Geoscientist of the Week

George F. Kunz, Gentleman Explorer

It’s a Golden Oldies weekend, with a Geoscientist of the Week I first described back in 2014.

The US Geological Survey has said almost everything that needs to be said about this man: “George F. Kunz (1856-1932) [was] a mineralogist and gemologist, gentleman explorer, and employee of the USGS and Tiffany & Co.”

That’s pretty awesome.

The great dramas of money, power, history, and beauty all figured in Dr. Kunz’s life.

And until reading this, unless you happen to be a specialist or know a certain kind of New Yorker, you have probably never heard of him.

A Real-Life Indiana Jones

Even today there is a lot of geology on view in the New York City area. Back in 1856, when George Kunz was born there to German and Swiss immigrants, open land and outcrops probably abounded.

Well, it was probably not quite this rural in the post-Civil-War era…

In Our Hospitality Buster Keaton claimed this view of Broadway and 42nd Street in 1830 came from an old print.

…but New York still had plenty to offer an intelligent, ambitious and curious young rockhound.

By the time his family moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, young George was already interested enough in geology to go rock-hunting in the Palisades and the Watchung Mountains.

By age 14, he allegedly was selling minerals to overseas collectors. When he was 20, Kunz sold 4,000 specimens, weighing over a ton, to the University of Minnesota for $400.

Unlike Indiana Jones, Kunz didn’t even graduate from college, let alone become a professor. This failure had no effect on the self-taught young mineralogist’s career.

He became a gem expert for Tiffany’s at the age of 23 and stayed there for 53 years. He was so successful at finding gems that he eventually became a company vice president.

Kunz wasn’t office bound. As Paul Kerr of Columbia University recalled (PDF – note added):

He traveled extensively in his early years, and much of his knowledge was gained through first-hand contact with the leading mineral localities of the United States and Europe…

They call this  Olmec ritual axe with a were-jaguar motif the Kunz Axe.  He collected it in 1890 (and presumably had to flee a giant rolling boulder to escape alive).  Image source
They call this Olmec ritual axe with a were-jaguar motif the Kunz Axe. He collected it in 1890 (and presumably had to flee a giant rolling boulder to escape alive). Image source

The varied interests of Dr. Kunz [George was given many honorary degrees, including a PhD from the University of Marburg in 1903] kept him involved in a wide field of activities. He took an active part in the entertainment of distinguished visitors to New York City, particularly scientists.

Organizations claiming the honor of his membership included the Mineralogical Society of America, the Geological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, New York Academy of Sciences, New York Mineralogical Club, the New York Bird and Tree Club, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, Societe de Chimie Industrielle de France (American section), Century Association, City History Club, and Pilgrims of the United States. In spite of membership in numerous organizations, he was particularly interested in the New York Mineralogical Club. Together with a small group of mineral collectors he organized the club in 1886 and served for many years as its president.

Kunz sold Tiffany on the idea of impressing European jewelers at the exhibition.  Tiffany sent him on a continent-wide search for minerals.  The exhibition won a gold medal in Paris and later became the American Museum of Natural History's first important gem collection.  Image source
Kunz sold Tiffany on the idea of impressing European jewelers at the exhibition. Tiffany sent him on a continent-wide search for minerals. The exhibition won a gold medal in Paris and later became the American Museum of Natural History’s first important gem collection. Kunz and Tiffany did the same thing at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Image source

Dr. Kunz was in charge of the department of mines at the Paris Exposition in 1889, the Kimberley (South Africa) exposition in 1892, and the Chicago exposition of 1893. He was honorary special agent of the department of mines at the Atlanta exposition of 1895 and the Omaha exposition of 1898. As a special investigator he served with the U. S. Fish Commission in its investigation of American pearls between 1892 and 1893.

In 1900 he was sent to the Paris Exposition as an honorary special agent to the U. S. Commission General, and served also in that year as United States delegate to the Paris International Congress. He was radium commissioner to the St. Louis exposition of 1904, and had charge of precious stones for the twelfth census.

Foreign honors bestowed upon Dr. Kunz included being elected an officer of the Legion of Honor of France, Knight of the Order of St. Olaf of Norway, and an officer of the Rising Sun of Japan. He was an honorary member of the Chambre Syndicale Pierres Precieuses of Paris.


Dr. Kunz was one of the founders and president of the Museum of Peaceful Arts, former vice-president of the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers. He was a member of the North American Indian Memorial Commission. He served as special agent for the U. S. Geological Survey from 1883 to 1909, and continued to write annual reports on precious stones until the time of his death. From 1904 to 1918 he served as research curator of gems and precious stones for the Museum of Natural History, and later was made research associate of gems.

Dr. Kunz was president of the association to introduce the metric system into the United States, and all jewelers owe him a debt of gratitude for his efforts in aiding the establishment of the international carat.

Being a special agent for the USGS apparently didn’t just involve writing annual reports.

Jennifer Nolt, a USGS researcher, told National Public Radio, “If you ever have a chance to read his writings, he’s got this wonderful attitude, and he’s traveling in carriages in rural Russia to meet ‘the peasant queen of amethysts,’ and he’s talking about how he’s traveling with a pistol over his knees because he doesn’t trust the driver of the carriage, so I think – an Indiana Jones figure, definitely.”

And all this time George Kunz was working for Tiffany’s, collecting gems.

Why hasn’t a movie been made about George F. Kunz?

Well, one does not make action movies about New York movers and shakers whose influence is still strongly felt there today.

Too, rock collecting and writing books might bore Hollywood. But, before Lucas and Spielberg had their idea, everybody thought archaeology was boring, too. And Indiana Jones was fictional.

George F. Kunz really did win France’s Legion of Honor. He really did carry a pistol to protect himself while hunting amethysts in rural Russia. At age 34, he collected an ancient were-jaguar religious object in Mexico and survived for more than four decades afterwards.

His scholarship even led to the discovery that five of the Russian crown jewels disappeared between 1922 and 1925.

Somebody…please make this movie. Now!

Featured image: Source


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About BJ Deming

After getting an associate's degree in forestry, I studied geology as an undergraduate back in the 1980s but went into medical transcription instead. It just worked out better for me. The Internet renewed my interest in geoscience as a hobby, and when I retired in 2014, I decided to write a book about cat evolution. That started a new career for me (enormous fun but not self-supporting yet). Right now, besides blogging I am finishing up the first two books in a self-published ebook series about the cat family and its history. Thanks for your interest!

1 comment on “George F. Kunz, Gentleman Explorer

  1. Pingback: 1890s Adirondack Freshwater Pearl Fever | The New York History Blog

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