Indiana began working on Gem in 1961, and reworked the sculpture in 1962. In a letter to the gallerist Rolf Nelson, dated July 7, 1962, the artist discusses multiple works incorporating black (The Melville Triptych , Coenties Slip , and Ahab [1960–62]), noting that “’Gem’ is the latest construction, another conversion of one that you know, and it falls in the new black direction, with little bare wood exposed.” He also explained that Gem is short for Gemini, an exaltation of “two.”
The numeral two appears five times down the front of the work, and at the top of the back of the sculpture is the number 25. This can be read as a reference to the five twos on the sculpture, as well as to the address of Indiana’s loft, 25 Coenties Slip. The title, “Gem,” appears at the bottom of the front of the sculpture, and four times on the back.
Indiana returned to the work in 1984, adding the wheels and crest for the exhibition Wood Works: Constructions by Robert Indiana at the National Museum of American Art.