Serpentine is said to owe its name either to its serpent-like colours and patterns or from an old belief that the stones were effective protection from snake bites. They have their origins in metamorphic alterations of peridotite and pyroxene. Serpentines may also pseudomorphously replace other magnesium silicates. Alterations may be incomplete, causing physical properties of serpentines to vary widely. Where they form a significant part of the land surface, the soil is unusually high in clay.
Antigorite is the polymorph of serpentine that most commonly forms during metamorphism of wet ultramafic rocks and is stable at the highest temperatures — to over 600°C at depths of 60 km or so. In contrast, lizardite and chrysotile typically form near the Earth’s surface and break down at relatively low temperatures, probably well below 400°C. It has been suggested that chrysotile is never stable relative to either of the other two serpentine polymorphs.
Samples of the oceanic crust and uppermost mantle from ocean basins document that ultramafic rocks there commonly contain abundant serpentine. Antigorite contains water in its structure, about 13 percent by weight. Hence, antigorite may play an important role in the transport of water into the earth in subduction zones and in the subsequent release of water to create magmas in island arcs, and some of the water may be carried to yet greater depths.
Soils derived from serpentine are toxic to many plants, because of high levels of nickel, chromium, and cobalt; growth of many plants is also inhibited by low levels of potassium and phosphorus and low calcium/magnesium. The flora is generally very distinctive, with specialised, slow-growing species. Areas of serpentine-derived soil will show as strips of shrubland and open, scattered small trees (often conifers) within otherwise forested areas; these areas have been called “serpentine barrens”.
Most serpentines are opaque to translucent, light (specific gravity between 2.2–2.9), soft (hardness 2.5–4), infusible and susceptible to acids. All are microcrystalline and massive in habit, never being found as single crystals. Luster may be vitreous, greasy or silky. Colours range from white to grey, yellow to green, and brown to black, and are often splotchy or veined. Many are intergrown with other minerals, such as calcite and dolomite. Occurrence is worldwide; New Caledonia, Canada (Quebec), USA (northern California), Afghanistan, Cornwall, China, France, Norway and Italy are notable localities.
Rock composed primarily of these minerals is called serpentinite. Serpentines find use in industry for a number of purposes, such as railway ballasts, building materials, and the asbestiform types find use as thermal and electrical insulation (chrysotile asbestos). The asbestos content can be released to the air when serpentine is excavated and if it is used as a road surface, forming a long term health hazard by breathing. Asbestos from serpentine can also appear at low levels in water supplies through normal weathering processes, but there is as yet no identified health hazard associated with use or ingestion.
The more attractive and durable varieties (all of antigorite) are termed “noble” or “precious” serpentine and are used extensively as gems and in ornamental carvings. Often dyed, they may imitate jade. Misleading synonyms for this material include “Korean jade”, “Suzhou jade”, “Styrian jade”, and “New jade”. New Caledonian serpentine is particularly rich in nickel, and is the source of most of the world’s nickel ore.
The Māori of New Zealand once carved beautiful objects from local serpentine, which they called tangiwai, meaning “tears”. Material quarried in Afghanistan, known as sang-i-yashm, has been used for generations. It is easily carved, taking a good polish, and is said to have a pleasingly greasy feel.
The lapis atracius of the Romans, now known as verde antique or verde antico, is a serpentinite breccia popular as a decorative facing stone. In classical times it was mined at Casambala, Thessaly, Greece. Serpentinite marbles are also widely used: Green Connemara marble (or Irish green marble) from Connemara, Ireland (and many other sources), and red Rosso di Levanto marble from Italy. Use is limited to indoor settings as serpentinites do not weather well.
Detail of a polished slab of bowenite serpentine, showing typical cloudy white patches and veining. Photograph taken by Gregory Phillips in January 2004.
Lamellated antigorite occurs in tough, pleated masses. It is usually dark green in colour, but may also be yellowish, gray, brown or black. It has a hardness of 3.5–4 and its lustre is greasy. The monoclinic crystals show micaceous cleavage and fuse with difficulty. Antigorite is named after its type locality, the Valle di Antigorio in Italy.
Two translucent varieties of antigorite, bowenite and williamsite, are prized by artisans and collectors for their ornamental value; these are the “precious serpentines”.
Bowenite is an especially hard serpentine (5.5) of a light to dark apple green colour, often mottled with cloudy white patches and darker veining. It is the serpentine most frequently encountered in carving and jewellery. The name retinalite is sometimes applied to yellow bowenite. The New Zealand material is called tangawaite.
Although not an official species, bowenite is the state mineral of Rhode Island: this is also the variety’s type locality. A bowenite cabochon featured as part of the “Our Mineral Heritage Brooch”, was presented to First Lady Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson in 1967.
Williamsite is oil-green with black crystals of chromite or magnetite often included. Somewhat resembling fine jade, williamsite is cut into cabochons and beads. It is found mainly in Maryland and Pennsylvania, USA.
Extremely fine-grained, scaly lizardite (also called orthoantigorite) comprises much of the serpentine present in serpentine marbles. It is triclinic, has one direction of perfect cleavage, and may be white, yellow or green. Lizardite is translucent, soft (hardness 2.5) and has an average specific gravity of 2.57. It can be pseudomorphous after enstatite, olivine or pyroxene, in which case the name bastite is sometimes applied. Bastite may have a silky lustre.
Lizardite is named after its type locality: Lizard Point, Cornwall, UK. It is worked by local artisans into various trinkets which are sold to tourists.
The California State Rock is Serpentine.-
Serpentine, California’s state rock, is relatively rare in the rest of the world. In California, however, it is found in abundance. This is the result of California’s position at the convergence of two tectonic plates and the stresses resulting from that meeting. Serpentine is a metamorphic rock characterized by long, fibrous crystals. It is normally a greenish blue color and has a waxy or greasy feel.
An excellent place to pick up a chunk of serpentine is in the Traverse Creek Special Interest Area off of Georgetown Road in El Dorado County. This is the location of a historic vesuvianite mine. Only a few feet from the trailhead you will find some beautiful blocks of the stuff on both sides of the trail.
Because serpentine soils are uncommon, plants growing in them are often rare. The California pitcher plant, for instance, is able to grow in nutrient-poor serpentine soils because it gets its nutrients from trapping insects. This plant is almost always found in conjunction with serpentine, and so is considered an indicator of it. The same is true of the rare Tiburon mariposa lily, which grows in the Northern California Coast Ranges.