Reading: Physical Characteristics of Minerals

What are Minerals?

All rocks except obsidian and coal are made of minerals. (Obsidian is a volcanic rock made of glass and coal is made of organic carbon.) Most rocks contain several minerals in a mixture characteristic of the particular rock type. When identifying a rock you must first identify the individual minerals that make up that rock.

Minerals are naturally occurring, inorganic solids with a definite chemical composition and a crystal lattice structure. Although thousands of minerals in the earth have been identified, just ten minerals make up most of the volume of the earth’s crust—plagioclase, quartz, orthoclase, amphibole, pyroxene, olivine, calcite, biotite, garnet, and clay.

Together, the chemical formula (the types and proportions of the chemical elements) and the crystal lattice (the geometry of how the atoms are arranged and bonded together) determine the physical properties of minerals.

The chemical formula and crystal lattice of a mineral can only be determined in a laboratory, but by examining a mineral and determining several of its physical properties, you can identify the mineral. First, you need to become familiar with the physical properties of minerals and how to recognize them.

Minerals can be identified by their physical characteristics. The physical properties of minerals are related to their chemical composition and bonding. Some characteristics, such as a mineral’s hardness, are more useful for mineral identification. Color is readily observable and certainly obvious, but it is usually less reliable than other physical properties.

How are Minerals Identified?

Figure 1. This mineral has shiny, gold, cubic crystals with striations, so it is pyrite.

Figure 1. This mineral has shiny, gold, cubic crystals with striations, so it is pyrite.

Mineralogists are scientists who study minerals. One of the things mineralogists must do is identify and categorize minerals. While a mineralogist might use a high-powered microscope to identify some minerals, most are recognizable using physical properties.

Check out the mineral in figure 1. What is the mineral’s color? What is its shape? Are the individual crystals shiny or dull? Are there lines (striations) running across the minerals?

Color, Streak, and Luster

Diamonds are popular gemstones because the way they reflect light makes them very sparkly. Turquoise is prized for its striking greenish-blue color. Notice that specific terms are being used to describe the appearance of minerals.


Figure 2. This mineral is shiny, very soft, heavy, and gold in color, and is actually gold.

Figure 2. This mineral is shiny, very soft, heavy, and gold in color, and is actually gold.

Color is often useful, but should not be relied upon. Different minerals may be the same color. Real gold, as seen in figure 2, is very similar in color to the pyrite in figure 1.

Additionally, Some minerals come in many different colors. Quartz, for example, may be clear, white, gray, brown, yellow, pink, red, or orange. So color can help, but do not rely on color as the determining property. Figure 3 shows one sample of quartz that is colorless and another quartz that is purple. A tiny amount of iron makes the quartz purple. Many minerals are colored by chemical impurities.

Figure 3. Purple quartz, known as amethyst, and clear quartz are the same mineral despite the different colors.

Figure 3. Purple quartz, known as amethyst, and clear quartz are the same mineral despite the different colors.


Luster describes the reflection of light off a mineral’s surface. Mineralogists have special terms to describe luster. One simple way to classify luster is based on whether the mineral is metallic or non-metallic. Minerals that are opaque and shiny, such as pyrite, have a metallic luster. Minerals such as quartz have a non-metallic luster.

Luster is how the surface of a mineral reflects light. It is not the same thing as color, so it is crucial to distinguish luster from color. For example, a mineral described as “shiny yellow” is being described in terms of luster (“shiny”) and color (“yellow”), which are two different physical properties. Standard names for luster include metallic, glassy, pearly, silky, greasy, and dull. It is often useful to first determine if a mineral has a metallic luster. A metallic luster means shiny like polished metal. For example cleaned polished pieces of chrome, steel, titanium, copper, and brass all exhibit metallic luster as do many other minerals. Of the nonmetallic lusters, glassy is the most common and means the surface of the mineral reflects light like glass. Pearly luster is important in identifying the feldspars, which are the most common type of mineral. Pearly luster refers to a subtle iridescence or color play in the reflected light, same way pearls reflect light. Silky means reflecting light with a silk-like sheen. Greasy luster looks similar to the luster of solidified bacon grease. Minerals with dull luster reflect very little light. Identifying luster takes a little practice. Remember to distinguish luster from color.

Different types of non-metallic luster are described in table 1.

Table 1. Six types of non-metallic luster.
Luster Appearance
Adamantine Sparkly
Earthy Dull, clay-like
Pearly Pearl-like
Resinous Like resins, such as tree sap
Silky Soft-looking with long fibers
Vitreous Glassy

Can you match the minerals in figure 4 with the correct luster from table 1?

A) Diamond. B) Quartz. C) Sulfur

Figure 4. (a) Diamond has an adamantine luster. (b) Quartz is not sparkly and has a vitreous, or glassy, luster. (c) Sulfur reflects less light than quartz, so it has a resinous luster.


Hand moving a rock across porcelain, leaving a red-brown mark.

Figure 5. The streak of hematite across an unglazed porcelain plate is red-brown.

Streak is the color of a mineral’s powder. Streak is a more reliable property than color because streak does not vary. Minerals that are the same color may have a different colored streak. Many minerals, such as the quartz in the figure 3, do not have streak.

To check streak, scrape the mineral across an unglazed porcelain plate (Figure 5). Yellow-gold pyrite has a blackish streak, another indicator that pyrite is not gold, which has a golden yellow streak.

Specific Gravity

Density describes how much matter is in a certain amount of space: density = mass/volume.

Mass is a measure of the amount of matter in an object. The amount of space an object takes up is described by its volume. The density of an object depends on its mass and its volume. For example, the water in a drinking glass has the same density as the water in the same volume of a swimming pool.

The specific gravity of a substance compares its density to that of water. Substances that are more dense have higher specific gravity.


Hardness is the strength with which a mineral resists its surface being scraped or punctured. In working with hand samples without specialized tools, mineral hardness is specified by the Mohs hardness scale. The Mohs hardness scale is based on 10 reference minerals, from talc the softest (Mohs hardness of 1), to diamond the hardest (Mohs hardness of 10). It is a relative, or nonlinear, scale. A hardness of 2.5 simply means that the mineral is harder than gypsum (Mohs hardness of 2) and softer than calcite (Mohs hardness of 3). To compare the hardness of two minerals see which mineral scratches the surface of the other.

Table 2. Mohs Hardness Scale
Hardness Index Minerals Common Objects
1 talc
2 gypsum 2.5-fingernail
3 calcite 3.5-pure, untarnished copper
4 fluorite
5 feldspar 5 to 5.5-stainless steel
5.5 to 6-glass
6 apatite 6 to 6.5-hard steel file
7 quartz
8 topaz
9 corundum
10 diamond

With a Mohs scale, anyone can test an unknown mineral for its hardness. Imagine you have an unknown mineral. You find that it can scratch fluorite or even feldspar, but apatite scratches it. You know then that the mineral’s hardness is between 5 and 6. Note that no other mineral can scratch diamond.

Cleavage and Fracture

Breaking a mineral breaks its chemical bonds. Since some bonds are weaker than other bonds, each type of mineral is likely to break where the bonds between the atoms are weaker. For that reason, minerals break apart in characteristic ways.


The sodium chloride forms cubes with an X shape in the middle

Figure 6. A close-up view of sodium chloride in a water bubble aboard the International Space Station.

Cleavage is the tendency of a mineral to break along certain planes to make smooth surfaces. Halite breaks between layers of sodium and chlorine to form cubes with smooth surfaces (figure 6).

A mineral that naturally breaks into perfectly flat surfaces is exhibiting cleavage. Not all minerals have cleavage. A cleavage represents a direction of weakness in the crystal lattice. Cleavage surfaces can be distinguished by how they consistently reflect light, as if polished, smooth, and even. The cleavage properties of a mineral are described in terms of the number of cleavages and, if more than one cleavage, the angles between the cleavages. The number of cleavages is the number or directions in which the mineral cleaves. A mineral may exhibit 100 cleavage surfaces parallel to each other. Those represent a single cleavage because the surfaces are all oriented in the same direction. The possible number of cleavages a mineral may have are 1,2,3,4, or 6. If more than 1 cleavage is present, and a device for measuring angles is not available, simply state whether the cleavages intersect at 90° or not 90°.

To see mineral cleavage, hold the mineral up beneath a strong light and move it around, move it around some more, to see how the different sides reflect light. A cleavage direction will show up as a smooth, shiny, evenly bright sheen of light reflected by one set of parallel surfaces on the mineral.

Mica has cleavage in one direction and forms sheets (figure 7).

A series of thin, brittle-looking stone sheets

Figure 7. Sheets of mica.

A clouded diamond in an octahedral shape

Figure 8. This rough diamond shows its octahedral cleavage.

Minerals can cleave into polygons. Fluorite forms octahedrons (figure 8).

One reason gemstones are beautiful is that the cleavage planes make an attractive crystal shape with smooth faces.


Fracture is a break in a mineral that is not along a cleavage plane. Fracture is not always the same in the same mineral because fracture is not determined by the structure of the mineral.

Minerals may have characteristic fractures (figure 9). Metals usually fracture into jagged edges. If a mineral splinters like wood, it may be fibrous. Some minerals, such as quartz, form smooth curved surfaces when they fracture.

A striated stone with thin, wispy pieces coming off of it

Figure 9. Chrysotile has a splintery fracture.

All minerals have fractures. Fracture is breakage, which occurs in directions that are not cleavage directions. Some minerals, such as quartz, have no cleavage whatsoever. When a mineral with no cleavage is broken apart by a hammer, it fractures in all directions. Quartz is said to exhibit conchoidal fracture. Conchoidal fracture is the way a thick piece of glass breaks with concentric, curving ridges on the broken surfaces. However, some quartz crystals have so many flaws that instead of exhibiting conchoidal fracture they simply exhibit irregular fracture. Irregular fracture is a standard term for fractures that do not exhibit any of the qualities of the other fracture types. In introductory geology, the key fracture types to remember are irregular, which most minerals exhibit, and conchoidal, seen in quartz.

Crystal Shape

All minerals are crystalline, but only some have the opportunity to exhibit the shapes of their crystals, their crystal forms. Many minerals in an introductory geology lab do not exhibit their crystal form. If a mineral has space while it grows, it may form natural crystals, with a crystal shape reflecting the geometry of the mineral’s internal crystal lattice. The shape of a crystal follows the symmetry of its crystal lattice. Quartz, for instance, forms six-sided crystals, showing the hexagonal symmetry of its crystal lattice. There are two complicating factors to remember here: (1) minerals do not always form nice crystals when they grow, and (2) a crystal face is different from a cleavage surface. A crystal face forms during the growth of the mineral. A cleavage surface is formed when the mineral is broken.

Other Identifying Characteristics

There are some properties that only help to distinguish a small number of minerals, or even just a single mineral. An example of such a special property is the effervescent reaction of calcite to a weak solution of hydrochloric acid (5% HCl). Calcite fizzes or effervesces as the HCl solution dissolves it and creates CO2 gas. Calcite is easy to identify even without testing the reaction to HCl, by its hardness, luster and cleavage.

Another special property is magnetism. This can be tested by seeing if a small magnet responds to the mineral. The most common mineral that is strongly magnetic is the mineral magnetite. A special property that shows up in some samples of plagioclase feldspar is its tendency to exhibit striations on cleavage surfaces. Striations are perfectly straight, fine, parallel lines. Magnification may be required to see striations on plagioclase cleavage surfaces. Other special properties may be encountered on a mineral-to-mineral basis.

Some minerals have other unique properties, some of which are listed in table 3. Can you name a unique property that would allow you to instantly identify a mineral that’s been described quite a bit in this chapter? (Hint: It is most likely found on your dinner table.)

Table 3. Some minerals have unusual properties that can be used for identification.
Property Description Example of Mineral
Fluorescence Mineral glows under ultraviolet light Fluorite
Magnetism Mineral is attracted to a magnet Magnetite
Radioactivity Mineral gives off radiation that can be measured with Geiger counter Uraninite
Reactivity Bubbles form when mineral is exposed to a weak acid Calcite
Smell Some minerals have a distinctive smell Sulfur (smells like rotten eggs)
Taste Some minerals taste salty Halite



Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More