What Is Cinnabar?
Cinnabar is a breathtakingly beautiful gemstone, often exhibiting exceptionally brilliant coloring and a variety of lusters that add visual interest. Generally, cinnabar is a collector’s stone, though it does have other uses. However, caution is critical if you’re looking for cinnabar jewelry, as there are potential risks.
Still, having a piece of cinnabar safely stored can feel like a boon for collectors. If you’d like to learn more about the properties of cinnabar, its meaning and uses, and more, here’s a closer look at the cinnabar gemstone.
Properties of Cinnabar
As is the case with many gemstones, cinnabar isn’t technically classified as a gem. Instead, it’s a sulfide mineral, a mercury sulfide mineral, to be precise.
Typically, cinnabar doesn’t form in crystals. Instead, it’s more commonly seen as granular or massive aggregates, potentially featuring a powdery coating, though not always. However, cinnabar crystals do occur on occasion. Usually, they’re prismatic, tabular, or rhombohedral when they form in a crystal-like shape.
When it comes to the luster, it essentially runs the gamut. Some samples are duller, often having a waxy appearance when polished. Other pieces have an adamantine luster, not unlike what you see with diamonds. Cinnabar can occur between those two sheens at any point, creating a wide variety of shine levels. Additionally, cinnabar can run from opaque to transparent, further expanding the potential appearance of the mineral.
Generally, cinnabar is fragile and soft, coming in between a 2.0 and 2.5 on the Mohs hardness scale. As a result, it’s not frequently faceted. However, its low level of hardness makes it ideal for carvings, and it works well for cabochons.
Is Cinnabar Poisonous?
Since Cinnabar contains mercury, many wonder, “Is cinnabar poisonous?” Technically, cinnabar is a toxic material. Generally, the risk is greatest when the material is scratched, sanded, cut, or polished. In those situations, the gem can release dust that’s possible to inhale. As a result, care is recommended if you’re working with the material. For example, gloves, breathing masks, and eye protection are wise to prevent accidental mercury exposure.
When cleaning cinnabar, only use soft materials, like soft-bristled brushes or microfiber cloths. That reduces the chance of accidental scratches. Additionally, use only mild detergents and water.
Cinnabar Meaning & Uses
When it comes to the origins of the name, “cinnabar” is derived from “cinnabaris,” which is a medieval Latin term that essentially translates to “dragon’s blood.” It’s generally considered a stone of power and luck, though some consider it a transformational stone.
Due to its coloring, cinnabar is associated with the root chakra, though some also connect it to the sacral. It’s also believed by many that cinnabar supports willpower and increases determination.
However, it’s critical to remember that there’s no scientific evidence that gemstones like cinnabar provide any mental or physical health benefits. Additionally, due to the mercury content, improper handling comes with risk. As a result, don’t use cinnabar as a substitute for medical care, and exercise caution when in contact with the stone.
What Is Cinnabar Used For?
Cinnabar is a major source of mercury. While mercury isn’t as widely used today as in years past due to its known toxicity, it still serves an industrial purpose in some cases. For example, mercury is still harnessed during certain production activities in the chemical industry, such as the creation of caustic soda and chlorine. Additionally, certain light bulbs and batteries feature mercury. As a result, cinnabar was often processed to access the mercury within its composition.
Since ancient times, cinnabar was also used as a pigment. The stone is reasonably easy to powder, and the powder was combined with various liquids to create paints and coatings. In many cases, the shades known as “Chinese Red” and “Vermilion” featured cinnabar, and some paints and coatings featuring those colors still include cinnabar today. However, it’s less common than in previous centuries.
In some regions, powdered cinnabar also had a ceremonial function. There are also parts of the world where powdered cinnabar became a cosmetic, though its use in that context declined dramatically once awareness of its toxicity spread.
Cinnabar is also a collector’s stone. Due to its toxicity, handling cinnabar isn’t generally recommended. As a result, it’s less popular for jewelry or similar ornamental applications where contact with the stone is common.
As the origins of the name suggest, cinnabar is usually an earthy red, often leaning into brown territory. In many cases, the hue isn’t unlike red brick when cinnabar is in its natural form. However, cinnabar crystals may have a stronger red hue with less earthiness.
Some pieces of cinnabar – or sections of larger stones – have grayish tints or areas with a mid-toned color not unlike lead. However, those portions aren’t as desirable as the red hues more commonly associated with the cinnabar gemstone.
Where Is Cinnabar Found?
Cinnabar is found in several places on the planet, primarily near volcanic regions. It’s believed that Egyptian mines were operating as early as 2000 to 1000 BC, though the exact date isn’t clear. There’s also evidence that mines existed in Spain 2,000 years ago at least, and Spain is still a source of cinnabar crystals today.
China is also a major source of cinnabar, and its use in lacquers is why the hue associated with the coating is often referred to as “Chinese Red.” Its popularity in China through the ages is partially due to red being viewed as a lucky color.
There are also cinnabar deposits in other areas of the world. Specimens are found in Italy, Peru, the Philippines, Serbia, the United States, and many other countries.
Generally speaking, you don’t see as much cinnabar jewelry as one might expect. Due to the toxicity risks, major chains naturally don’t produce cinnabar jewelry, as the production process involves a significant amount of risk due to the presence of mercury in the stone.
In some cases, independent designers will use cinnabar in their creations. With this, the creators either use specific processes and safety equipment to protect themselves from harm or use antique cinnabar gemstones and put them in new settings.
Many jewelry pieces that say they contain cinnabar actually use imitation stones. With those, there isn’t any risk of toxicity. However, reputable jewelry makers and sellers will openly state that the gem isn’t genuine.
Is Cinnabar Jewelry Dangerous?
In most cases, genuine cinnabar in a piece of jewelry is considered low-risk but not necessarily risk-free. Usually, it requires heat to release the mercury from the material, and the amount of warmth produced by the body typically isn’t enough.
However, scratches to the surface can also pose a risk. Since that’s the case, cinnabar shouldn’t be worn on any high-contact area, such as the hands, making jewelry like bracelets and rings ill-advised. Still, even with low-contact pieces – including earrings and necklaces – the risk is never zero, so keep that in mind.
How to Tell Real Cinnabar
As with many other gemstones, fake cinnabar isn’t uncommon. You might encounter dyed stones or plastic or resin reproductions that aren’t cinnabar marketed as cinnabar. When it comes to authentic cinnabar lacquer, which is more commonly seen in antique pieces, fakes usually feature other materials or coatings instead of real cinnabar lacquer.
For gemstones, imitation cinnabar is often created using plastic or resin dyed red. Along with having a similar color, you can cast the materials to feature relief designs or faux carvings. Usually, the biggest sign that it isn’t genuine is the weight, as plastics and resins feel comparatively light. Fakes may also feel cooler to the touch.
Though dyed stones sold as cinnabar are another material, the piece may feel genuine since it relies on a gemstone. However, the coloring may be brighter than you expect. Additionally, you might find patterning that isn’t classically associated with the stone.
In most cases, the easiest way to distinguish genuine cinnabar lacquered pieces from imitations is by using a magnifying glass to find grain patterns or layers on the surface. Plastic or resin reproductions won’t feature grain patterns or layering, instead being relatively smooth. Plus, resins and plastics often have seams, which is another sign of a fake.