When I was little, I attended a Steiner primary school. The creative, alternative institution drew a fair number of metaphysical types who wanted us to only play with natural items. No plastic, no branding and, as this was the mid-90s, no tamagotchis. Instead, there was a lot of hand-woven rainbow wool, organic German crayons, gnome dolls made of fallen seed pods… and a lot of crystals. Though I never quite bought into the idea that crystals held different spiritual qualities, I was always drawn to their glittering points, their smooth surfaces and the depth of colour and texture they contained. There was nothing quite as beautiful as holding a crystal to the light and seeing it filter through, casting a glow against the wall behind it. Over twenty years later, crystals still decorate my bedside.
However, I’d never really appreciated how grandiose and sculptural these glinting chunks of nature truly were until I visited the Musée de la minéralogie.
If you didn’t know to look for it, you could easily miss this tiny Paris museum. Hidden down a hallway in the Ecole des Mines, on the edge of the Luxembourg gardens, the Musée de la Minéralogie crystal museum doesn’t do a lot of marketing (or indeed of opening to the public- check the opening hours and whether you’ll require a guide before visiting). I only knew the place existed because I was using the adjacent library to write my last book. In between hours of typing, I would step out for a breath and behold the gems next door.
The Paris Musée de la minéralogie is not the regal Galérie de Minéralogie et de Géologie that’s part of the enormous Muséum national d’Histoire Naturelle in the Jardin des Plantes. That museum is larger and more famous, especially since the publication of Anthony Doerr’s 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See. It’s not the smaller crystal collection housed on the Pierre et Marie Curie medicine university campus, either. And it’s not the Musée Baccarat, that boutique, velvet-laden crystal museum of carved, clear jewels.
Instead, this museum is a treasure trove of wood-panelled cabinets, airy archways and row upon row of lovingly-catalogued displays. There are countless clusters of quartzes, fluorites, jaspers and agates, each labelled with their scientific name and simply presented in their natural form. Some are enormous, and look as if they’ve just been prised from a cave. These are minerals as nature, presented as science and accidentally become art. They’re rough and imperfect and perfectly spectacular.
A little-frequented, frequently-closed museum in an engineering college may not sound like the fanciest place to admire crystals in Paris. But situated in a place of learning, far from any commercial venture, the only glitz coming from the minerals themselves, it may just be the perfect one.