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Gem and Mineral Collection Goes Digital

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Martha and Glenn Vargas

Martha and Glenn Vargas

Thousands of gems and minerals are now a click away after students in the Jackson School of Geosciences photographed some 6,300 specimens and made them available on a searchable web site. The specimens are from the school’s Glenn and Martha Vargas Gem and Mineral Collection.

The site, a valuable new tool for students learning to identify geological materials, scientists conducting basic research, and anyone who shapes or facets gems and minerals, is part of the continuing legacy of Glenn and Martha Vargas. The late couple were internationally recognized authorities on lapidary arts — the fashioning of gems, minerals, and rocks to create decorative items. They assembled their collection beginning in the mid-1930s during their extensive world travels, and from 1975 to 1999 used it as they taught thousands of students as part of UT’s Gems and Gem Minerals course.

The Vargases were perhaps best known for their seminal book “Faceting for Amateurs.” Through their teaching, publications, and businesses, the couple played a large role in popularizing faceting as a hobby. In addition to their long involvement with the Department of Geological Sciences’ programs and collections, they also were generous University of Texas philanthropists, providing two scholarships, an endowment to support the gem class, and a curating fund.

Mark Helper, a distinguished senior lecturer in the Jackson School who now teaches the gem course, oversaw the creation of the photo archive and website. It started as a classroom project, he says, with the goal of helping students learn to identify gems, minerals, and gemstone cuts.

Martha and Glenn Vargas with students

The Vargases check on students’ progress in the late 1990s. The couple could often be found in their UT lab giving instruction, encouragement, and advice.

Although the Vargas Collection contains many outstanding gems, it is notable mainly for the variety of faceted minerals represented, and that the value of the collection lies less in its monetary worth than its breadth.

“As geologists we aren’t so interested in the bling factor,” Helper says. “We’re more interested in the unusual, and there are plenty of unusual and rare gems in this collection. Cataloging it and putting it online was a way to help people understand what’s in the collection and to promote it.”

Visit the Vargas Gem and Mineral Collection

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