Mexico's El Refugio Mine is Closed

Write By: tmmadmin Published In: Classic Mineral Localities Created Date: 2015-01-09 Hits: 2744 Comment: 0

Classic specimens of pink, blue and lavender smithsonite from the El Refugio Mine, Choix, Sinoloa have been reaching the mineral market since the mid 60's, brought north by a variety of dealers. In the mid 1990's, Benny Fenn did a major mining project, recovering many tons of material. Sadly, the mine closed recently, after a brief "last hurrah" of specimens was taken out from under the mine road itself. After that it was covered, and the area around the mine filled with debris. Mexican mineral expert Pete Megaw confirms this, and states that the mine is now probably all mined out and few additional finds will be made. In late 2009 and early 2010, some fearless Mexican mineral specimen miners went back into the old workings and were able to collect a few smithsonite specimens in shades of pink, blue and lavender. At Tucson 2011, we were able to purchase a number of these new specimens, as well as some older material that came out of wholesale dealers' inventory. For now, that means we have a good supply of top quality smithsonite, but when it's gone, there will be no replacements available.

4 1/4" botryoidal baby pink smithsonite from the El Refugio Mine

Smithsonite is named for James Smithson, the founder of the Smithsonian Institution. The luster of smithsonite sets it apart from other minerals: it has a silky to pearly luster giving natural specimens a certain play of light across its surface that resembles the fine luster of melted wax glowing under a candle flame. It is easy to wax poetically (pun intended) when discussing smithsonite's unique luster. It is really unusual and captivating and collectors can easily get hooked.

In addition to wonderful luster, smithsonite also has a varied color assortment. The apple green to blue-green color is probably smithsonite's most well known color, but it is its pink and purple to lavender color that is probably its' most sought after hue. There also exists attractive yellow, white, tan, brown, blue, orange, peach, colorless, pink and red smithsonite specimens and all of them are a credit to this mineral.

Close up of a smithsonite's silky to pearly luster, showing the play of light that
resembles the fine sheen of melted wax glowing under a candle flame

The typical crystal habit of smithsonite is an interesting form called botryoidal. This form has the appearance of grape bunches and is the result of radiating fibrous crystals that form from central attachment points and grow outward and into each other. The result is a rounded, bubbly landscape for which smithsonite is considered the classic example. There are also other habits more typical of calcite group minerals including rounded rhombohedrons and scalenohedrons. Most of these come from the famous mines of Tsumeb, Namibia and the Broken Hill Mine in Zambia. The Tsumeb specimens are colored by trace amounts of cobalt and can have some real exotic colors. The Kelly Mine in Magdalena, New Mexico has produced the absolute finest blue-green botryoidal masses of smithsonite. And there are many other localities that have or are producing excellent specimens.

Smithsonite has been and is still being used as an important, although rather minor ore of zinc. At Leadville, Colorado the smithsonite deposits were largely overlooked until their profit potential was finally realized. Many other zinc ore minerals may have been originally smithsonite before metamorphism or other altering processes, formed new minerals. Smithsonite forms in dry climates as a weathering product of primary sulfide zinc ores such as sphalerite.

4" botryoidal purple smithsonite crystals from the El Refugio Mine

Smithsonite is not easy to confuse with many other minerals. Hemimorphite has a similar botryoidal habit and blue-green color, but the fracture edges of smithsonite's specimens have a plastic-like look while hemimorphite reveals minute, radiating crystals. Prehnite has similar color and habit as well, but is much lighter and harder. Both of these minerals lack the melted wax luster of smithsonite. Its high density, good cleavage, crystal habit, luster, its reaction to hot HCl acid and its high hardness for a carbonate are all quite conclusive for smithsonite to be differentiated from all other minerals. With its lovely luster, many beautiful colors and interesting habits, smithsonite specimens are a source of real pleasure for collectors around the world.

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