"100 Years of Arizona's Best: The Minerals That Made the State," the exhibition that opens Feb. 4 at the University of Arizona Mineral Museum, will showcase hundreds of gems and minerals.

Some, such as a silver ore specimen that's about the size of a quarter, were unearthed decades before Arizona became a state. It spent nearly a century at Harvard University before a private collector returned it to Arizona.

And one, a uniquely shaped specimen of cerussite, was unearthed in Southern Arizona within the last few months.

Known as lead carbonate or white lead ore, the classic form of cerussite typically is shaped like big, white needles. This one has a snowflake pattern.

Two UA geology undergrads, Kenneth Dresang, 21, and J.D. Mizer, 37, discovered it in a site that had been heavily searched over the last 50 years.

"It's a pretty rare find. … We got lucky," said Mizer, a Flagstaff native. The pair, who have a claim on the site, would like their find displayed next to a classic specimen that came from the same rock to show the contrast.

The students are amazed that something they found will be displayed in the same exhibit as some of the most spectacular items ever found in Arizona.

The exhibition will open during the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase, which draws thousands of collectors to the Tucson area.

Some specimens from the museum will be on display during the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society's main show Feb. 9-12, which also commemorates Arizona's Centennial.

The Mineral Museum's exhibit will remain on display on the main floor at UA Science: Flandrau for one year.

The exhibition will feature some items on loan from private collectors from throughout the country, in addition to institutions such as California Academy of Sciences, which is based in San Francisco and has a collection of azurite and malachite found more than 100 years ago in Arizona.

The exhibit is about bringing back some of the absolute best that came from Arizona, said Mark Candee, the museum's assistant curator, who has been receiving shipments from collectors for months.

The museum's mineral collection predates Arizona's statehood.

The UA was founded in 1885, and a portion of its mineral collection dates back to 1892, when it was the core of the Territorial Museum. The Mineral Museum was officially established in 1919.

According to its website, the museum "is dedicated to providing public education and the preservation of minerals and meteorites while also serving the research needs of professionals, students and collectors."

Housed in the lower level of Flandrau since 1994, its doors open to the world, with displays of minerals that span the globe.

There is an emphasis on minerals from Arizona and Mexico. Rows of sparkling and surreal specimens are displayed along with information about where they were found and their chemical compositions.

The museum is regarded as one of the best anywhere, with more than 30,000 donated specimens. That represents more than 1,561 different species with 3,000 gem and minerals meteorites currently on display. The mineral museum also displays meteorites.

Many of the donors have stories as fascinating as the specimens they dedicated their lives to collecting.

Hubert C. de Monmonier, for example, spent most of his life in Los Angeles and worked as a groundskeeper and sheet-metal worker.

He had developed a fascination with minerals as a boy when he found a box of rocks beneath his grandparents' porch in Pearce, about 80 miles east of Tucson. Over his lifetime he amassed a collection that included 871 mineral specimens, including numerous gold pieces. He died in 2007 at age 88.

The Bill and Robbie McCarty collection, currently on loan and prominently displayed, paints an impressive portrait of the diversity and complexity of Arizona's minerals. Robbie McCarty moved to Tucson at age 5 and started collecting minerals. She became a schoolteacher, continued collecting with her husband, and returned to Arizona after she retired.

"By all accounts it's supposed to be the best Arizona collection in the state," said Robert Downs, the museum's curator and a geoscience professor.

Also on display is The Flagg Mineral Foundation collection, which had been housed at the Arizona Mining & Mineral Museum in Phoenix, which closed last year.

If you go

• What: University of Arizona Mineral Museum.

• Where: UA Science: Flandrau, 1601 E. University Blvd.

• Admission: $7.50 age 16 and above; $5 age 4 to 15; free 3 and under (includes planetarium show).

• Hours and more info: www.uamineralmuseum.org or 621-STAR (621-7827).

Did you know÷

Bobdownsite is a mineral found in the Yukon that has been named for Bob Downs, the UA Mineral Museum's curator.

Downs, a Canadian, is also a geology professor at the UA, and the mineral was named for him by some of his former graduate students. The discovery was announced last summer.

There are only 4,500 or so known minerals on Earth, and only 1,500 or so are named for people.

'It's always been a passion of mine. … I was always exploring and coming home with a pocket full of rocks.'

Kenneth Dresang, 21, who grew up in Arivaca