From the Vault - featured items from our collection

Two pieces of pyrite for the Sam Waller Museum collection


This collection’s item is actually two pieces of pyrite. Pyrite is an iron sulfide and the most common of the sulfide minerals. It is found in Manitoba. Because of its gold colour it has been called “fool’s gold”. However, there are many differences between pyrite and gold. First of all, when found in nature gold is usually dull whereas pyrite will shine – pyrite is also a darker colour, closer to brass, whereas gold is a brighter yellow colour. Pyrite is much harder than gold, which will easily dent with a fingernail in its purest forms. Pyrite is also much more angular, whereas gold has a softer, rounded appearance. Gold is much heavier than pyrite and finally, for those who want a fool-proof test, there is the streak test. The streak test is a method by which a mineral is rubbed against an unglazed ceramic plate. The colour of the remaining “streak” of powder of the mineral will help give a positive mineral identification. Pyrite will leave behind a green-black streak, while gold will leave a bright yellow powder.

The name pyrite likely comes from the Greek word (or a variation on) pyr, which means fire. This is because when struck with metal or another hard surface pyrite creates sparks. It was used in wheel lock guns to create the spark needed to project the shot, though it has been used in other guns as well.

Pyrite was used in jewellery in the mid-1800s but tarnishes easily, limiting its usefulness in this role. While today pyrite isn’t sought out for its own properties (it is actually a poor source of either iron or sulfur), it may indicate the presence of other valuable minerals. Pyrite is often formed with gold, but also oil and coal since it forms in iron and sulfide rich environments with low oxygen levels. This often happens when organic materials decay as they give off sulfur but use oxygen. An interesting by-product of this are fossils made of pyrite.

One was collected and donated to the museum in 1991 and the other was likely part of the original Sam Waller collection.

Added: May, 2016

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