“Pale by day but of a fiery luster by night.” Pliny the Elder said this describing a stone known at the time as “chrysolampis.” Some academics speculate Pliny was referring to a fluorite specimen and it’s unique characteristic — phosphorescence.
Fluorite in Ancient Times
The word “fluorescent” actually comes from the word fluorite, not the other way around. Fluorescence occurs when a material is exposed to UV light and emits light in the visible color spectrum, appearing to glow while it’s exposed to the ultraviolet light. And phosphorescence is when the material continues to emit that visible light after the ultraviolet light has been removed. Julia Griffith discusses fluorescence in-depth in a “phenomenal” (Get it?) video which I’ll link to in my description.
Most, though not all, fluorite is fluorescent and the stone has been known to fluoresce in every color. We don’t know how early the fluorescence and phosphorescence of fluorite was discovered, it’s not like they had black-lights 2,000 years ago. But we do know it was nonetheless prized in ancient times for it’s vivid colors and translucency.
Archaeologists have found Thai and Chinese fluorite objects from 1,000 years ago.
We also know that the Sumerians used fluorite, as did the ancient Greeks and Romans. Although, we can’t be certain to what extent fluorite was used as it is difficult to preserve due to its fragile nature. Fluorite found in the form of vases, incense burners, goblets and figurines paint only a part of the picture for us.
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The Romans had a special obsession with fluorite, as recorded by Pliny the Elder.
Emperors were said to spend the modern equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single stone. It was said that Gaius Petronius, an author and courtier during the reign of Nero — after being denounced to the emperor, destroyed his prized fluorite specimen rather than have it fall into the hands of Nero. Because, ya know, if I can’t have it – no one can.
Pliny wrote of this “It came to be deemed the proof of wealth, the true glory of luxury — to possess something that might be destroyed in a moment.”
It’s believed today that when Pliny wrote of “vasa myrrhina,” he was referring to vessels carved from banded fluorite imported from Parthia.
In fact, the word “fluorite” wasn’t even introduced until 1833. Preceding it’s modern nomenclature, fluorite was called “spath” and later “spar,” which eventually is where the term “fluorspar” came from. “Fluor” likely came from the Latin “fleure,” which means to flow, referring to fluorites use as flux in the smelting process.
The Fluorite Renaissance
Commercial fluorite mining did not start until around the mid to late 19th century when fluorite started being used as flux in the mass production of steel. This new availability of the material led to an increase in fluorite research at a time where mineralogy was making a lot of progress. Scientists wanted to understand fluorite’s “fluid inclusions” which can consist of gases, aqueous liquids and even petroleum.
Solid, quality research was taking place in 1843 when the smell of purple fluorite was investigated by a German professor. Yes, purple fluorite gives off an odor when cleaved or ground. That would really stink to be the scientist tasked with figuring that out. One scientist thought that the gas emitted from purple fluorite was hypochlorous acid, but that theory just didn’t smell right so a chemist proposed that the smell was caused by antozone, and even though that theory turned out to be incorrect, purple fluorite still today may be called “antozonite” by some mineral collectors.
Due to the 20th century boom in demand for steel, hundreds of fluorite mines opened up across the US and Europe, and the continuing industrial demand is the reason collector specimens are still being found and sold.
Over time, fluorite became more widely known and desire increased among mineral collectors. Fluorite is actually so significant that it even became the Illinois State Mineral in 1965!
What many collectors don’t know is that fluorite has industrial applications as lens material for microscopes and cameras, and it’s also a major source of fluorine that’s ultimately used in the production of toothpaste and hydrofluoric acid.
The world still needs to mine fluorite for industrial applications, so we’ll continue to see it on the mineral and jewelry market, but a lot of fluorite mining has moved away from the US and Europe. You’ll mostly see fluorite today coming out of Mexico, China, South Africa. These specimens are from Spain and Madagascar.
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