Malachite, memorable for its rich green color and silky, swirled patterns, is actually weathered copper ore. Ancient Egyptians, who sourced this mineral in the Timna Valley in what is now southern Israel, believed that it held magical, protective powers. They carried malachite seals and amulets, and to guard against ocular diseases commonly found along the Nile River, they ground it finely, then lined their eyes with the powder.
To Egyptians, malachite also signified life, death, and rebirth. In addition to portraying Osiris, the god of the dead, with green skin, they decorated coffins and created burial chamber paintings with malachite-green pigment.
From the 7th century on, malachite pigments appeared abundantly in Chinese and Japanese paintings. But the pure, coarsely ground hue that Renaissance artists favored proved very difficult to “work,” so they rarely used it. Eventually, ground malachite fell from use entirely, replaced by artificial pigments.
Limited deposits of malachite have since been discovered in Arizona, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, France, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Scores of contemporary jewelers, including David Webb, Cartier, Chopard, and Van Cleef & Arpels, feature lavish malachite pieces in their permanent collections. Yet many museum experts, connoisseurs and collectors consider Russian malachite, discovered in the Ural Mountains, to be the finest of all.
“Malachite was a favorite of Russian tsars, who used it to decorate their lavish palaces, such as the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg,” said Lauren Goforth, Sr. Researcher at M. S. Rau. “Year after year, the Russian treasury paid top dollar to hoard the best malachite, much of which went into Romanov palaces and extravagant objets d’art,” she said. “Today, the Hermitage Museum possesses more than 200 examples of this ‘palatial’ malachite, displayed in the legendary Malachite Room.”
Some of the Malachite Room’s massive urns, columns and grand fireplaces, which are carved from huge, solid blocks of malachite, feature variegated light-to-dark banding in graceful, sweeping curves. Others displaycharacteristic so-called “peacock eye” patterning. Smaller pieces, made from blocks too pocked with pits to be cut into slabs, were crafted through Russian malachite mosaic. This technique entailed skillfully laying thin malachite veneers on basalt, slate, marble or metal bases in artful artificial or random patterns.
As Russian merchants became rich, they, too, commissioned prestigious malachite treasures. Some adorned their writing desks, cabinets, and mantelpieces with dramatic tapering obelisks. Others acquired malachite game boxes, chessmen, or elegant gaming tables topped by malachite- and-marble chessboards.
Though malachite is beautiful on its own, it is also sympathetic with other luxurious materials. Russian vases, jewel caskets, dresser boxes, and candelabras often feature opulent gold, silver, bronze, or gemstone decorative details. In addition, malachite clocks, inkwells, and desk sets were often mounted with ormolu, one of the most flamboyant decorative accents of the 19th century.
Conversely, ornate gold, silver, onyx, and ormulu boxes, urn lamps, and tea caddies often featured rich, mellow malachite trimmings. Since items such as these were highly prized diplomatic gifts. Examples can be found in countless palaces, state buildings, and museums in Mexico, England, and across Continental Europe.
In time, Russian jewelers also integrated malachite embellishments into gold and silver brooch and earring designs. They also fashioned beads or cabochons for ring stones, necklaces, cuff links, tie pins, and pendants. Smaller pieces, of course, are far less likely to display desirable malachite patterns.
“Malachite has long been a symbol of prestige and wealth,” explained Goforth. “The mineral was so prized in the 19th century that Russian papers of the time wrote, ‘To afford a big piece wrought in malachite is synonymous to owning diamonds.’”