“Out of this world”
By Nicholas Foulkes
Nicholas Foulkes has written for most national newspapers in Britain at one time or another in the last 25 years. He is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, FT How to Spend It, and The Rake. He is also a columnist on Country Life and is international arts correspondent on Newsweek.
It is a wristwatch, but it is also a wafer of tamed eternity, a timepiece that is, literally, out of this world, mute witness to a journey across the universe, a journey that came to an abrupt stop when a rock hurtling through space tore through our terrestrial atmosphere in a burst of light and searing heat that melted its surface, and then buried itself in the surface our planet aeons ago.
And yet out of this violent end to an interplanetary voyage has come beauty, a shimmering beauty that is released by the experienced lapidary: the beauty of the meteorite watch dial. The mysterious, at once random and geometric patterns coaxed from these space rocks are strangely absorbing, hypnotic even: a cryptic, encoded message from the stars that we may never fully understand.
A meteorite may fall from the sky looking like a lump of rock. Indeed, the overwhelming majority, at least ninety-five percent, of the meteorites that fall to earth are exactly that: rocks, albeit some of the oldest rocks in existence. Some are billions of years old and hundreds of millions of years senior to the most ancient stones our relatively youthful planet can offer.
Some meteorites are visitors from our near neighbour the moon, others have been traced to Mars. They may be fragments of exploded stars, but most come from the asteroid belt. They are sought after by scientists as snapshots of the past, vessels, naturally occurring spacecraft if you like, containing materials unaltered since the earliest times of our solar system; an extra-terrestrial message in a bottle from the first crepuscular hints preceding the dawn of time.
Carlsbergite, Allabogdanite, Kamacite, Antitaenite, Brianite, Daubreelite, Haxonite, Roaldite, Merrillite, Krotite, Panethite, Sinoite, Xifengite…these and many more are the abstruse elements detected in meteorites, some so recondite as to be found in just a single meteorite to strike the earth. Their unfamiliar names are so evocative of science fiction films and cartoon books that one half expects to see kryptonite crop up in this roll call of minerals from outer space.
One of the most perfect places to view the sheer dazzling variety of what falls to earth is the meteorite gallery of London’s Natural History Museum, a splendid spacious high-ceilinged Victorian hall flooded by light streaming in through tall windows. The most impressive specimen is the 1400 lb chunk of meteoric discovered in Argentina in 1788, a massive anvil of a thing it that has a metallic ring when struck and commands the visitor’s gaze.
But not every sample owned by the Natural History Museum makes such an impact (excuse the pun). Some might look like small lumps of coal and yet, like the lvuma meteorite, small though it may be, it is the largest lvuma fragment in a public collection. It is maintained in a nitrogen atmosphere for its preservation. This little rock has an elemental structure similar to the sun and according to the museum ‘contains a remarkably pristine record of the blocks of the solar system’. It is, in effect, a time capsule that is 4.6 billion years old.
Wearing a piece of meteorite on the wrist in this place is, in a way, like bringing it home. But there is a world of expertise that separates the meteorite on my wrist from those under glass around me.
Of all the mineral abundance that showers from the skies only a small proportion, around four percent, of meteorites have sufficient iron content to continue their journey through time and space into a watch. To add to the rarity and romance, that magic four percent tends to be found in the most inaccessible and barren environments on our planet: the Sahara desert, Australia’s Nullarbor Plain and the icebound wastes of Antarctica.
Inhospitable though they may be for man, these places are perfect for the preservation of iron bearing meteorites that would otherwise weather poorly under millions of years of rain. Instead, undisturbed by the life that teems on the rest of the planet’s surface they slumber intact over time, waiting to be woken, worked on and transformed from their raw mineral state into an object of beauty.
Iron bearing meteorites offer the chance to see the universe as an artist. Inside the unprepossessing exterior crust lies a strange shimmering pattern that brings to mind the paintings of the Vorticists. Once sliced, polished and treated with acid, the sought-after linear pattern emerges. Formed by stripes of interleaved nickel iron crystals known as lamellae, the dazzling visual effect created by the three-dimensional interlocked accumulations of lamellae is named the Widmanstaetten pattern. But the beauty is that no two patterns are the same; each is as unique as a fingerprint.
A Piaget Altiplano is the perfect frame for this naturally occurring artwork as it pays timeless homage to the spectacular creations of the 1960s and 1970s, when Piaget boldly experimented with dials made from exotic stones that transformed elegant, paper-thin timepieces into bursts of colour.
But only with a meteorite dial does one experience the exquisite irony of seeing the passage of hours and minutes against an eternal background, the delicate lattice like pattern in which it takes but a little imagination to think that the mysteries of the universe are locked.
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