From the Louis XIII 's Cabinet of Medicines to the Natural History Museum in 1793

Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, 61 rue Buffon, 75005 Paris

The mineralogical collection

From Fagon to Daubenton

Haüy's collection

The travelers naturalists

Alfred Lacroix's work

Pierpont-Morgan's donations

Vesignié's collection

The "Friends of Mineralogy" association



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Today, after three centuries and half of acquisitions, donations, expeditions and discoverings, the collections of mineralogy and geology of the National Natural History Museum gather 545600 objects.

It is in the "Cabinet of medicines of the King's Garden"", founded in 1626 under Louis XIII, that gems, salts, stones and ores of various origins constituted, beside the pots with drugs and medicinal plants, the core of which will become slowly one of the very first mineral collections in the world.

In date of May 1626, the King ordered the foundation of the Royal Garden of the Medicinal Plants to his doctor, Guy de la Brosse. It's organization was then ruled by a royal edict in date of 1653 taken during Anne of Austria's regency. Then, in 1671, a declaration of Louis XIV regulated the administration of the "King's Garden and the Cabinet of Medicines".

Until the XVIIth century, the minerals contained in the cabinet of medicines are those employed for their supposed healing virtues. This explains that they are placed in the cabinet with drugs, medicinal herbs and various salts, in glass pots for the use of the royal family and Paris's hospitals. Nicolas Lemery (1645-1715), himself educated by chemists of the King's Garden, is the author of a famous Universal Dictionary of Simple Drugs, published in 1698. That book gives a very complete list of the minerals available in Louis XIV's cabinet of medicines. Nevertheless, at the same time one begins to understand, for example, that "morion" (brown dark quartz) is only of "very small effectiveness and that it more useful as an ornament". But it still remains effective than these various minerals formed the core of the collections gathered by Jussieu during the removal of the " cabinet of medicines " around 1725.

There is no precise indication on the importance of the collections enriched by Fagon (1668-1718), then by Dufay (1698-1739), excepted the fact that the latter bequeathed his own collection of precious stones to the King's Cabinet in 1739.

After the death of Louis XIV, the cabinet of medicines contained interesting objects like several stone figurines and vases offered to Louis XIV and to the prince by the King and the ambassador of Siam in 1686..

The first systematic classifications carried out by Jussieu in 1722 lead Buffon, intendant of the King's Garden from 1739 to 1788, to allow public visits of the Cabinet of Natural History in 1745, five year before the public was authorized to visit in the Louvre few rooms dedicated to paintings.

Previously, the cabinet used to be an accumulation of objects of curiosity of all kinds and seems to have been very appreciated at that time for the education of the children of the royal family. The opening to the public has to be considered more like a change of function and since that time, the collections will cease being called "cabinet of medicine" between 1720 and 1730 to become truly a cabinet of curiosities in date of 1739.

The Court resided with the King in Versailles as Louis XIV wanted to move away from Paris (because he has bad memories of the "Fronde"). After his death in 1715, the former cabinet of medicines was used to store most of the curiosities removed from Versailles. Because this rich collection mixed series of incredible curiosities with authentic treasures, a first methodical arrangement was needed. This leads Buffon to reorganize the collections of the King's Garden in a " Royal Cabinet of Natural History ".

Buffon, helped by Daubenton, wanted the King's cabinet to be "the more splendid and the more rich of all". In the old galleries of the Garden enlarged and beautified by him , he placed , several collections of different kinds in order they can be admired by the public and the scientists. Since that time, the naturalists and collectors participating to the enrichment of the collections, will receive a patent of " Correspondent of the King's Garden " or " Correspondent of the King's Cabinet ".

Buffon convinced Louis XV to enrich his Royal Cabinet of Natural History of very beautiful pieces of furniture covered with semiprecious stones in 1748. The most invaluable of them is the large Florentine table dating from the Rebirth, supported by four bronze dolphins (kept in the Natural History Museum's collections, this marvelous table escaped to the fire of the Tuileries).

Thanks to the radiation of his work, Buffon received during his long career many testimonies of admiration from several monarchs the King of Poland (1772), Christian VII of Denmark (1777), Catherine II of Russia (1777 and 1785), Joseph II of Austria (1784)... the acquisition of which enriched the collections of natural history.


To summarize, the history of the mineral collections of the Natural history museum is divided into three distinct periods:

A - "the King's Garden" with his cabinet of medicines or "droguier" (1626-1720) inside which were placed drugs, salts, medicinal plants and minerals used as medicines, followed by one rather long period of silence (1720-1739);

B - "the Royal Cabinet of Natural History" (1739-1793) that Buffon and Daubenton opened to the public since 1745; there, minerals were exposed in 99 display cases;

C - "the National Natural history museum of Natural History" (created by a decree of National Convention in 1793) which received significant precious stones and engraved gems coming from the revolutionary entries and which was placed under the direction of a "Board of Directors" and a "Scientific Council" only in date of 1985.

The collection of mineralogy, cramped for room within it's 99 display cases after Haüy's numerous acquisitions (1802-1822), have been reinstalled in 1837 in the Main Gallery designed by Charles Rohault-de-Fleury, architect of King Charles X. The new, 187 meters long, gallery possessed 192 display cases for the minerals and 204 display cases for the rock and 12 000 drawers. One have also to add to those 528 drawers contained in 24 pieces of furniture, a recent deposit of the College de France that contain Louis XVIII's private collection, formed by de Bournon and his assistant Beudant.

In 1986, two new rooms of mineralogy were arranged in the old unused library: the "Giant Crystals Room", presented in dioramas, and, located below, the armoured room containing the Treasury of the Natural history museum now accessible to the public. These two rooms were inaugurated by the President of the French Republic on June 11, 1987.

The room known as "Room of Treasury" protects the most invaluable items of the collection: 2400 cut gemstones and numerous precious objects in carved stones, as well as a part of the precious stones from the Crown of France. It contains also the collection of precious native metals and a selection of 4000 crystallized minerals, 2000 of them being exposed permanently on the circumference of the room.

The 545 600 objects managed by the Laboratory of Mineralogy and Geology include thus 243200 minerals, 2400 cut gemstones and objects carved in precious stones and 300000 rocks samples plus seven kilometers of drill-core from the Indian Ocean, preserved in the basement of the Laboratory of Geology. The collection also contains 2000 meteorites preserved with care, 2500 types of mineral species and a series of 1500 artificial crystals .


If one examines the old specimens mentioned in the catalog of the Gallery of Mineralogy, one can note that the quality of minerals entered under Louis XIV and Louis XV does not correspond any more to the current favor. Under the administration of Fagon, the minerals brought back by Tournefort, traveller-naturalist commissionned by Louis XIV, should be considered of poor value today. The former Royal Cabinet of Natural History, opened to the public in 1745 by Buffon, accepted only towards the end of Louis XV's reign (1774) silver minerals (native silver, pyrargyrite...) from Norway and Germany which have been considered among the best known samples for those species for two centuries.

Daubenton's reclassifications gathered in the mineralogical collections several objects of curiosity made of stone relegated from Versailles to the " Garden of Roy " . This exotic series of objects and curiosities was longtime used for the education of the children of the royal family . The most famous object was the convex obsidian mirror already considered as the major item of the Royal Cabinet of Natural History by Dezallier d' Argenville in 1742.

These objects are infinitely easier to recognize than minerals, when the labels and classifications of the XVIIIth century disappeared. At that time (around 1823) catalogs are not very precise with regard to the creation dates of new mineral species. Nevertheless, much of the indications from the 1796' catalog remain. Excepted for the catalogs of the Haüy's collection and de Bournon's collection which were fortunately preserved in their ancient forms, the National Museum possess also many indications about the Weiss Collection and Angivillier's purchases between 1776 and 1779 who bought two hundred twenty six minerals for a total amount of 15000 pounds. We have details about the price of those minerals, the crystallized gold of Transylvania was paid at the time between 100 and 300 pounds the sample; a small glass bottle of platinum grains , 36 pounds; the native silver in wire or crystals ranged in price between 24 and 240 pounds; the most expensive mineral was a block "of horn silver mixed with pure native silver" weighting 1500 grams, it was paid 800 pounds.

This list of Angivillier's purchases is a testimony about what minerals were available at the time on the market: many metal ores and some gems. The title of the list is very clear: "Memory about minerals, metal and semi-metals ores, crystals, spaths and other mineral matters, bought for the Cabinet of Natural History of his Majesty, in the years 1776, 1777, 1778 and 1779". Gold was the first mineral listed. The price of crystallized cassiterites ranged from 18 to 100 pounds; price of quartz crystals from 12 to 100 pounds; pyromorphites from 12 to 72 pounds except for a " large plate of green black lead from Freiburg " paid 300 pounds! The red lead of Siberia (crocoïte) was relatively expensive: 240 to 300 pounds, the same price as a great block of malachite in conical stalactite: 240 pounds.

The most usual , but crystallized , copper and iron minerals were paid between 12 and 72 pounds. The cost of a sample of amalgam from Palatinat, with an octahedral crystallization , was 72 pounds. It was indicated that a "superb sample of antimony ore in needles reflecting sharp colors" (stibnite of Felsobanya) was paid 200 pounds. The price of another sample of "red antimony ore" (kermesite) was 18 pounds. Sphalerites, calamines, cobaltite, erythrite and " white arsenic ore" had prices ranging between 18 and 100 pounds.

Reading the end of this list is surprising and shows that mineralogy before Haüy was more a science of " useful minerals ": on two hundred twenty six minerals of quality, two hundred and seven are ores and nineteen only are non metallic minerals, including two diamonds (240 pounds), two fluorites approximately cubic in shape called "distorted amethysts" (144 and 48 pounds), four " schörl " (from 48 to 293 pounds), a topaze from Saxony (72 pounds), garnets dodecahedrons from Bohemia (24 pounds); the list ended with three spaths from England costing 126, 60 and 7 pounds, this last calcite of 7 pounds being the mineral the least expensive of this very detailed list still preserved.

Three minerals had the reputation to be the rarest (and also the most favored by the collectors): " copper emerald " (dioptase), " red schörl of Siberia " (rubellite) and a kind of aquamarine cristal presented by Dombey to Louis XVI (euclase). The old collections from the XVIIIth century included also beautiful samples from Ural, Germany and Austria (Romania included), Mexico, Spain, Italy and England. At that time, quartz from the Alps and stibnite from Massif Central were considered as the most traditional minerals of the collections (the largest quartz crystals was given to general Bonaparte when he came through Switzerland in 1797).


From 1802 to 1822, Haüy multiplied by 3 the volume of the collections which exceeded ten thousand minerals. One of his first brilliant deeds , as regard to museology , was certainly the acquisition by the Natural History Museum of the very famous Viennese collection once owned by Weiss. This made the Parisian National History Museum collection the most beautiful one in Europe in 1802 but was criticized by the old man Balthazar George Sage who used to learn docimastic mineralogy to the future Louis XV. Finally, Sage irritated so much the Prime Consul Bonaparte, that this latter one ordered to inspect by himself the Weiss’s file at the Natural History Museum in order to examine it personally. Was he satisfied ? We don’t know but it resulted from that event that Bonaparte became emperor soon after and asked Haüy to create the chair of mineralogy of the Faculty of Science and to write a Treatise of mathematics for the use of High Schools.

Haüy, father of mathematical crystallography, was very appreciated by the emperor for his knowledges, merits and the very substantial enrichment of the national collections which ones attracted so many students and listeners during the lessons of mineralogy given by him at the Natural History Museum. After the death of B.-G Sage the best items of his collections was transferred to the Natural History Museum. Three thousand other minerals were sent to the Ecole des Mines de Paris

Still nowadays within the collections, due to their quality, the minerals from Weiss’s collection, especially those from central Europe, remain by the most beautiful of the old samples exposed, whereas those from Sage’s collection were later outperformed in quality by new discoveries and placed in drawers.

Another beautiful mineral collection from the XVIIIth century, as well as the first third of the XIXth century, the Gillet de Laumont’s collection was acquired in 1835 by the Natural History Museum with the financial help of the government. It included thousand six hundred superb minerals and the nine hundred crystals and ores from the very famous collection of J.-B Romé de l' Isle purchased after the death of this last in 1790. General Surveyor of the Mines during all the successive governments, Gillet de Laumont lent to Haüy, in 1796, this collection to help it to write the first chapters of his Treatise of Mineralogy. He ordered François-Sulpice Beudant, to establish the inventory of that collection so important for the history of mineralogical sciences.

During the XIXth century, two kings were deeply interested in minerals. While Louis-Philippe build a royal lodge to attend the courses of mineralogy at the Natural History Museum, Louis XVIII, the other king mineralogist, preferred to grow up a private royal collection which gathered, between 1815 and 1824, ten times more samples than the national collection (Louis XVIII did not appreciate the professors of the Natural History Museum generally considered to be pro-revolution!). After Louis XVIII’s death, this collection was shared between the Natural History Museum and the Collège de France (in 1990, the collection was joined to the types of Bournon and Beudant at the Natural History Museum).

Another significant acquisition was the purchase of Rene-Just Haüy’s collection by the Natural History Museum in 1848. After Haüy’s death, the Natural History Museum couldn’t buy his collection to Haüy’s niece, due do reduced grants under Louis XVIII and a high selling price. In 1823, Haüy’s collection was sold to the Duke of Buckingham for a rather considerable price and came to England. It remained there until the death of the Duke in 1848. Louis-Philippe who appreciated the Natural History Museum ordered the government to send Armand Dufrenoy in England in order to repurchase Haüy’s collection, to the Duke’s heirs, " at any price ". It was estimated at one hundred and thousand francs but Dufrenoy obtained the whole collection (including the rocks, the cut gemstones and the pieces of furniture makes purposely to host the collection) for a most reasonable cost. By chance, and because the collection possessed a considerable scientific value, it was preserved in its old form with its original labels written by Haüy himself, which enabled the Museum to possess nearly all the minerals which were sent to Haüy as types of new mineral species, indicated by Haüy in the second edition of his treatise.

In many cases, Paris preserves old cotypes authenticated by Haüy’s handwritten label (stuck on the wooden base of the sample itself and fixed with black wax) whereas several other old collections partially burned sometimes were scientifically lost because the old labels were removed without the name of the author or giver. All the collections of the first French cristallographs are thus now in the possession of the the Natural History Museum of Paris.



The new Gallery in 1837

The building of the Main Gallery of mineralogy and geology of the Natural History Museum became necessary due to the absolute need for place in order to reclassify the collection according to newer classification schemes. We have to keep in mind that in 1837, the collection of mineralogy was already 2 centuries old and cramped for room within its 99 drawers belonging to the former Cabinet of Natural History. The new Main Gallery, possessed 192 vertical display cases doubled by 192 horizontal desks with 5000 drawers available. This explains its considerable further enrichment. One counted in 1856 some 203000 samples of rocks and minerals in the Main Gallery (versus 545000 today).

It was the time of sailing ships, several voyages around the world brung back many rocks, but... very few interesting minerals and good crystallizations. The inventory of the drawers and the examination of the contents of the display cases let re-appear the memory of several great travelers and discoverers. Adventurers, travelers, so avid to discover the world and to make description of what they saw, a handle of men have their name engraved in the history of the national collections due to the new minerals they discovered: Dombey (atacamite, euclase), Dolomieu (analcime, celestite) to quote only two of them from the XVIIIth century, then, in the XIXth century, Leschenault de la Tour (India, Ceylon), Tondi (minerals from Vesuvius), Bustamente (minerals from Mexico, of which Bustamite), Domeyko (minerals from South America, of which Domeykite, bismuthic silver renamed 23 years later chilenite by Dana, also cuprotungstite, nantokite and bromargyrite). More than ten other travelers could be quoted.

The collections also enriched by other ways: the Tsar Nicolas I stopped the gold mines operation of his country sometimes, in order to make seek the largest platinum and gold nuggets to enrich his museums. So many nuggets were found that he could offer an impressive series of platinum to the French Academy of Science in 1833 which gave them in 1857 to the Natural History Museum with a nice mineral collection from Russia.

A whole series of donations was done in the late of XIXth century; as, in 1874, the very nice Dusgate’s collection, comprising well crystallized minerals. Travels, purchases, donations multipied. While Dufrenoy, Delafosse and Descloizeaux occupied one after another the Chair of mineralogy, the collections profit from the major contribution received from the French mining geologists sent in Africa, in Malagasy or in Siam. The Natural History Museum received, therefore, from the rest of the world many beautiful lucky finds, in particular a very large morion quartz (120 cm), splendid amazonites found by Foote in 1870 in Hook-Peak, Colorado, and several impressive minerals from Laurium.

Descloizeaux, which did not have a laboratory in the Natural History Museum, worked at home. By chance, after his death, his very rich work collections containing many types he described and several hundreds of thin blades of rocks he used to study with the polarizing microscope, the use of which he was a pioneer, were acquired for the Natural History Museum by his successor Alfred Lacroix.


Alfred Lacroix was one of the greatest French scientists, one of the very first volcanologists, great traveler (United States, Japan, Indo-China, Indonesia, Malagasy, Africa, etc). He doubled the number of beautiful minerals presented in the display cases of the Natural history museum, and his work in the field of the museology of minerals was considerable due to his international radiation (he was Secrétaire Perpétuel of the Academy of Sciences); between 1893 and 1937, during his long scientific life he trained many students generations and gathered large quantities of minerals. His published work remains a world reference for the mineralogy of France and its colonies. In the last decade of the XIXth century, the Natural History Museum accepted from Mr. Bischoffsheim, then of Mr. Taub, several series of diamond crystals, including the first diamond crystals on matrix rock from the Premier Mine in South Africa (matrix made of yellow or blue faded kimberlite).

A. Lacroix accepted, from the prospectors of overseas, some of the most beautiful minerals of the world: impressive series of dioptases from Congo (Renéville, Pimbi...), most beautiful known senarmontites from Algeria, collections of crystals from Malagasy which still form today the most beautiful known collection of minerals of this country.


In 1902 Mr. J Pierpont-Morgan, a banker, offered to the Natural History Museum a fabulous collection of 403 American minerals gathered by G Kunz, of Tiffany (New York), for the Pan-American exposition of Buffalo (1901). Another series of 162 minerals exposed in Saint-Louis during the World Fair of 1903 were bought also, then offered to Lacroix who accepted them for the National History Museum in 1905. J Pierpont-Morgan’s son offered a third series in 1912, enriching the yet exceptional collection of American minerals with new samples of azurites, rubellites and kunzites some of which are considered as the most beautiful minerals of the world (including a reference for the kunzite studied by Kunz himself and the first pink beryl appointed morganite in honour to Morgan who was Kunz’s boss).

One will say, that the American banker used to demonstrate his generosity towards a major Parisian museum, in order to attenuate the bad reputation he had to buy at any price sculptures and art masterpieces coming from the treasures of French churches dating from the Medieval Age to enrich the museums in New York!


Jean Orcel, succeeding to his Master A. Lacroix in 1937 at the Chair of mineralogy, had the taste for minerals. After World War II , the prospectors formed by him enriched the collections of the Natural History Museum by many sendings. He obtained that the world’s greatest mineral collector then alive in France, colonel Vésignié, bequeaths the 5000 most beautiful minerals of his collection to the Natural History Museum. The Museum purchased another series of 15000 mineral samples in 1955 to Vésignié’s heirs, including a very beautiful series of gems. The collection included a rubellite with double termination (36 x 12 cm) coming from a career located 30 km in the south-west of Antsirabé, Malagasy, and a large crystal of dark blue aquamarine (80 kg) from Tongéfano which was the star of the Colonial Exposition in 1931. Latter, a series of splendid azurites from the Vésignié’s collection was also donated to the Natural History Museum.

Jean Orcel, with the help of Simone Caillère (sub-director at the Laboratory of Mineralogy), begun a first big operation for the restoration of the Main Gallery of Mineralogy (paintings, roof, etc.).

The Vésignié’s Room opened in 1965 (for 7 years) in order to display a few hundred of marvellous minerals chosen among the 20 000 that the colonel had lovingly gather during more than 50 years (a second batch very significant constituted the fund of Sorbonne’s collection (now Université Pierre et Marie Curie) which was somewhat poor at that time).


During January 1973, Roger Caillois from the French Academy, Edouard Sirakian and Henri-Jean Schubnel created the association of the " Friends of the Mineralogy of the National Natural History Museum ". Donations and subscriptions for the profit of the collections of mineralogy follow one another. To such a degree that the two other Parisian museums of mineralogy will create in their turn, similar associations.

On average, every two years, a private collection is received in donation because of the activity of the Mineralogical Gallery’s service " which carries out almost every year a new temporary exposure with the invaluable and effective assistance of various " Friends of Mineralogy ".

The principal purchases since the Minerals Show (1975) are related to the most complete possible description of the mineral paragenesis of different mines thus in activity in Morocco, Portugal, Mexico and Brazil, with a detailed attention for French minerals and, well-sure, the new species and the types of mineral species for fundamental search in systematic mineralogy.

Day after day, the Gallery is modernized in the naturalistic taste. With regard to the increase of the collections, the number of cataloged minerals increased during a period of eighteen years from 186000 to 213000. The number of species present in the collection increased by 45 %, whereas the number of visitors have been multiplied by 20 between 1972 and 1990, in addition to the interest of the exposition’s themes, the service for the Animation and Teaching of the Natural History Museum was particularly effective (3000 requests of visit for pupils and students per year).