Recent Acquisitions: Freemasons and the Case of the Missing Jewel
Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.
By the time Charles F. Crocker received the 33rd Degree of Inspector General Honorary in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, the ornate breast jewel was well earned. The English-speaking Masonic world is usually governed by a three degree system, but for members who make substantial contributions to society and Freemasonry, only a diamond and ruby encrusted jewel will do.
When Crocker received the jewel in 1892, the early Bay Area resident had worked his way up from lowly clerk to Vice President of the Southern Pacific Railroad. His father, Charles Crocker took his place among Leland Stanford, Collins P. Huntington, and Mark Hopkins as the chief entrepreneurs -- known as "The Big Four" -- of the Central Pacific Railroad construction, the western portion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
The jewel -- along with an estimated $400,000,000 -- remained in the possession of the family, accomplished Freemasons in their own right, but after William Crocker's death in 1937, it disappeared.
Fast forward to 2011: A gemologist in Massachusetts easily ascertained the fair market value of the precious stones, but the craftsmanship gave him pause. Hesitant to break up the piece for sale without further research, he contacted the National Heritage Museum in nearby Lexington for provenance.
Here we see the Freemason network in action. The museum in Massachusetts just happened to be founded by the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, and belongs to the Masonic Library and Museum Association. "Through these intimate channels we may share our knowledge and protect rare items," explains Adam Kendall, vice president of the association. This kind of Californiana is never long for the market, quickly snatched up for its high value, which all too often results in the destruction of an antique in favor of profit. Kendall believed the jewel belonged back in San Francisco, where he is also the collections manager at the Henry W. Coil Library and Museum of Freemasonry. The same San Francisco Bodies of the Scottish Rite who originally bestowed the jewel on Crocker agreed with Kendall, and purchased it from the gemologist for the museum.
The jewel can now be seen by the public in the museum on California Street, where it enjoys pride of place in a glass case donated by the Crocker son's lodge, California No. 1. The case speaks to the Crocker family's achievements, also exhibiting a stock certificate and a trowel belonging to William Crocker. The certificate for 1,000 shares is both made out to and signed by Crocker himself, which he then put towards the building of the Scottish Rite temple at Sutter and Van Ness, now the Regency theater. The trowel was given to him by the Masons at the San Francisco-based Crocker Bank, which would be sold to Wells Fargo in the 1980s.
Crocker and sons can be connected to many significant buildings in San Francisco, including 25 Van Ness, the San Francisco Opera House, the Veterans Building, as well as a significant amount of reconstruction financing after the 1906 earthquake and fire. The Crockers donated 2.6 acres in Nob Hill on which Grace Cathedral now sits, across the street from the Henry W. Coil Library and Museum.
When asked if the jewel will widen the general public's understanding of the organization, Kendall is candid: This came from a craftsman intended to commemorate the substantial contributions of a great man, but the Freemasons are often misunderstood. "Freemasons, from its public appearance in 1717 until the mid-20th century, were consummate producers of art and literature that exalted its valuable and time-tested philosophies and symbolism," he said. The organization is not monolithic, and Kendall points to the majority of sensationalized information favored in movies and books as downright ridiculous, if not distracting from the issue at hand. He'd rather be researching.