London’s Islington Green is one of the capital’s smartest areas, surrounded by restaurants, bars, design shops and a particularly grand branch of the bookshop Waterstones, set in what was once the Collins Music Hall, a Victorian performance space opened in 1863. The venue seated up to 1,000 people before it was gutted in a fire in 1958. A relic of the music hall still exists, 22m below ground. In 2002, developers planned to relaunch the space as a theatre, but the project was abandoned following a legal dispute and the venue has been closed to the public for the past decade.

That will soon change. As part of this year’s London Design Festival, photographer Dan Tobin Smith, creative studio The Experience Machine and Gemfields, one of the world’s leading suppliers of coloured gemstones, will repurpose the venue with Void, an immersive animation of gemstone inclusions.

Paraiba tourmaline photograph by Dan Tobin Smith
Paraiba tourmaline, oval brilliant cut. Photography: Dan Tobin Smith

We are used to seeing gemstones encased in expensive wedding rings, or high up on billboards, or dripping from the necks of movie stars. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how fascinating these ancient natural phenomena are. ‘It’s the imperfections that make these gems so unique,’ says Tobin Smith. In the world of gemstones, an inclusion refers to the unknown elements that, millions of years ago, became buried and trapped inside the mineral as it hardened and formed; shards of crystal, bubbles of unknown liquid or gas, tiny fractures caused by radioactive material.

For clear gemstones like diamonds, inclusions often affect the clarity of the gem and thus diminish its value. However, for many coloured gems, such as amethyst, emerald and sapphire, inclusions are often desirable. Tobin Smith’s knowledge of the subject has sharpened over time. A decade ago, he was given a copy of the book Photoatlas of Inclusions in Gemstones. ‘I was always looking at it, but didn’t do anything with it,’ he says.

Pyrite and hematite in quartz photograph by Dan Tobin Smith
Pyrite and hematite in quartz, table cut. Photography: Dan Tobin Smith

Tobin Smith’s client list includes Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton and Jay-Z. He has experience with building installations, specifically the creation of The First Law of Kipple for the 2014 London Design Festival, a 200 sq m installation comprising thousands of colour-themed objects.

Bit by bit, Tobin Smith began to use his skill set to photograph gems in his spare time. ‘I realised that, technically, shooting gem stones is a difficult thing to do. I did those early shots in a haphazard way; I just bolted an old microscope to this weird old large-format camera. It kind of worked, but it felt very basic.’

The photographer recalls watching the gems come to life as they moved through light, picking up minute details of the inclusions and projecting them on the walls of his studio. He mounted a specialist Leica-designed microscope to an Arri Mini digital camera. ‘I realised no one else had done this before, that I was developing a unique way of looking at these objects. Some of the inclusions are pretty abstract, but when you move them, you get so much more information out of them. You’re understanding parallax – what things are behind or in front, the texture and the surfaces.’

Rutile needles in quartz, cabochon cut
Rutile needles in quartz, cabochon cut. Photography: Dan Tobin Smith

Keen to take things up another level, he worked with special effects company Asylum to build a rig that would enable him to move gems through light. They found a way to suspend a gem in a clear chemical before building a rotational and linear motor that allowed the gem to move and rotate smoothly through the liquid. ‘It enabled me to explore what these objects truly are by highlighting and exploiting the different properties of their inclusions. It’s like entering a parallel world.’

Tobin Smith’s work came to the attention of The Experience Machine, specialisers in site-specific performances. They, in turn, involved Gemfields, the operator and 75 per cent owner of both the Kagem emerald mine in Zambia and Montepuez ruby mine in Mozambique (Gemfields is one of the industry leaders navigating the complex shift to more responsible and sustainable gem-mining). Gemfields’ gemologist Elena Basaglia explains the attraction of collaborating with Tobin Smith: ‘Having worked together over the years, we were aware of Dan’s energy and passion for coloured gemstones, making him an ideal partner to share the fascinating world hidden inside each gemstone.’

Gemfields Mozambican ruby, cushion cut
Gemfields Mozambican ruby, cushion cut. Photography: Dan Tobin Smith

Showcasing Tobin Smith’s groundbreaking photography, the Collins Theatre will exhibit projections of Mozambican rubies and Zambian emeralds from Gemfields’ mines. The result is a galaxy-like light performance that will meld and shift across the theatre’s walls like an ever-shifting kaleidoscope.

‘I feel like I’m scratching the surface,’ Tobin Smith says. ‘The inclusions are so varied. It’s bewildering. You’re given a tiny glimpse into how the world was formed that we could never otherwise comprehend. It’s a constant discovery of these tiny, unknown worlds.’ §

A version of this article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*247)