Adventure and Gems were the twin passions of geologist and gemologist Allen M. Bassett. From a very young age these forces propelled him through a lifetime of scientific inquiry, exploration, and thrilling exploits in exotic locations around the world. The spark was ignited when as a young boy he spotted gemmy quartz crystals known as Herkimer “diamonds” in the window of a locksmith's store in Rockville Centre, New York, the town where Allen grew up alongside his sister and two brothers. As an avid collector of mineral specimens, the locksmith found a kindred spirit in this young boy who returned again and again to purchase crystals with his weekly allowance—the start of a collection that would grow for the rest of Allen's life. His interest in these crystals soon morphed into serious gem and mineral collecting, always with a geologist's eye for pairing cut gems with representative crystals of minerals from which they had been fashioned.
This early interest in collecting comes as no surprise considering that Allen was born, on 2 February 1925, to parents who were collectors: a father who collected antique blown glass and a mother who collected fancy handheld fans. Needless to say, Allen's interests received much encouragement and guidance at every turn. His father, a physicist and aeronautical engineer, led him to delve into the fascinating science of geology, mineralogy, and crystallography. Even Allen's grandparents had a curio cabinet filled with items that they had collected from all over the world; it was a huge magnet for Allen and his siblings and cousins when they visited.
As a student at Amherst College, surrounded by the extraordinary collections in the vast old gymnasium-turned-museum, Allen quickly determined that he would major in geology. He then went on to graduate work at Columbia University where he conducted a PhD research project at the Naica mine in Mexico. Although studying the sulfide mineralization, he was fascinated by the huge crystals of gypsum in the caves that the mine had encountered. One day while working there he heard that management had decided that pumping water out of the lowest levels was too expensive and they planned to let the caves flood. He immediately went to his friend, the lift operator, and talked him into taking him down one last time before the caves were lost forever. Upon arriving in the depths, Allen found that the water was already rapidly rising around his legs, and he rushed about saving armloads of gypsum crystals before they were submerged forever. He raced back to the lift, half-swimming and half-running with his crystals, rang the bell for the lift operator, and was brought back to the surface as the water continued to rise. He gave those crystals to Amherst College and museums elsewhere. (It was many years later that even more amazing caves were found at Naica, caves in which the gypsum crystals are tens of feet long instead of just a few feet.)
Allen's infectious enthusiasm for geology helped inspire the same in his younger brother, William, who at age fifteen accompanied him on a geological tour of the West, including many operating mines. This memorable trip influenced his brother's own lifelong path in the geological sciences.
After graduation, Allen took a position with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Claremont, California, where he mapped the mineral deposits of the Mojave Desert. When the government became concerned that the borate deposits of the Mojave might be too limited a supply for potential rocket fuel under consideration at that time, Allen and some of his colleagues were sent to the Altiplano of South America to map the extensive borate deposits there.
After leaving the USGS, Allen took a teaching position in the geology department of San Diego State College, now San Diego State University. His desire to explore exotic places and not only study their geology but also to search for rare minerals and gems led to a life-changing trip to Nepal as part of the San Diego Himalayan Expedition. The objective of this 1970 scientific mission was to investigate the recently proposed “Plate Tectonics Hypothesis,” a theory now taught as fact in today's geology classrooms and which contributed to Allen's future success in predicting the location of Nepal's ruby deposits. He later became the first Western-trained scientist to trek to these high-altitude localities in the Ganesh Himal (Dhading District), and he was the first scientist to describe in detail the incredibly tight and repetitious folding of the region. During the next two decades, he returned year after year to hike, explore, and, ultimately, live in this country of stunning beauty and harsh contrasts. In his quest to establish a fully integrated gem industry in Nepal, he brought in the first faceting machines, initially starting this endeavor with the unique tourmalines of the Hyakule mine. He later helped found the Kathmandu-based company “Himalayan Gems, Nepal” and was instrumental in developing the mines of Chumar and Ruyil, which produced some of the loveliest ruby cabinet-sized specimens and gems ever to come out of that country (Skalwold 2014).
Allen met his first wife, Ann Bradley, the daughter of a geologist, while still a student. They have three children, Elizabeth, Bradley, and Shepard. His second marriage was to Frederique Geoffroy, who he met on one of his far-flung trips; they have a son, Geoffroy. When not exploring, Allen lived with Frederique in Paris until his death on 1 May 2014. Allen leaves behind many friends around the world, as well as an extended family circle, including his siblings. His geological and gemological legacy endures in his many publications (see Bassett 1979; Skalwold 2014) and as the Allen and William Bassett Gem Collection that resides in the Timothy N. Heasley Mineralogy Museum of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Bassett, A. M. 1979. Hunting for gemstones in the Himalayas of Nepal. Lapidary Journal 33 (7): 1492–1520.
Skalwold, E. A. 2014. Dr. Allen M. Bassett and the ruby mines of Nepal, a historical overview. 11th Annual Sinkankas Symposium: Ruby, 6 April 2013, rev. edition, ed. L. Thorsen, 42–47. Fallbrook, CA: Pala International.
Elise A. Skalwold, BSc, is an Accredited Senior Gemologist involved in curating and research at her alma mater, Cornell University.
Dr. William A. Bassett is a research scientist and professor emeritus of geology at Cornell University. Allen Bassett was his brother.