A beginner’s guide to identifying minerals

Embarking on a new interest can be intimidating. After all, there is a lot to learn and many mistakes to be made along the way. With some tips on identifying mineral qualities, perhaps we can help you in avoiding some of the most frequent mistakes from beginners and ensure you learn what you need to know about Colombian emeralds and fine minerals.

There are many features to look out for when you are assessing a mineral’s characteristics. However, as a beginner it is best to focus on the easiest to test. As your experience grows, so will your ability to branch out your knowledge into other areas of assessment.

First steps in identifying minerals

A common and easy assessment to make is in the mineral’s colour. It is common, especially as amateurs with little to no knowledge of more complicated assessments, to label a mineral based on its colour alone. Though it is only partially indicative of the mineral’s true qualities, it is an important part of the process.

One of the biggest factors in determining a mineral’s characteristics is its hardness. If you can easily dent or scratch the material with your fingernail or another soft surface for example, then it is very soft. There is a scale on how to judge the hardness of a mineral based on what it takes to scratch the surface and these are easily made at home.

Next, you can consider the luster of the mineral. This is the quality regarding how the light reflects off the surface of the mineral. Not all minerals have a good luster and may appear dull or chalky, and this can be a good indication of what mineral you are viewing.

Though it may pain you to break a mineral, it is often an excellent test on the characteristics of that mineral. If a mineral breaks along a smooth plane, for example, it has ‘cleavage’, but some break on a more jagged edge. This is linked with a mineral’s ‘tenacity’, which is the quality that indicates how much the mineral stands up to breakage. By investigating the way in which a mineral breaks (or doesn’t!) you can find out much about its identity.

Further investigation

This is not an exhaustive list to understanding the mineral in your hand. Magnetism and opaqueness can both be useful, as the translucency of a mineral can show you a lot. The crystal shape also will give you a good indication of what you are viewing.

The form of a mineral can be incredibly useful. As your knowledge of the characteristics grows, so will your vocabulary regarding the unique aspects of different minerals.

Some examples of types of crystals, for example, include Botryoidal (resembling small clusters of grapes in rounded shapes), Gwindel (corkscrew/twisted growths), and Acicular (needle structure, elongated such as millerite). If you learn these differences it is much easier to understand the mineral that you are identifying.

Cementing your knowledge

One of the most important things to remember when you are first learning to identify minerals is that there is a wealth of information out there. You can find much of it here, and always remember that it is a good idea to ask an expert on the topic if your initial investigation does not give you a solid answer.

Minerals are a fascinating topic to learn about so keep trying and you will gain a better understanding of identifying minerals, no matter what their characteristics.