Nesosilicate Mineral Olivine

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Jeffrey E. Post, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Post

Photograph by Cara Santelli, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Jeffrey Post is the curator of the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. As far back as he can remember in childhood, Post collected rocks and fossils around his home near Madison, Wis. The symmetry of mineral crystals fascinated him, and experiments with a large chemistry set helped develop his interest in science. He earned a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in 1981 and joined the Smithsonian in 1984. Post’s research projects include the physical and chemical properties of fine-grained, environmentally significant minerals such as clays, manganese oxides, and iron oxides. He also uses powerful X-ray beams at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, N.Y.) to study the crystal structures of these minerals. With his Smithsonian colleagues, Post is always seeking new gem and mineral acquisitions for the Smithsonian. He analyzes specimens to resolve curatorial questions, oversees loans of Smithsonian gems to other museums, supervises the team that is building the collection website, meets with donors, and answers public inquiries about the Smithsonian mineral collection.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Artist interpretation of the Laramide Orogeny, which led to the creation of the Rocky Mountains in the Western United States.
Image created by Karen Carr Studio, Inc., used with permission

About Silicate Minerals

Silicon and oxygen are two of the most common elements on Earth. Together, they make up nearly 75 percent of the Earth's crust, so it is no surprise that they play major roles in forming many of the minerals that we see in rocks. The silicon atom, which has four electrons in its outermost region, likes to form chemical bonds with oxygen atoms, which are attracted to extra electrons. Thus, silicon and oxygen, together with some of the metallic elements, can combine to make hundreds of different minerals. For example, quartz has two oxygen atoms for every silicon atom, and feldspar has two or three silicon atoms grouped with eight oxygen atoms and a few metal atoms. About half of the most common minerals found on Earth belong to the silicate group, as do some beautiful gemstones such as amethyst, opal, and topaz.

Fluorite specimens, different colors, cut as gemstones
Photo by Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Mineral Sciences

The Colors of Minerals

One of the most striking, yet least diagnostic, features of many minerals is their color. Well-formed mineral crystals span the entire rainbow of tinctures, from red (cinnabar, garnet) to yellow (sulfur), green (malachite), blue (azurite, lazurite), and violet (the amethyst variety of quartz). Minerals containing iron and magnesium are often dark brown or dark green. Impurities, trace amounts of elements that do not normally belong in the mineral, may change the overall color of a crystal. For instance, depending on the trace amounts of impurities it contains, quartz may look colorless (no impurities), light pink (titanium, iron, or manganese), milky white (tiny bubbles of gas or liquid), purple (iron), yellow (iron), or brown (extra silicon). However, multiple minerals may have almost the same color, so scientists must rely on other physical properties to make definite identifications of mineral specimens.

The Rosser Reeves star ruby, a corundum specimen from Sri Lanka cut as a 138.7-carat oval cabochon
Photo by Department of Mineral Sciences, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Gemstones and Other Ornamental Stones

Gemstones are minerals that are cut and polished to make beautiful "stones" for jewelry and other adornments. Humans traditionally consider diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds to be the four "precious" gemstones, with all other gemstones called "semiprecious." Many gems are transparent, meaning they allow some or most of the incident light to pass through them. To make a stone sparkle, gemcutters cut and polish the facets, or flat outer surfaces, of a gemstone to boost the number of times a light beam will reflect internally before leaving the stone and reaching the eye. Some semiprecious stones, such as malachite and lapis lazuli (a rock containing the mineral lazurite), are opaque to light; gemcutters polish them to a high gloss, without facets. This shiny, rounded type of gemstone is called a cabochon. Corundum (ruby or sapphire) specimens that contain tiny fibers of other minerals also may be cut into cabochons to create a luminous "star" effect on the stone's surface.