Professional Jeweler Archive: Farewell, Mr. Renaissance Man

August 2002

Professional Insider/Personal Tribute


Farewell, Mr. Renaissance Man

A personal tribute to a giant of mineralogy and gemology


Anyone who visited John Sinkankas’ home in San Diego in the late 1980s would have been struck by the unmistakable smell of books. Ancient to new, books on mineralogy and gemology lined the entrance and continued throughout the living room, family room and bedrooms, all fastidiously categorized on shelves. This world-renowned collection represented nearly a lifetime of collecting – and writing. By the time Sinkankas died this May 17, he had written 19 books and hundreds of articles, helping to mold the sciences of mineralogy and gemology.

I visited his home several days in 1988, together with library associates from the Gemological Institute of America. GIA had acquired his 14,000-item collection and was planning a library to house it for future generations.

Sinkankas handled each book delicately before we wrapped it. Opening the covers, he delivered concise, often witty comments about each book’s worthiness. He recalled how each one was acquired. “This whole series was a single purchase,” he said. “Marge [his wife] and I drove our station wagon out to get them one night; they weighed down the back of the car so much the lights pointed straight up to the heavens. It made for hellish driving on a night that was black as the inside of a cow.”

He also recounted the beginnings of his passion for minerals and gems. He grew up in Paterson, NJ, where he developed an interest in minerals, then took correspondence courses in gemology from GIA and the American Gem Society after joining the U.S. Navy in World War II. He retired as captain after 25 years of service in the early 1960s. During his service to his country and afterward, he continued to nourish his interest in minerals and gems. He began to cut gems in 1947 (some of his work is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC) and wrote articles. In 1955, D. Van Nostrand Co. published his first book, Gem Cutting – A Lapidary’s Manual.

Some of Sinkankas’ friends remember him.

DONA DIRLAM
Director of the Richard T. Liddicoat Gemological Library and Information Center at GIA

“John Sinkankas, with his vast interests and skills, was a true Renaissance man. He always wanted his library to stay intact; he wanted it to go where more people could have access to it. When we [GIA] moved to Carlsbad, he sometimes visited, enthralling scholars and students with his knowledge. His legacy is that we still hear his voice through his writings."

BILL LARSON
President of Pala International

“John was my mentor and friend. He was an industry giant who will be missed beyond belief. He had cross-knowledge of minerals and gems, and straddled both fields with total comfort.”

WENDELL WILSON
Publisher of Mineralogical Record

“I admire his work tremendously. His meticulous research is obvious in his bibliographies. One could not help but examine them and be awestruck.”

HAROLD AND ERICA VAN PELT
Gem and mineral photographers and lapidarists

Harold: “John has been my inspiration in gem carving for 30 years. Without his book on gem cutting and carving to guide me, my lapidary projects would not exist.”
Erica: “We think of him often and miss his advice already.”

– by Robert Weldon, G.G.

Photo by Robert Weldon, courtesy of GIA

Copyright © 2002 by Bond Communications