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An introduction to minerals and rocks under the microscope
An introduction to minerals and rocks under the microscope

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1.3.2 Colour

The colour of a mineral can be its most obvious feature, but colour can also be one of the least reliable properties for identifying minerals. Many minerals show a wide range of coloration, often caused by tiny amounts of impurities. For example, pure quartz (SiO2) is colourless; minute quantities of Fe3+ iron induce a purple coloration, characteristic of the variety of quartz known as amethyst (Figure 7a). Small amounts of aluminium cause the dark coloration of smoky quartz when the crystal has been exposed to natural radioactivity (Figure 7b). The reason for the pink colour in rose quartz (Figure 7c) is not fully understood; titanium or manganese may be involved, as may minute fibrous crystals of a complex mineral within the quartz. The yellow colour of citrine (another quartz variety) is probably due to minute amounts of iron hydrates dispersed within the crystal. (Many examples of citrine for sale are actually artificially heated or irradiated amethyst.) Milky quartz is white and cloudy as a result of tiny bubbles of fluid (liquid and/or gas). In a few minerals, such as tourmaline, an individual crystal may be multicoloured (Figure 8), reflecting subtle changes in chemical composition as it grew.

Figure 7 Some coloured varieties of quartz: (a) purple amethyst (crystals 1.5 cm long); (b) grey smoky quartz (5 cm long); (c) pink rose quartz (8.5 cm long). See text for discussion.
Figure 8 Tourmaline, a complex silicate mineral that shows a variety of colours. Although most commonly black, other colours of tourmaline include brown, green, pink, blue or yellow. Here, a single crystal varies markedly in colour along its length (5 cm). In this case, the green part has the most iron, and the pink colour is due to trace amounts of manganese.

Some minerals do, however, have reliable and distinctive colours. Silicate minerals that contain large amounts of iron are typically dark green or black. These minerals, which often also contain magnesium, are called ferromagnesian minerals; they include olivine, pyroxene, amphibole and biotite mica (see Section 3).