Pyrite also Known as Fools Gold



the mineral pyrite in a museum display cabinet



The  Mineral Pyrite | Properties and Meaning

Pyrite also known as iron pyrite or fools gold is a natural mineral which can at a glance resemble gold but there are several characteristics that make it quite easy to differentiate one from the other.  The most obvious is colour which is not as yellow as gold, pyrite is also lighter in weight and much harder.  Gold is a surprisingly soft metal which grades just 2 to 2½ on Mohs scale of mineral hardness which is about the same as a human fingernail.  Pyrite however grades 6 to 6½ but is brittle so will shatter easily.  Bang a piece of gold with a hammer and it will flatten but do the same to iron pyrite and it will break into hundreds of pieces.  The two minerals also have a different crystal structure and different coloured streak which is the term used to describe the colour of a mineral in powdered form.  In pyrite the streak is greenish black whereas in gold it‘s yellow.

It's widely reported the name fools gold came about because during the great American gold rush pyrite was often confused for gold but in fact there's no truth to this story at all.  Apart from not being mentioned in the entire history of this event, it really is quite easy to distinguish one from the other particularly when placed side by side.  Furthermore anyone who would have been prospecting for gold at this time would almost certainly have known what they were looking for.  In films involving pirates you'd often see them biting a gold coin to confirm it was real but this was almost certainly created for the big screen.  Whilst biting down on pure gold may well leave teeth marks, biting a coin at this period in time would not have the same effect because coins were alloyed with another metal so would have been considerably harder.      



What Exactly is Pyrite?

Pyrite is an iron sulphide which means it's a chemical compound of iron and sulphide.  It contains a high percentage of iron and is relatively common hence can be found in many different geological environments. It comes in numerous forms and varieties and is popular with mineral collectors and for use in alternative therapies such as crystal healing.  Crystals are often cubic also known as isometric which is one of the simplest and most common shapes found in crystals and minerals.  Faces can be striated which is another feature that distinguishes fools gold from the real thing.  It can also occur in massive form which means its formation is one large mass hence the structure of each crystal is not visible.



piece of the mineral iron pyrite


Pyrite. Photo by Ron Wolf - Flickr




Ironically pyrite and gold form under similar conditions and can even occur together within the same rock.  Inclusions of gold are not uncommon which makes it an important ore of this precious metal.  With that said, although a relatively common mineral it generally occurs in small quantities but can be found worldwide.  Despite its high iron content pyrite is rarely used as an ore because there are many other more suitable minerals from which it can be extracted.  The Rio Tinto region of Spain has vast reserves of pyrite but other regions including Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Japan, Canada and Italy to name just a few have also produced many fine specimens.



iron pyrite mineral specimen on display in a museum



More Pyrite Facts

The name pyrite comes from the Greek word pyr meaning fire because when struck against metal or another hard surface it sparks.  This was one of the earliest methods used by man to create fire.  Interestingly the wheel-lock gun developed around the year 1500 was ignited by spinning a spring-loaded steel wheel against a small piece of pyrite in order to generate sparks.  The sparks subsequently ignited the gunpowder which in turn ignited the charge in the gun's barrel.

In crystal healing pyrite is used as an energy shield to block negative energy and prevent energy escaping from the physical body and aura.  It also strengthens confidence in masculinity and is said to be helpful for psychosomatic related issues. 

The photographs at the top and bottom of our article were taken by Stone Mania during visits to the Harvard Museum of Natural History and London's Natural History Museum respectively.  Photographs are protected by copyright.



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