What to Know When You’re Collecting Jewelry and Gemstones: Cinnabar

Chinese carved cinnabar lacquerware, late Qing dynasty. Adilnor Collection, Sweden.

This is my first post in a series I starting called: What to know when you’re collecting jewelry and gemstones series. I started collected jewelry when I was just a kid. Was ten years old, I picked up a 14k Victorian bar pin with a beautiful blue Montana sapphire for fifty cents. That day I became a jewelry collector. I wrote this series to help other people interesting in collecting, but not knowing where to start, for those who have questions about how to do it, and to help people take care good of their beloved jewelry pieces.

Cinnabar (mercury sulfide) is one of the most toxic minerals to handle on Earth. Forming near volcanoes and sulfur deposits, the bright red crystals signal danger of the worst kind. The gorgeous vibrant color makes it a very attractive. The reason it's so toxic is cinnabar may release pure mercury if disturbed or heated and can be absorbed easily through the skin or inhaled, causing tremors, loss of sensation, and death.

Cinnabar is hazardous if ingested. Cinnabar is beautiful and can be safely collected if proper care is taken, never wear it as jewelry or handle it with your bare hands. I suggest keeping it in a sealed, preferably airtight, glass display, kept away from sunlight and heat (heating releases mercury vapor). These pieces are for show only and should never come into contact with bare skin.

In the Middle Ages, and late 1700s, being sent to work in Spanish mines containing cinnabar formations was considered a death sentence. Cinnabar was widely used in Chinese history for ornamental food dishes, and intricate carvings were created from chunks, sometimes at the expense of the artisans. Even more incredible is, some ancient medical practitioners believed cinnabar held healing powers, and prescribed it for certain conditions.


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