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Malachite Properties Facts and Photos

polished green malachite mineral

1. What is Malachite?
2. History of Malachite
3. Malachite Crystal Properties
4. Article Pictures
5. Shop for Malachite

What is Malachite?

Malachite is the oldest ore of copper.  It occurs close to the surface of Earth and its presence often indicates deeper deposits of native copper are close by.

An ore is a rock that contains a significant amount of a natural mineral with valuable elements that can be extracted.

The extraction process from malachite involves heating the stone in conjunction with carbon.  This is done at a relatively low temperature over a short period of time.

 malachite mineral an ore of copper

Malachite occurs alongside or close to azurite.  The chemical formula for both minerals is almost identical.  They're produced through the weathering of copper ore deposits.

The reason malachite is green and azurite is blue is because the copper in malachite is more highly oxidized than in azurite.

Over time and under the right conditions one mineral turns into the other.  This transformation is known as pseudomorphism which literally means 'false form'.

Basically one mineral takes over another.  So malachite replaces the azurite but the shape and crystal faces of the original mineral remain the same.

The process of pseudomorphism can vary greatly.  One example is petrified wood.  In this material the original organic structure is slowly replaced by silica.

The History of Malachite

Although the use of malachite can be traced back to 8000 BC, the mineral didn't start being used as an ore until 5000 BC.  Until then, copper which was the only metal known to man would have come from deposits of native copper.

Malachite was subsequently used as an ore throughout antiquity.

The Ancient Egyptians had mining operations in place in the Sinai Peninsula in 4000 BC.  This area was Egypt's main source of copper for hundreds of years.

Many ancient civilizations used malachite for decorative purposes.  It's also believed to have been the first green pigment.  This led to malachite being used as a colouring agent in glazes, glass and cosmetics.

In China green pigment can be traced back as far as the Shāng people [c.1500 BC].  A tiger carved from malachite found in the tomb of a King's consort was dated to around the same period.

In western China the colour green can be found in many paintings from the ninth and tenth centuries.  It didn't become popular in Europe until around the 14th century.

In Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings the colour green didn't start appearing until around 2613 BC.

Malachite beads found along the Euphrates River have been dated to 7000 BC.

malachite mineral included with azurite on display in a museum display cabinet

When used as a pigment malachite must be ground coarsely.  This is because if particles are too small the colour will be much paler. 

The Pharaoh Amenhotep III used over five hundred kilos of mafek for inlay work in the Temple of Karnak.  Mafek was a collective name for a variety of green stones one of which is believed to have been malachite.

Sorting objects into groups is an instinctive human characteristic.  For thousands of years rocks and minerals were grouped according to colour and visible properties.

Records from the earliest system show just two groups.  These were 'stones' and 'earths'.  Rocks and minerals were put into one group or the other depending on how they reacted to fire and water.

In the writings of Theophrastus the Ancient Greek philosopher, all bright green coloured copper minerals were labelled as chrysocolla.  Pliny the Elder Roman author and naturalist later suggested the name was more likely to refer to malachite.  If true that means it may not have included the mineral known today as chrysocolla.

In his works Naturalis Historia Pliny also refers to a group of green coloured stones as being different varieties of smaragdus.  Many had little in common.  Smaragdus is the ancient name for emerald.

The group to which he's referring is believed to have included malachite, types of sapphire, turquoise, jasper and possibly even glass.

He wrote "copper smaragdus from Cyprus is associated with the colour blue".  This seems to be a reference to the mineral azurite.

In the early 1800's two enormous deposits of malachite were discovered in Russia.  There was enough stone to supply the entire country with copper for around 170 years.

Many large slabs were polished for ornamental purposes.  It quickly became the stone of choice for the rich and famous.

Today several of Russia's most important buildings are adorned with malachite.  One example is The Malachite Room at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg which features over 200 tons.

Saint Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg was built over a period of 40 years starting in 1818.  It features marble, granite, lapis lazuli and eight massive green malachite pillars.

very large malachite cup on display in the Hermitage Museum

Malachite Crystal Properties

On Mohs scale of mineral hardness malachite grades 3.5 to 4.  As well as being very soft it's also porous so must be protected from moisture.  Sudden exposure to heat can affect its colour or cause cracks.

Despite being soft and fragile malachite has always been a popular carving material.  When used as a gemstone it's always cut as a cabochon.

With malachite being an ore of copper its dust is highly toxic.  Whilst being cut and polished protective breathing equipment must be worn.  Once polished, stones are completely safe to handle.  It's good practice to wash your hands after touching a freshly cut or very dusty specimen.

Never be tempted to repeatedly wet your finger to bring out the colour of a rough piece of malachite.  Younger collectors should be advised not to put stones in their mouth or to get malachite wet.

Due to its association with copper malachite should never be used as an elixir.  This is water that's been infused with certain minerals to extract their healing properties.  The water is then consumed. 

Article Pictures

The second picture in our article is native copper with malachite. Photo courtesy of Stan Celestian. The third picture is malachite in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. Photo by Stone Mania.

The malachite in the last picture is on display in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The second and third images are clickable and redirect to the original non-compressed photo.

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