonian curatorial talent, Post took some time to reminisce about career highlights and offer a bit of advice to his protégé.

Dr. Jeffrey Post Retires from the Smithsonian & Reflects on 32 Years as Curator


AGTA: What are three key takeaways you learned on the job?

Jeffrey Post: I learned that the Hope Diamond story is a whole lot more complicated and interesting than I realized when I started. For scientific reasons and in the realm of human history, the story of the Hope continues to unravel; it’s one gemstone, but there are so many parts to the story. (Read about the Hope Diamond on the Smithsonian website.)

I also learned that gems are fascinating research objects. I got a sense from some of my colleagues that they thought of gems as baubles only, candy in a window, with no real depth to their stories. But over the years, you realize all the ways gems do intersect with our lives. And at the museum, we’ve published many interesting research papers that show that these pretty objects have much more of a scientific story than we give them credit for. As a researcher, you realize there is value beyond a gem as only something of beauty.

It’s also been fascinating to me to see who is interested in gems—how many different types of people come to see them. And you meet all kinds of people with an interest in gems. The public sees them as an object of value and beauty, while scientists view them another way.

And by attending the [AGTA GemFairTM Tucson] over the years, I’ve gotten to know this industry. It’s been greatly satisfying to get to know others who have a real love of gems. Yes, it’s a business of sales, but built into that is a love of gemstones and talking about that shared joy. Dealers have shown me gems from their pockets and safes, not trying to sell me, but just to share the love of this beautiful gem they’ve seen, regardless of whether a donation might occur. Every day in my job there was something interesting that happened, be it in research or experiencing beautiful gems.


AGTA: You mentioned research. What kind of gem research does the Smithsonian conduct?

Jeffrey Post: As one example, we measured boron impurities in the Hope Diamond, which gives it its blue color. Nobody had ever done that before. It’s the kind of study that only could be done at the Smithsonian, and we published a paper on it. The research gave us insight into the Diamond and contributed to science. We also studied pink Diamonds—what exactly gives them their color.

The other side of my research with minerals is working on some of the ugliest ones in the mineral kingdom. I’m talking about those that make up sediments and soils—environmental mineralogy—and what happens when we and other living systems directly interact with them. We use a variety of different techniques and tools to get these insights. So, literally, I might be working on mud and muck one day and Diamonds the next.


AGTA: Tell me about three career highlights.

Jeffrey Post: Working on the renovation of the exhibit hall from 1994–1997 was a big one. We completely renovated the [Janet Annenberg] Geology, Gem, and Mineral Hall. I was involved in everything from fundraising to developing content to working with designers. I worked with many people greatly skilled in all different areas. Our goal was to tell a story that would be of interest to the public and build a hall that would ultimately change people. We wanted them to walk out feeling and thinking differently. It was an amazing opportunity for someone like me, coming from academia, and who never imagined having a chance to work with such a variety of people on a major museum exhibit project. Since the hall reopened in 1997, more than 100 million people have visited.

Another highlight was working with our donor groups, who have been very supportive. I’ve gotten to know some amazing individuals. Of course, we all share a fascination for gems and minerals and wanted to share our enthusiasm with the public. And through the resources they provided, the Smithsonian has built a legacy that will go on for a long time.

Finally, I’ve had a chance to see and hold in my hands some of the world’s greatest gems and minerals—and not all ones that belong to the Smithsonian. The Dresden Green Diamond came to us on loan, we had the “Splendor of Diamonds” and “Allure of Pearls” special exhibits that brought together pieces that the public would not have had the chance to see otherwise.

Also, Lawrence Graff loaned the Smithsonian the Wittelsbach Diamond after he purchased it from a private collector in 2008. The Diamond hadn’t been seen in decades, but he agreed to loan it to us. So, in 2010, we had it at the museum side by side with the Hope Diamond. Where else could that happen?

In fact, there was a night at the museum when an enthusiastic group of researchers were assembled to spend the night studying the Hope and Wittelsbach Diamonds, side by side. I got the Hope Diamond off exhibit and walked—with security—into our vault and set it next to the Wittelsbach. I stood there for about five minutes thinking, “This has never happened; I am the first person to ever see these two great Diamonds together!”

Then there are just so many people in the industry—like Tom Moses, who has been at GIA all his career—that when you start talking to them, similar conversations about gems start to surface. “I had this stone in my hand” or “I owned this stone,” and the story of the stone becomes a thread woven in the industry. And what makes them even more special is that the people become a little part of the history of the gem, which will be around for a long time. You become a part of the story of that stone, which is pretty amazing. Five hundred years from now, nobody will know my name but perhaps for a connection to a gem. People in the industry know that—that’s part of how they may be remembered, because they had that stone. Flowers don’t last, a name on a stadium won’t last, but the story of a gemstone … it’s not going anywhere.


AGTA: What was your biggest accomplishment?

Jeffrey Post: I have to go back to the exhibit hall. It’s the fact that I could work with that team of people and be so involved for years. And then to walk into that hall today. Sure, there have been little upgrades and changes since, but the concept is still there, and I was part of that. I’ll never forget the feeling I had on the first evening when it was done, my wife and daughter, who was 5 at the time, walked with me through this grand new exhibition. It had finally all come together, from raising money to custom builds and vaults in this historic building to selecting objects and the stories you wanted to tell. It’s hard to imagine all the details that went into that Hall.


AGTA: What advice do you have for Dr. Farfan?

Jeffrey Post: She’ll do fine! I feel good about the team of people there. Russ Feather, Collection Manager of Gems, will be there for a while, and Gabriela has already been there for a few years. She has a real passion for the role and has other great colleagues, such as Ioan Lascu, who will be taking over as Curator of the Mineral Collection, who also have great enthusiasm for gems and minerals and the Smithsonian. We have a great team to carry things on.

What people tried to tell me when I started—and I probably didn’t listen—was that you had to be a little patient. When you look at all the opportunities and connections, you can’t be everything to everyone when they want you to be. You build your foundation and keep adding to it as time and experience permit. You meet people in the industry and build relationships because your position at the Smithsonian allows you to. Every interaction I started with, “Hi, I’m from the Smithsonian,” resulted in a conversation that opened a door to a positive experience. The Smithsonian is a great platform and becomes part of what you are and allows you to have these conversations. The Smithsonian is instant credibility and a foot in the door and has given me opportunities I would have never had. Gabriella has a great Smithsonian legacy to grow into.

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