Published Aug 1 2016, by

Crystal Gazing

Crystal Sphere_cropped 72dpi

The Crow Collection’s flawless rock crystal sphere is a natural wonder, polished to smooth roundness, and emblematic within Asian thought of the perfection of wisdom and purity.

At 28.9 centimeters in diameter, the Crow crystal is the second largest perfect crystal sphere known, outsized only by one in the Smithsonian Collection, Washington, D.C., which measures 32.7 centimeters. The third largest, in the Pennsylvania Museum, is 25.4 centimeters in diameter. Some may not be aware that colorless rock crystal is different from lead crystal used, for example, to make glasses. Glass “crystal” is not truly crystalline; its structure is amorphous and lacks the ordered and symmetrical pattern of growth in true crystals.

Rock crystal sphere with stand Japan, Meiji period, 19th century Rock crystal, bronze, silvering, and gilding

Rock crystal sphere with stand,
Japan, Meiji period, 19th century
Rock crystal, bronze, silvering, and gilding

Rock crystal is composed of nature’s most common elements, silica and oxygen—in the form of silicon dioxide—the mineral quartz we find in sand, granite, and many gemstones. But large, single, colorless, flawlessly transparent rock crystals are exceedingly rare. Some crystals may have other materials in them, which add color, and incidental changes in temperature, pressure, and chemistry in the crystal’s growth can interrupt the perfect prismatic hexagonal arrangement of atoms into a single large flawless crystal.

The rarity of large quartz crystals has made them sought after in cultures around the world. The English word “crystal” comes from the Greek word for “ice,” and the mineral was believed to be ice in a form that would never melt. Chinese language also captures the purity and clarity of water in their words for rock or ice crystal: Water Jade. A Chinese connoisseur writing in the 11th century, commented that the “finest crystals are found in Japan,” where the Crow quartz was mined. The crystal was shaped into a sphere by patient rolling in an abrasive slurry and fine polishing.

Rock crystal spheres were greatly admired in Meiji period (1868-1912) Japan as potent, contemplative works of art. They incorporated longstanding imagery of dragons chasing the emergence of light from the bottom of the sea. Textually, the image borrows from early Taoist references to the sacred pearl of wisdom, pure vital yang energy emerging from the watery yin of the oceans. Related associations include ball lightening, the sun, the moon, rolling thunder, and within Buddhism, the “jewel” in the heart of the lotus. In Chinese imagery, proper dragons manifesting yang energy were depicted with a ball of light under the chin.

With ferocious power, they enact the quest for perfection of wisdom and the power to control the ebb and flow of the tides in the eternal cycle of transformation, the cycle of the seasons, and light of the sun in rounds with life-giving rain.

The Crow sphere is mounted on a bronze base, silvered and gilded, on which swirling dragons ascend and descend amid the watery depths in pursuit of the ball of light that rests above. With ferocious power, they enact the quest for perfection of wisdom and the power to control the ebb and flow of the tides in the eternal cycle of transformation, the cycle of the seasons, and light of the sun in rounds with life-giving rain.

Visit the Crystal Sphere, which is always on view as part of the exhibitions at the Crow Collection, and marvel at the powerful symbolism. Admire the superb workmanship of the sphere and its base that attest to the patient pursuit of the artisans’ quest for perfection of craft. And while you are at it, marvel no less at the flawless image of the world beyond the sphere, horizon to horizon, miniaturized on the curved surface and miraculously turned upside down.