Closeup of Charoite (Photo by James St. John, distributed under a CC by 2.0 license)
Crystal System: Monoclinic
Colors: violet to deep lilac
Charoite is a rare silicate mineral with a very unique composition. It is currently only found in one place on earth, the Chara River (from which the name Charoite is derived) in the Sakha Republic, Yakutia in Siberian Russia. It was first discovered in the 1940s, although it wasn’t available commercially until 1978.
Although Charoite is a distinct mineral in its own right, the Charoite normally available is classified as a rock, because it contains other minerals. Usually these rocks are mostly Charoite, with slight traces of microcline feldspar, aergirine or tinkasite.
It is formed through a process called “contact metamorphism”, which occurs when deposits of limestone are transformed through heat, pressure, and the infusion of unique chemicals, in this case alkali-rich nephline syenite intrusions. This process is actually a rather common geological phenomenon, which makes Charoite’s rarity something of a mystery.
Charoite has been described as “unnaturally beautiful”, and is often mistaken as being synthetic. One of the main reasons for this are the intricate swirling patterns, which are considered a signature trait of Charoite. These swirls are caused by the interlocking of complex fibrous crystals, and are completely natural. It is common for there to be several shades of violet in one piece, all mixed together. Streaks of orange, black or green are also seen quite frequently, these are caused by the tinkasite and/or aergirine impurities within the stone. Adding to the “unnatural” appearance of Charoite is the fact that many stones exhibit a slight natural chatoyancy. This is also completely natural.
Unfortunately, due to the rarity of the stone, and the ever increasing demand for it, some people are afraid that the only known source of Charoite will soon be mined out.
Most Charoite is untreated, but occasionally you may run across a piece that has been stabilized (this generally involves the stone being injected with some sort of plastic, and is commonly done to stones like turquoise). I have only run across this once, when I was looking for Charoite beads for a project I was working on. Personally, I don’t like stabilized stones, so I passed on the beads. As long as you are buying from a knowledgeable and trustworthy source, they should be able to inform you of any treatments that have been done to a stone. So just be careful who you choose to do business with!
Although Charoite wasn’t officially discovered by scientists until the 1940s, it was known to the native peoples of the area for much longer. It was carved into decorative objects by the Mongols. On special feast days, they would boil a piece of Charoite in tea, and all the members of the family would then drink it. This was believed to strengthen family ties, and protect those who drank it from evil. Charoite also has many healing properties, which I will write about in my next post…