Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/June 1883/Quartz: Its Varieties and Formation

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 23 June 1883  (1883) 
Quartz: Its Varieties and Formation
By John Magens Mello


QUARTZ is in its many forms probably the most abundant, as well as one of the most beautiful, of all the various minerals which enter into the formation of the earth's rocky surface. To describe it and its principal varieties, and to give a short sketch of the modes of its occurrence and of its formation, will be the object of this paper. Among the elements known to chemistry is one named silicon, sometimes called silicium; the oxide of this substance, which is never found in a free state in nature, constitutes silica, the chemical name for quartz and all its varieties. Its pure crystallized form is familiar to us as the colorless and transparent rock-crystal.

As rock-crystal, the typical form of quartz, is an hexagonal prism terminated at each end by a rhombohedron, when broken it will be seen to have a conchoidal or splintery fracture. Rock-crystal is very widely distributed, being found in rocks of all ages. The most beautiful and perfect specimens are usually obtained from large cavities or geodes in the older igneous rocks, and also from veins in these and other rocks. The size and color of quartz-crystals vary greatly; some are so small as to be microscopical, while others are of very considerable bulk. In the museum of Berne may be seen specimens of both the clear rock-crystal and also of black or smoky quartz upward of a foot in length; there are also some very large ones in the British Museum. Quartz-crystals are often found presenting almost every shade of color—yellow, brown, black, red, blue, violet, and green. Various names have been given to these colored varieties. The violet, blue, and some of the yellow, and even of the white crystals, which, when fractured, are seen to have a peculiar undulated structure, which Sir D. Brewster pointed out, have been classed together as amethysts, a name often popularly restricted to the violet crystals, which owe their beautiful tint to the presence of oxide of manganese. Violet amethysts are not uncommon in the geodes occurring in volcanic rocks in many localities; but the finest are obtained from Siberia, Persia, India, and Ceylon; while Brazil yields white and yellow amethysts. The yellow and brown crystals known as cairngorms are varieties of rock-crystal or of crystallized quartz, if we restrict the term rock crystal to the clear, colorless specimens. The darker brown and black crystals, as well as those designated as cairngorms, may be grouped under the common name of smoky quartz. The dark-green quartz is called prase, and is colored by amphibole; there is also a lighter green species known as chrysoprase, tinted, it is said, by oxide of nickel; while oxide of iron probably gives color to the numerous red varieties. The common milk-white quartz, which is the ordinary quartz of veins and of quartz-rock, will be found, on microscopical examination, to be really transparent, but so full of minute cavities as to cause it to assume its milky opacity.

Quartz-rock, or massive quartz, is often found in mountainous masses, hundreds of feet in thickness. Many of the quartz schists and micaceous schists consist chiefly of quartz irregularly split up by thin leaflets of mica. Sandstone rocks, often consisting of little besides more or less rolled grains of quartz, will have been derived from the breaking up, under various denuding agencies, of rocks in which quartz has been the prevailing mineral. Veins of quartz have already been mentioned. These are very frequent in the old slate and schist rocks, sometimes forming broad and irregular bands; at others, mere threads traversing the other materials. Such veins will often present open spaces in which the quartz will be found regularly crystallized.

Flint and chert are forms of quartz usually occurring as concretions in limestone rocks; sometimes, however, as bands of considerable thickness. The black color so common to the flints of the chalk formation and to the chert nodules and bands in the mountain limestone is due to the presence of carbon. Hornstone is merely a variety of chert.

Chalcedony has been described as a mixture of crystalline and amorphous quartz; its tendency is to assume a botryoidal or stalactitic form; and its numerous variations of color and modes of occurrence have led to the adoption of different distinguishing names. Carnelians and sardes are only color distinctions of chalcedony; and the immense family of agates, including the onyx and sardonyx, is more or less composed of chalcedony, disposed in layers, regular or irregular, and combined with other forms of quartz, such as amethyst, jasper, etc. This latter name is applied to an aluminous variety of quartz: it is opaque, and has a less crystalline appearance than ordinary quartz. It is very varied in color: some beautiful red, brown, and green-banded stones are obtained in Siberia, in Egypt, and elsewhere. Bloodstone is considered to be a mixture of chalcedony and jasper, colored by metallic oxides. One of the most beautiful forms of quartz is opal, which is nothing more than amorphous silica combined with water, which has filtered out from the rocks, usually igneous ones, and is found in cavities and fissures in those rocks. Bohemia, Hungary, Auvergne, and Queensland yield opals, some of them of great beauty and value.

Having thus briefly pointed out the principal varieties of quartz, and the modes of their occurrence, we will next turn to the history of their formation. We shall find that quartz may have been formed by more than one process in the grand laboratory of Nature. According to Cotta, there are two modifications of chemical composition in quartz, which are distinguished by their different degrees of solubility. "The one is insoluble in water and in every acid except hydrofluoric, and the other is soluble in water at high temperatures, especially in the presence of other acids and alkalies." The insoluble variety of quartz may, it is said, in process of time become "converted into the soluble by the contact-influence of infiltrated moisture." It may, however, be noted that ordinary quartz, if fused with carbonate of soda, becomes soluble in water, and from this solution gelatinous silica is precipitated by hydric chloride. Years ago it was noted that silica when combined with an alkali is soluble in water, and that thus the decomposition of feldspar might in some instances be a source of silica in solution. The residue of decomposed feldspar, when it has been examined, has been found to contain only a portion of the silica due to it, the remainder having been dissolved. In a similar manner mica is another mineral which may be a source of supply for pure silica. A fact of some importance in studying the mode of the formation of quartz is that, unlike feldspar and other minerals, which in crystallizing pass at once from the fluid to the solid state, quartz passes through an intermediate viscous or colloid condition before it assumes the crystalline form. It is, comparatively speaking, only very recently that we have had any practical acquaintance with this colloidal form of silica. The late Mr. T. Graham, by his most valuable experiments in dialysis, succeeded in obtaining pure silica dissolved in water, which rapidly assumed a gelatinous condition.

The three principal agencies that have taken part in the formation of quartz are heat, water, and organic life. When we examine, by the aid of the microscope, certain forms of quartz, such, for instance, as the crystals occurring in some of the quartz porphyries, and occasionally in the pitchstones, as well as much of the quartz of granite rocks, we find that they contain minute cavities which inclose very frequently tiny crystals of other minerals; in the quartz of granite these are very often found to be alkaline chlorides, or sometimes the
cavities are filled up with glassy mineral matter—as, for instance, in the quartz of some of the Icelandic trachytes. Other cavities are fount!, especially in the granitic quartz, filled with gas, or sometimes with water, or liquid carbonic acid. In these latter cavities small bubbles will be found which are movable; the smaller ones, indeed, appear to be endowed with a kind of perpetual motion of their own. The quartz in these rocks must have crystallized at a very high temperature—indeed, where glass cavities occur, from a state of true igneous fusion. Mr. Sorby has shown that the solvent power of liquid water at the temperature of about 412º C. is very great: its action on glass has been such as to produce quartz-crystals from it.

There seems to be clear proof that the quartz of the granite rocks which contains partially filled fluid cavities, and cavities inclosing crystals of common salt, etc., has been formed in a partially melted mass of rock, and began to crystallize when that mass was exposed to the solvent action of liquid water, at a temperature not far below 400º C, but yet not sufficiently high to expand the water into steam. Mr. Sorby concludes that "by far the larger part of the quartz in granitic rocks was set free and crystallized through the action of liquid water, at a temperature of a dull-red heat, just visible in the dark. The exact temperature may, however, have varied considerably, since, if the pressure were not sufficiently great, the water might remain in the form of steam until the rock had cooled somewhat more." It has been noticed as somewhat remarkable that the quartz in granite should have been usually the last mineral to crystallize, although it is that one which is the most difficult to fuse, and which would therefore naturally be expected to have been solidified before the feldspar and the mica. But it has been shown that, when quartz is in combination with other mineral substances, it is often as readily fusible as they are; and thus what must be called accidental circumstances may have led, in the case of the rocks in question, to its being crystallized after the feldspar, which we so generally find to have modified the form of the quartz; this latter appearing as a glassy paste inclosing the accompanying minerals, instead of having a definite form of its own. It has also been observed that the feldspar in solidifying would liberate a sufficient quantity of heat to enable the quartz to retain its viscous state (Durocher); just as, on the other hand, in the quartz porphyries we see an instance of the analogous effect of the crystallizing quartz upon the feldspar. It is asked how the enormous masses of quartz which form some of the schistose rocks can have been produced? We must appeal to metamorphism. The contact of highly-heated eruptive matter might thus alter a quartz or sandstone into an almost pure quartz rock. Heat and pressure combined are mighty agents, which might also effect a similar change during the course of long ages.

That water at a high temperature can hold quartz in solution is well illustrated by the deposits of silicious sinter, thrown down by thermal springs, as, for instance, the geysers of Iceland, and by others in Kamchatka and in New Zealand: this silica often incrusts mosses and other substances in the same way that we may see calc-tuff forming petrifactions in other localities. The delicate, feathery crystallizations of silicious sinter are extremely beautiful.

The quartz of veins appears generally to have been deposited from aqueous solution, and will be seen, as has been already remarked, to contain innumerable cavities inclosing water. Occasionally these watery cavities are of large size, and may be observed without any instrumental aid.

Among the most varied and beautiful forms of quartz which have had a purely aqueous origin are all the varieties of crystalline and amorphous silica, which frequently coat the interiors of geodes and other hollow spaces in the igneous rocks, and which consist chiefly of an intermingling of chalcedony and jasper, and are conveniently grouped under the general name of agates. Pure rock-crystal, amethyst, cairngorm, and other valuable crystallized forms of quartz, are often found in connection with the same rocks, or in others of a more purely metamorphic character. All these varieties of quartz are secondary formations, deposited from watery solutions. The exact mode in which agates have originated is a question full of interest, and not easy in every case to answer. A wonderful history of mineral growth is written in the folded leaves, if one may so denote the bands of a single agate. A very large number of agates consist of more or less concentric layers of chalcedony of various colors (the colors depending on the presence of metallic oxides), together with jasper, rock-crystal, amethyst, etc., in many cases.

Chalcedony is sometimes described as a reniform condition of silica, and though apparently amorphous, when it is microscopically examined, it generally, if not always, exhibits a minute and definite radiated crystalline structure. It frequently forms stalactites, and many of the most exquisite of the banded agates are sections cut from stalactitic formations. Jasper may be looked upon as chalcedony, which, as it consolidated, caught up a certain amount of alumina, or sometimes of lime or oxide of iron. Professor Ruskin, who has paid some attention to this subject, has observed that "jasper will collect itself pisolitically out of an amorphous mass into a concretion round central points, but does not actively terminate its external surface by spherical curves; while chalcedony will energetically so terminate itself externally, but will, in ordinary cases, only develop its pisolitic structure subordinately, by forming parallel bands round any rough surface it has to cover, without collecting into spheres, unless provoked to do so by the introduction of a foreign substance, or encouraged to do so by accidentally favorable conditions of repose."

According to the same observer, some agates appear to be of the nature of concretions formed from within, round a nucleus; these would consist of chalcedony or jasper in the inner portions, and have distinctly crystallized exteriors. There is another class of agates composed of external bands of chalcedony or jasper, stalactitically deposited in a cavity which may either have a hollow center, or one filled up with crystals of quartz. There appear, however, to be intermediate varieties in which concretionary or stalactitic formations have been combined with, or interrupted by, other modes of growth.

Some of the most curious and beautiful abates are those containing dendritic crystallizations; in these we see, in the more or less transparent chalcedony, which in these agates is not banded, wonderful mossy or confervoid-like growths, often very closely resembling vegetable forms. The valuable stones from Mocha contain ferruginous brown or black inclosures, while some of the dendritic agates from India are filled with a bright-green network of what appear to be filaments of confervæ These dendritic forms in the moss-abates are mostly the oxides of iron or manganese; or in the green Indian pebbles, delessite or chlorite. The question of their origin is a difficult one. In some agates the dendrites may have resulted from a segregation of the oxides of the metals from the colloid or partially crystallized silica; in other cases they may be the effect of subsequent infiltrations; or, again, the quartz may have been consolidated around previously existing crystallizations. With regard to infiltration by these oxides, it is well known that even the most compact-looking chalcedony is permeable, as it is possible by steeping it in solutions of the aniline or other dyes to impart the most brilliant tints to agates, the dye undoubtedly gaining access to the interior of the specimen through the interspaces of its minutely crystalline structure.

In a large group of agates, of which beautiful specimens come from India, an appearance of banded formation is seen, which, upon microscopic examination, resolves itself into an infinite number of red or brown spots, regularly arranged in bands or concentric groups: these spots appear to be segregations of oxide of iron. I have not seen a specimen of this species of agate cut sufficiently thin to show whether the arrangement of these minute spots is dependent upon a banded structure in the chalcedony itself, or whether it is independent and the result of molecular force which has determined the arrangement in question. It may here be noticed that a vast number of the Indian agates come from the neighborhood of the Gulf of Cambay. Near Turkeysar there are agate conglomerates intercalated between beds of laterite which belong to the Eocene period. These conglomerates we may suppose to have been derived from the denudation of the earlier igneous rocks which abound in the same district. Uruguay, in South America, also produces a large number of remarkably fine banded agates. Sometimes well-formed quartz-crystals will be found inclosing other substances, which, in some instances, have been caught up by the crystals in the course of their formation, or have crystallized, perhaps, almost simultaneously with the quartz. In other cases the quartz is proved to have crystallized over other previously-formed crystals; thus schorl is occasionally seen partially inclosed in quartz crystals and partially free, the ends of the crystals of schorl projecting through the quartz. Titanite, asbestus, and other minerals are not unfrequently found in minute acicular forms in quartz. The quartz in the igneous rocks may frequently be seen to inclose crystals of feldspar or titanite, or portions of the matrix which must have been previously solidified.

Opal, as has already been pointed out, is a product of aqueous origin found in the fissures and amygdaloid cavities of igneous rocks. Its wondrous play of colors has given rise to much discussion by Brewster, Des Cloiseaux, and other writers. Some have attributed it to the presence of numerous cavities of varying size, which cause a kind of iridescent refraction. Des Cloiseaux was inclined to suppose that organic matter might be inclosed in small quantities in its cavities. The most reasonable supposition, however, appears to me to be that of Reusch—that light reflected or transmitted from numberless flaws in the mineral gives rise to the phenomena in question through a process of double refraction.

We may now turn to the consideration of forms of quartz which have a more or less organic origin. At the head of these may be placed such undoubtedly organic aggregations of silica as the Tripoli and semi-opal of Bohemia, which consist almost entirely of fossil diatomaceæ. Some beds of rock also in the Island of Barbadoes are found to be composed of little else than polycystinæ and spicules of sponges. Much of the flint so characteristic of the chalk-rocks, as well as the chert of the greensand and of the mountain limestone, appears to have been derived from the precipitation, by organic substances, of silica held in solution by the waters of the ocean; at any rate, much of it seems to have been thus deposited; flinty nodules are often found to consist of fossilized sponges, the silicious skeletons of which may have attracted to themselves the silica dissolved in the surrounding water. Spiculæ of sponges, diatomaceæ, foraminifera, shells, corals, and other organisms are abundant in the flint, and also in much of the chert. Recent observations by MM. Guignet and Teller have shown that the water of the Bay of Rio de Janeiro contains large quantities of both silica and alumina in solution, the amount in the case of silica being as much as 9·5 grains per cubic metre.

Wood will sometimes be found to be pseudomorphosed into silica, the woody structure being replaced atom by atom, so that the minutest vessels are perfectly preserved. Various species of palm from the East Indies are frequently found fossilized in this manner, and sections of them make very beautiful objects for the microscope. Large fragments of a partially silicified wood, named Endogenites erosa, may often be found in the neighborhood of Hastings, derived from the wealden formation.

The curious so-called mineral beekite is really coral or shelly matter which has been replaced by silica. Researches into the behavior of the colloid form of silica, already spoken of, have shown how in many instances large deposits of silica, such as the flinty bands of the cretaceous formation, may have originated. Mr. Church's experiments, made some years since, proved that the minutest particle of carbonate of lime was sufficient to transform the pure aqueous solution of silica into the solid state in the course of a few minutes; and he was able, by the infiltration of silica in solution, to replace almost entirely the carbonate of lime in recent coral by silica, producing by this means what may be looked upon as a kind of artificial beekite. Thus in the slower, perhaps, but mighty chemistry of nature, marvelous reactions may have taken place, giving rise to some of the multitudinous forms in which silica presents itself to the mineralogical student.—Science-Gossip.

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