Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

A Look at Vasily Konovalenko's Unique Tribute to Dr. King

Vasily Konovalenko’s "Martin Luther King in Sapphire" was on display at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in December, 2012. (Photo/ Rick Wicker)

As Martin Luther King Day approaches, our nation prepares to honor the enduring legacy of the great civil rights leader. While streets, schools and monuments across America bear his name, there exists a unique tribute to Dr. King – Vasily Konovalenko's “Martin Luther King in Sapphire,” a special work to honor the civil rights leader, carved  from the world's largest known black sapphire. 

In 2012 and 2013, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science hosted and displayed Konovalenko’s carving of the civil rights leader, alongside the Museum’s larger collection of Konovalenko work. Although the carving is no longer hosted at the Museum, this remarkable work stands out not just for its material, a 4180-carat black sapphire, but also for the immense skill and precision required in its creation. Sapphire is second only to diamond in hardness, making it a challenging medium for detailed carving. Konovalenko's expertise in gem-carving was crucial, as the process is unforgiving, with little room for error and no opportunity for corrections once material is removed.   

Read more: Martin Luther King in Sapphire on Display at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science  

Although his final product could not be called perfect, Konovalenko had admirable success in producing “Martin Luther King in Sapphire.” His work includes subtle but distinctive details including King’s mustache and neatly cropped hairline. The face has a serious, contemplative expression, as if on the verge of delivering another history-changing speech.  

A longtime fan favorite, the Museum’s Konovalenko gem carving collection is displayed in a small exhibition on the third floor surrounded by the South America wildlife diorama. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science houses 20 of Konovalenko’s sculptures, the largest collection on public display found anywhere outside of the former Soviet Union.  

The gemstone artist’s carving of Martin Luther King is not only extraordinary because of its subject but also because it’s the only instance when Konovalenko carved the image of a real person in a gemstone rather than whimsical characters, generally representing traditional folk life in Eastern Europe. 

See Our Exhibition: Konovalenko: Gem Carvings of Russian Folk Life 

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, let us honor the memory of Dr. King by appreciating the diverse ways his legacy is preserved. Konovalenko's “Martin Luther King in Sapphire” serves as a unique and poignant reminder of Dr. King's lasting impact and the ongoing quest for justice.  

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