Ornamental minerals are those that can be carved, shaped or polished into cultural, ritual or decorative objects.
Suitable minerals for carving, shaping or polishing into objects must be homogeneous in texture and fine-grained to better preserve intricate details. Some are transparent like ‘rock crystal’ quartz, while others are translucent like nephrite jade, or near opaque like turquoise.
Some minerals are very soft, like talc, calcite (such as travertine and marble), bowenite serpentine, pyrophyllite or gypsum (such as alabaster), while others like quartz, chalcedony and jadeite are harder minerals to carve.
The pieces that make up the Australian Museum's Ornamental Mineral Collection can be traced back to acquisitions in 1878. Vases, dishes, paperweights, figurines and bowls of sard, carnelian, sardonyx, onyx and alabaster from England, central Europe and India, as well as a Japanese quartz 'seal and apple' were purchased from F Loch and H Stern. Further purchases in the 1880s and in 1893 added English fluorite vases and dishes from Derbyshire, serpentinite carvings from Cornwall and labradorite from Canada.
A significant addition was made in 1981 with the purchase of three nephrite jade pieces carved in the People’s Republic of China – ‘Nurse with Goats’, carved in the 1930s or 40s, a female figure, carved during the Shuen (Ch’ing) Dynasty (1908–11), and a vase carved in the 1930s or 40s.
A colourful purple charoite vase and a nephrite jade dish from Russia were added in 1986, and a turquoise carving of two figures from the Tosca Mine, Northern Territory, was added in 1985. A small but delightful carving of a green frog made of prehnite from Wave Hill, Northern Territory, was donated in 2012.