The Tower of Jewels was the magnificent centerpiece of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, built by Commary-Peterson Co., Inc. Towering 435 feet high--approximately 40 stories high--it was located at the main entrance on Scott Street, dwarfing all the other Exposition buildings and becoming one of the great icons of the Exposition.
The sheer size of the tower was eye-catching, but the best part of the Tower of Jewels were the 102,000 “jewels” that covered the building, glittering and swaying in the San Francisco breeze. The “jewels”, called “Novagems”, were actually beautifully cut glass pieces, made in and shipped from Bohemia, modern-day Czech Republic. They came in several different colors: jonquil, white, rose, ruby, emerald, aquamarine, amethyst, and topaz. The approximately twelve tons of “Novagems” came in five different sizes, ranging from 21mm (about the size of a quarter) to 47mm in diameter (a little bigger than the diameter of a golf ball). In addition to the jewels, large pillars and statues adorned the Tower. Some of the highlights were John Flanagan’s statues, of a soldier, a philosopher, a priest, and an adventurer, that represented the kinds of people important when establishing the nation.
At night, the Tower of Jewels created an even more magical atmosphere. With 54 searchlights shining on and from it, the Tower was a sight out of this world. In the fog, the lights that shone through the novagems produced gorgeous multicolored rays, creating an effect like the aurora borealis. The nightly illuminations attracted many visitors who always went home after the show wanting more. On some special occasions, the Tower of Jewels transformed into a spectacle called “Burning the Tower”, with burning red lights and actual flames burning behind the building.
The Tower of Jewels also served a very important practical purpose. At all times, one guardsman was placed at the very top of the Tower with a telescope in order to survey the grounds below and ensure the safety of all the people enjoying the Exposition.
Visitors who wanted to own a piece of the Tower of Jewels had the unique opportunity to pre-order a Novagem from the Tower. The price for one was $1 then, the equivalent of about $23 today, and the Novagem would be delivered to them after the closing of the Exposition. The Novagems are now collectors’ items and can be found on various auction sites for hundreds of dollars!