2015 A W Howitt Lecture: “Victoria’s Gemstones: Much More than Just History”

Joint Lecture with the Geological Society of Australia, Victoria Division

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Dr William Birch AM

President, Royal Society of Victoria
Curator Emeritus (Geosciences), Museum Victoria

Early interest in gemstones in colonial Victoria was inextricably linked to discoveries made during alluvial gold mining, when diggers routinely turned up brightly coloured sapphires and zircons in their pans and sluice-boxes. The discovery of rare diamonds heightened the excitement.

Three influential men, the Rev. John Bleasdale, George Milner Stephen and George Ulrich, all members of the Royal Society of Victoria, were responsible for promoting Victorian gemstones. As President, Bleasdale organised an exhibition of colonial gemstones and jewellery, open to the public in the Society’s hall, for the week ending May 6, 1865, 150 years ago this month. A few years later he proclaimed Victoria to have more rare and precious gems than any other country. Nowadays, Victoria’s gemstones do little more than tease occasional diamond explorers and entice hobby fossickers, yet their very elusiveness, variability and puzzling distribution excites scientific curiosity.

In this talk, Dr Birch will describe the main localities where diamonds and sapphires occur across Victoria, and illustrate the main distinguishing features of the gemstones from each field, including some of the modern investigative methods available. While seemingly isolated from each other, the Victorian gem-fields lie within the belt of diamond‒sapphire‒zircon fields extending from Tasmania to Queensland, suggesting they all must have some aspects of their origin in common.