Malachite is a translucent to opaque mineral, a copper carbonate hydroxide mineral to be precise. It is formed at shallow depths within the Earth, in fractures, caverns, and cavities. Its deep greens do not fade over time, even when exposed to light. Malachite’s bright polished luster intensely contrasts its slender, pitch dark bands, conquering the hearts of many.
DID YOU KNOW?
Lovers of Palestinian and Egyptian cuisine might be pleased to find out that malachite’s name stems from the Ancient Greek word malache. This means mallow in English or… molokhia in Arabic. It is an allusion to the distinctive green color of the plant’s leaves.
Did you know?
In the 1800s, large malachite deposits were extensively mined in Russia’s Ural Mountains, supplying abundant gem and sculptural material. Most malachite on today’s lapidary market is from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other regions known for producing this stone are Namibia, Russia, and the American Southwest.
DID YOU KNOW?
THE EMPEROR’S DELIGHT
The Russian architect Alexander Briullov was so in love with the intensely green mineral that he designed the Malachite Room in the Emperor’s winter palace in Saint Petersburg, in the late 1830s. He made use of malachite in the construction of its columns and fireplace, and in decorative elements. The space served as Empress Alexandra Feodorovna’s formal reception room.
Malachite was one of the first ores relied upon to produce copper. Yet since ages ago, it has also been applied in a variety of beautiful works of art. Think of jewelry with vivid green inlay such as earrings, bracelets, and buckles, but also vases, sculptures, small boxes, snuff bottles, and other examples of home decor items. Today, malachite’s peacock-tail hues often come in the shape of beads or cabochons.
Malachite was in use in China as far back as the Eastern Zhou period. It has been spotted in daily objects such as bronze weights inlaid with gold and color stone, present in the homes of wealthy families to prevent the corners of mats from curling. In Ancient Egypt, malachite used to be mined near Mount Sinai and the Eastern Desert to produce copper. At the time, the mineral was also carved into sculptures, and crushed into pigment powder to make eye cosmetics and paint applied in tombs. In addition, malachite pigment was found in the coloring of stuccos dating back to the Ikhanid period in Iran.
Archeologists have dug up malachite sculptures and vases carved by Ancient Romans and Greeks. Believed to protect against evil spirits and witchcraft, malachite has been used in talismans and amulets throughout time. Due to its luxurious looks, the Tsars particularly appreciated gifting decorative pieces with the stone as a diplomatic present. These Russian rulers were keen on malachite, and had entire dining sets, colossal sculptures, and paneling made from it. Victorian jewelers turned to the mineral for small carvings, beads, and cabochons set in silver or gold, and lapidary artists created goblets and candlesticks out of it.
THE ISLAMIC TRADITION
From Antiquity until the 1800s, malachite was pulverized into a remarkably lightfast, powdered pigment to be stirred into a green paint. This paint was used by 15th- and 16th-century painters in Europe, and studies have shown that colored inks on Islamic manuscripts from the 15th to 17th centuries also contain malachite and a range of other manufactured copper pigments. To create these pigments, the artist turned to nature. For green coloring agents, he turned to malachite. Today, malachite pigment is still concocted by Islamic illuminators who specialize in practicing historically accurate techniques.
One of those pigment specialists is Anita Chowdry, who describes that the mineral needs to be ground up very finely with a mortar and pestle, and then carefully washed to remove all impurities that can spoil the color. Only then can one achieve the cool shade of green so prized in Safavid and Mughal schools. Anita Chowdry mulls the malachite pigment on a sheet of ground glass with a glass muller. This is a process that not only refines the pigment’s particles, but also incorporates a medium like gum arabic and a wetting agent such as honey, to turn it into a silky smooth paint that can be brushed onto a surface.
If you have ever gazed upon Iznik ceramics, chances are that you have seen the result of this type of process. Produced during the height of the Ottoman Empire, the gleaming white base of Iznik jugs, vases, bowls, plates, and tiles make the four traditional colors of turquoise, cobalt, malachite, and coral truly pop out under a thick transparent glaze. In this sense, malachite has decorated the interiors of mosques as a part of symmetrical floral designs for centuries.
In his masterpiece Treatises on How To Recognise Gems, the great 11th-century scientist al-Biruni writes that the stone, with patterns “like eyes and green moons” is said to be put into use by alchemists. He cites how in Persia, entire dinner sets and saucers were made from it, to the extent that the mines were so exhausted all that remained was red putrid mud.