Maybe you remember finding a shiny golden rock in the wilderness as a kid and holding it up in wonder and excitement. “I’ve just found GOLD,” you declared in glee to your parents, who then sadly shook their heads.
“No, that’s fool’s gold,” they explained as your face fell in turn.
Fool’s gold is formally known as “iron pyrite,” or simply “pyrite.” While it is regularly confused with gold in the wilderness, it has no relation to gold whatsoever. With the chemical formula FeS2, it is actually an iron sulfide.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What is Pyrite?
As just discussed, pyrite is a sulfite mineral, and actually the most common among them. The name is derived from the Greek word pyritēs, which translates to “in fire” or “of fire.”
Over the years, this name was actually applied to several different types of minerals, something I will delve into in the section on History.
Pyrite Properties and Color
The resemblance of pyrite to gold is actually quite superficial. The shiny brassy glint is certainly enough to throw off a collector hunting for rocks, but once you learn to recognize pyrite, it is fairly unlikely you’d mix it up with real gold.
For one thing, while the color of pyrite may vary anywhere from a golden hue to a more silvery tone, it typically is a lot less saturated and “cooler” in tone than actual gold. Gold tends to be a very warm, vivid yellowish color.
For another thing, the formations of the two are very different in nature. If you have ever seen raw gold, you know that it is a rough mass—not a crystal structure.
Pyrite on the other hand forms large and small crystals. The small crystals glitter magnificently; the larger ones can have lovely geometric forms (often perfect cubes).
Pyrite is widely used in the industrial production of sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide is used in many different industries; it is a component in the production of sulfuric acid, and also is used in the manufacturing of paper. Pyrite is also used in the cathodes of lithium non-rechargeable batteries. It further can serve as a semiconductor.
Historically, it had other uses as well—scroll down to the History section to find out more.
Pyrite is used in jewelry and may commonly be used as a substitute for marcasite, a mineral commonly mistaken for pyrite. Marcasite is also an iron sulfide, and actually has the exact same chemical formula as pyrite.
Sometimes it is known as “white iron pyrite.” It has a different crystal structure however and is quite a bit more brittle than pyrite. For this reason, marcasite easily crumbles and is not suitable for use in jewelry.
If you purchase “marcasite jewelry,” you almost certainly are purchasing pyrite jewelry. Marcasite jewelry was very popular in Victorian times, and is still relatively popular today.
Pyrite Buying Guide
While pyrite is very common, you will discover while shopping for pyrite gemstones and jewelry that it can sometimes be quite pricey.
For that reason, it is helpful to know a little bit more about shopping for pyrite before you pull out your wallet at the rock shop.
Pyrite is very cheap if you are buying it wholesale. You can get a whole pound for around $10. You will find a great deal of variation in price, however, depending on what you are shopping for.
If for example you are shopping for raw pyrite, you may find that some specimens are valued very highly because of the unique formations of the crystals. In those cases, you may actually spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars for just one cluster.
The cost of pyrite jewelry can also vary dramatically. Some pieces are very cheap because they use nothing but wholesale pyrite and cheap materials. Others however may cost you a great deal of money because they feature unique specimens of raw pyrite or use pricier metals for the setting. Some pyrite jewelry may also showcase other gemstones (as seen below).
Craftsmanship is another factor to consider. A piece which features particularly intricate or unique craftsmanship may cost you a great deal more than something which is overly simplistic or mass-produced. If you buy something handcrafted, you will pay a higher price for it.
Most pyrite jewelry actually features raw specimens. This is because while pyrite can be tumbled and polished, even turned into beads, it is very hard to get a smooth finish. Tumbling and polishing can bring out the metallic shine, but most pieces will be pockmarked, giving them a look of imperfection.
Pyrite may also sometimes be faceted. This may be a process done by a jeweler, or it may just be the natural facets of the pyrite crystals in their raw form. When you see irregular faceting, you are probably looking at raw pyrite crystals. Regular faceting is always done by a jeweler.
Pyrite Engagement Rings
Pyrite engagement rings are not very common. This is probably because most people want a transparent gemstone or something more colorful. Pyrite simply looks like more metal, and in terms of color it is not very striking.
It is hard to know what metal to set it in. While its color is usually most similar to gold, setting it in actual gold may cause the pyrite itself to look dull. You may still find a few handcrafted pyrite engagement rings, usually featuring raw crystals.
Now, that having been said, you will find marcasite engagement rings. As mentioned earlier, marcasite was a popular fashion in Victorian times, and has a lovely vintage appeal today.
Marcasite jewelry uses many small pieces of pyrite to create ornate patterns and beautiful settings for diamonds and other gemstones (it can also be quite spectacular on its own).
Actual marcasite is “white iron pyrite,” but as discussed earlier, it is incredibly brittle and can easily crumble. This is why the majority of marcasite engagement rings are actually made out of regular pyrite.
- Pyrite is a 6-6.5 on the Mohs scale of hardness, which makes it reasonably durable for daily wear. Because it has a stronger crystal structure than white iron pyrite, it makes a good choice for marcasite jewelry.
- When pyrite is used in a marcasite style, it has beautiful vintage look.
- Pyrite in its raw form can be dazzling to behold and makes for a wonderful conversation piece when it is used in jewelry.
- Because pyrite is not a traditional choice for engagement rings, it is not a great option for the majority of recipients.
- Even though pyrite is reasonably durable, some crystals may still be fragile because of their specific formations. So raw pyrite pieces may still be in danger of fracturing, especially rings.
- Pyrite is not all that stable, so even if it does not get scratched, you may have problems with deterioration (I get into this in detail below) and black dust.
- Pyrite rings may not make the best heirlooms, since the pyrite itself will probably not have a very high value (compared to a diamond).
- It is hard to pick a metal setting to match to pyrite. You want to complement the pyrite without making it appear dull.
If you are thinking about getting a partner a pyrite engagement ring, always make sure to double check with them. Some people will only be happy with a diamond, so even if you know your recipient is a big pyrite fan, it is better to be safe than sorry!
How to Clean, Wear, and Store Pyrite
Cleaning pyrite is actually a somewhat complex topic compared to cleaning most minerals. There are a couple of reasons for this.
One is that pyrite is commonly kept in its raw form, both for jewelry and display. That means that your piece may have a lot of nooks and crannies and fragile crystals to clean.
The other reason is that pyrite is reasonably hard but still not entirely stable (and yes, I am referring to all pyrite, not just marcasite). This means that it can tarnish easily and may regularly need cleaning and polishing. Plus, it tends to produce an annoying black dust when it rubs against other surfaces.
To some extent you may be able to prevent the issue with the black dust. You might be able to coat your pyrite with a lacquer to provide a layer of protection, but be sure that you are using an appropriate substance that will not cause damage or annoying flaking or discoloration.
If you are wearing pyrite beads on a string and they are rubbing together and constantly producing the dust, you can try cleaning and then restringing them to prevent the problem.
Little knots between the beads to act as spacers may help (like you will often see with pearls). Do everything you can to prevent deterioration. Many people report that once pyrite deterioration begins, it can be hard to halt it.
Never use an ultrasonic or steam cleaner on pyrite, especially real marcasite. All washing should be done very carefully by hand using a soft old toothbrush and mild detergent. Wipe pyrite dry with care or leave it to air dry (air drying is much better if you have a raw specimen).
Polishing should only be done with a very soft jeweler’s polishing cloth. Anything else may cause the problem with the black dust to worsen, not improve.
As you might guess, pyrite needs to be stored very carefully. If it rubs against other jewelry, the black dust problem may set in. Always keep pyrite in its own soft pouch or box.
You should be careful wearing pyrite as well, especially pyrite rings. You should never expose pyrite to harsh chemicals, and you want to make sure it is not rubbing against anything when you wear it (even a rough fabric like cotton might worsen the problem with the black dust).
As mentioned previously, if you are wearing pyrite beads, spacers should be added to the string if they are not already present.
Pyrite is found throughout the world and has a long and rich history. It has been used in jewelry as well as other ornamental work since antiquity. Archaeologists have found pyrite jewelry designed by ancient Greeks and Romans.
In South America, the ancient Incans and Mayans fashioned pyrite into mirrors. Seldom were single large pieces used; instead, numerous smaller slabs were worked together into mosaics. These mirrors generally were used for ritualistic purposes, rather than for cosmetic reasons.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, pyrite was used as one of the components in firearm wheel locks. Pyrite helps to provide the sparks for ignition, which allowed the gun to fire.
It has also been used since antiquity to manufacture iron(II) sulfate. This was done in a relatively simple fashion. Manufacturers simply piled up the pyrite and waited as it weathered, producing acid runoff. This runoff was collected and boiled with iron. The resulting product was iron sulfate. This process is known as “heap leaching.”
You may be curious about this acid runoff. While it is clearly useful in industry, you may wonder what happens in nature when pyrite weathers. Indeed, the sulfuric acid produced by decomposing pyrite in combination with water can be dangerous ecologically. It may result in acid rock drainage as well as acid rain.
This can be particularly dangerous when humans become involved. One well-known incident was the 2015 Gold King Mine wastewater spill. This happened in an area with pyrite, leading to acid rock drainage. The acidic content of the runoff was so high that the river it flowed out through turned orange.
Heap leaching was used for a very long time; however it was not the most popular method until the 19th century. Another method involving burning sulfur was widely used up until the 15th century, when manufacturers first began to realize that heap leaching was a more efficient process. As mentioned previously, pyrite continues to play an important role in industry today.
Because pyrite can be used to generate sparks (as in wheel locks), it is readily associated with energy. For that reason, it may be worn or carried by those who are embarking on new ventures and want a little extra boost in their luck.
Despite the fact that pyrite is fool’s gold, it is still readily associated with wealth. As such, it is an excellent stone for increasing self-confidence, which makes it a great choice for those who are in positions of leadership and responsibility.
Similar and Related Gemstones
- Gold: While large pieces of gold are generally quite easy to tell apart from pyrite, you may have a trickier time if all you have are some small flakes. In cases like these, look for the telltale black streak on pyrite. Gold displays a yellow streak instead. Gold is also much softer and less brittle than pyrite. With practice, distinguishing the two is usually not difficult.
- Marcasite: Marcasite is a type of pyrite, so telling it apart from the standard variety can be very difficult. The crystal formations of the two are different, however, so if you have large pieces in raw form, you may learn to tell them apart. With smaller pieces, it can be extremely difficult. In jewelry, it is often impossible to distinguish the two without close examination. But again, standard pyrite is far more likely to be used since marcasite is so brittle.
- Cobalite: This mineral, like pyrite, is not the bright yellow of gold. Whereas pyrite is still somewhat yellowish in most cases, cobalite lacks that tone altogether, and has a steely gray color instead. It is also softer than pyrite.
- Pyrrhotite: This iron sulfide mineral looks very similar to pyrite, but it is softer. The crystals it forms are different; with practice you can learn to distinguish between the two. Its color is also distinctly different. Whereas pyrite is a grayish-gold color, pyrrhotite has a reddish tint to it, almost coppery.
- Chalcopyrite: This mineral is tough to tell apart from pyrite as well. It is softer, however, and the yellow color is more vivid. In fact, you might mix this one up with gold even more readily as a result.
Pyrite may only be “fool’s gold,” but it is a captivating mineral nonetheless. Its role in history and industry is fascinating. While in some ways it is not an ideal mineral for jewelry, properly lacquered and cared for, it may make a beautiful choice.
In its raw form, it looks great in any collector’s display case. Because it is common, it is often undervalued. But really, any gem enthusiast would be a fool not to love it!