Dioptase is an intense emerald-green to bluish-green copper cyclosilicate mineral. It is transparent to translucent. Its luster is vitreous to sub-adamantine. Its formula is CuSiO3Â·H2O (also reported as: CuSiO2(OH)2). It has a hardness of 5, the same as tooth enamel. It specific gravity is 3.28 – 3.35, and it has two perfect and one very good cleavage directions. Additionally, dioptase is very fragile and specimens must be handled with great care. It is a trigonal mineral, forming 6-sided crystals that are terminated by rhombohedron’s.
Late in the 18th century, copper miners in Kazakhstan thought they found an emerald deposit of their dreams, they found fantastic cavities in quartz veins in a limestone, filled with thousands of lustrous emerald-green transparent crystals. The crystals were dispatched to Moscow, Russia for analysis. However the minerals inferior hardness of 5 compared with emerald’s greater hardness of 8 easily distinguished it. Later Fr. Rene Just Hauy (the famed French mineralogist) in 1797 determined that the enigmatic Kazakhstani mineral was new to science and named it dioptase (Greek, dia, “through” and optima, “vision”), alluding to the mineral’s two cleavage directions that are visible inside unbroken crystals.
Dioptase is a rare mineral found mostly in desert regions were it forms as a secondary mineral in the oxidized zone of copper sulfide mineral deposits. However, the process of its formation is not simple, the oxidation of copper sulfides should be insufficient to crystallize dioptase as silica is normally minutely soluble in water except at highly alkaline pH. The oxidation of sulfides will generate highly acidic fluids rich in sulfuric acid that should suppress silica solubility. However, in dry climates and with enough time, especially in areas of a mineral deposit where acids are buffered by carbonate, minute quantities of silica may react with dissolved copper forming dioptase and chrysocolla.
The Altyn Tube mine still provides handsome specimens, a brownish quartzite host distinguishes its specimens from other localities. The finest specimens of all were found at the now-closed Tsumeb Mine in Namibia. Tsumeb diopside is wonderfully lustrous and transparent, with its crystal often perched on an attractive snow white carbonate matrix. Dioptase is also found in the deserts of the southwestern USA. A notable occurrence is the Mammoth-Saint Anthony Mine in Tiger, Arizona where small crystals that make fine micromount specimens are found. Finally, an interesting occurrence is the Malpaso Quarry in Argentina. Here tiny bluish-green dioptase is found on and in quartz. It appears at this occurrence, dioptase is primary and has crystallized with quartz, native copper and malachite.
Dioptase is popular with mineral collectors and it is occasionally cut into small emerald-like gems. Dioptase and chrysocolla are the only relatively common copper silicate minerals. A rare dioptase gem should never be exposed to ultrasonic cleaning or the fragile gem will shatter.