The Gifts of the Earth

Johannes Giebel is the new curator of the mineralogical collection at Technische Universität Berlin. His wish is to also present these beautiful stones in all their glory in digital form.

“As a little boy, I was holidaying in Egypt with my parents when I came across a sandstone with embedded prehistoric fossils - what is termed a nummolite,” says 35-year old geologist Dr. Johannes Giebel. “This was the start of my passion for stones.” Giebel, who studied in Halle and Bloemfontein, South Africa, before completing his doctorate in Tübingen, began work as the new head of the extensive 200-year-old mineralogical collections at Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) in February 2020.

His predecessor, Dr. Susanne Herting-Agthe, officially retired almost one year ago. “After 35 years, I am delighted to be able to entrust this treasure trove, one of the five most important mineralogical collections in Germany, to such competent hands,” she enthused. As a symbolic gesture, she presented Johannes Giebel with a carbonatite streaked with blue sodalite from the uncatalogued section of the collection´s treasures.

Digitalizing more than 100,000 catalogued items

His future work as the new curator of the collection will be very varied. “This includes, of course, intensively maintaining the condition of the collection and developing it, acquisitions and updating the catalog,” Giebel explains. “But what I most wish to do is to advance the process of digitalizing the items.” A Herculean task, given there are more than 100,000 catalogued items as well as further subcollections. Teaching is another important role for him, introducing the students from related subject areas to mineralogy.

“The life of a geologist comprises a great deal more than just examining dead stones. This is something I want to convey in addition to teaching specialist knowledge.” He illustrates this with an amazing encounter with nature he experienced some years ago in a remote and uninhabited region in Lapland. For two months he lived there with one other person in a tent, mapping a 50- square-kilometer section of the Swedish Caledonides.

His favorite stone is dioptase, also known as copper emerald

His research centers on mineralogy, petrologic material science, and petrology, focusing on the formation conditions and processes of stones as well as their properties and potential uses. Johannes Giebel wrote his doctorate on rare carbonatites at the University of Tübingen. “But it is not only their rarity which makes them interesting,” he explains. “Carbonatites are also enriched with economically valuable chemical elements such as strontium, barium, cesium and rubidium as well as phosphorous and most importantly rare soils.”

But he also has a feeling for the beautiful as a curator. As a gemologist he is equally interested in precious stones. When asked what his favorite stone is, he pauses to think before saying: “I really like dioptase, a gleaming green mineral, also known for this reason as copper emerald, which is often polished and used as an ornamental stone. It is most commonly found in Namibia.”

Inspired with a love of Africa by one of his geology professors while studying for his Diplom in Halle, he went on to do a Master of Science in economic geology at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Now after 15 years of studying and researching, Giebel has returned to his home region with his wife and three children.

“Of course I was familiar the TU Berlin collection – it is one of the major collections in my field,” he explains. “As a researcher and lover of beautiful and rare stones, I am particularly attracted to working in an environment that combines a museum and a research institute. This combination broadens the work to be done in both areas.”

A love of stones: Johannes Giebel is currently preparing an exhibition with his predecessor

One of his first encounters with the Berlin public will be an exhibition of jewelry, stones and metals entitled “Crystal Metal” to be staged in the public collection spaces. Co-curator is Giebel´s predecessor Dr. Susanne Herting-Agthe. They are also working with Berlin goldsmith and artist Susanne Sous. Sous is so fascinated by the crystals and minerals in the collection that she has spent most of the last year working exclusively on creating jewelry and decorative items inspired by stones, precious stones, and mineral specimens.

“We are going to exhibit these artistic decorative works alongside the crystalline objects from nature whose various forms and surfaces inspired them.” For example, rings and belt buckles will be shown alongside the minerals which served as a model for their creation: a ring with dull silver and gold cubes will be shown next to the appropriate pyrite, and the largest stone, an iron meteorite weighing half a ton will bear a black leather belt with a heavy silver buckle revealing the same surfaces as the meteorite.

Making finds accessible to non-experts is nothing new for Giebel. This stands him in good stead for his work at TU Berlin with the the mineralogical collections also set to play an important role in the University´s planned exhibition pavilion. “I already have a few ideas,” says Giebel.

But he has a great deal to accomplish before then. His first official visit at the start of March took him to India. At the 36th International Geologists Congress (ICG) in Delhi, one of the world´s major geological congresses taking place only every three to five years, he was invited to deliver the keynote talk on rare carbonatites, his area of specialization. Another opportunity to present the Berlin collections to an international audience.