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Rock, Mineral, or Crystal? What’s the Difference?

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Many people use the terms rock, mineral, crystal, stone, and gemstone interchangeably, but these terms actually have specific meanings in the world of rockhounds and gem collectors. While there is some overlap between them, knowing the difference is crucial for a passing knowledge of gemology or mineralogy.

A rock is any two or more minerals bonded together, while a mineral is a naturally occurring inorganic element. A crystal refers to the structure of a mineral, and there are many different kinds of crystalline structures. A mineral can be part of a rock, and a crystal can be a mineral, but the terms are not synonymous.

Even though they all refer to the same types of inorganic matter, it’s important to know the differences between rocks, minerals, and crystals. Read on to learn more about these materials and their rock and gem collecting differences.

What are rocks?
What are Rocks?

If you want to check out the best books about rockhounding and identifying rocks, minerals, and crystals, you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).

What is a Rock?

In geology, a rock occurs when two or more types of minerals become aggregated together, forming a single solid comprised of several mineral types.

Rocks are one of the major components of the Earth’s outer layer and, eventually, break down to form sand and soil. In the gem and rock world, the people who study rocks specifically follow a path of study called petrology.

 There are major categories of rocks:

  • Sedimentary:

These rocks are formed by the compression of sediment in the Earth’s oceans over several thousands of years. A few varieties of common sedimentary rock include limestone, sandstone, and shale.

Geologists can determine the age of a piece of land by studying the layers of sedimentary rock it contains.

  • Igneous:

Volcanic eruptions form igneous rocks. When lava erupts from a volcano and runs down the mountainside, it eventually cools into igneous rock.

Some common types of igneous rock include granite, basalt, and pumice. Volcanic eruptions are also the source of volcanic glass, which is known as obsidian.

  • Metamorphic rocks:

Metamorphic rocks are created by various powerful geological forces, such as intense pressure or heat in the Earth’s crust. Common forms of metamorphic rock that are used in human construction are marble, soapstone, slate, and schist.

While they may not seem important, rocks form an important part of Earth’s ecosystems since rock breakdown ultimately leads to friable topsoil.

Many plants cannot access the oxygen and water needed to survive without rock or some other hard mineral to break up the soil. Areas of dirt with very little friable soil, such as hard pans, are extremely hostile habitats for animals to survive in.

What is a Mineral?

What are Minerals?
What are Minerals?

A mineral is a type of inorganic material that makes up rocks. While rock is made up of various minerals mashed together into an aggregated solid form, minerals are individual elements with the same atomic structure through and through.

Many minerals are in the natural world, and each has very different properties when exposed to different environmental parameters.

Here are the different qualities that determine what a mineral is:

  • It occurs in the natural world.

Some synthesized materials are similar in chemical structure or properties to naturally occurring minerals, but a substance must be found in nature to be defined as a mineral.

  • It is inorganic:

Minerals are inorganic compounds, meaning they’re neither biological nor the result of a biological operation.

Instead, minerals act upon the natural world (such as a rockslide) or are acted upon (such as when an animal digs a burrow or makes a rock into a tool).

  • It is solid:

All minerals, by definition, are solid-state matter. This means that minerals in a gas, plasma, or liquid state do not exist except as a compound.

It has a stable chemical composition:

A mineral can be categorized and labeled because it has common features regardless of location. For example, if you examine the molecular structure of fluorite in one crystal specimen and the molecular structure of fluorite in another, the molecular structure of the two pieces of fluorite will be identical, even if the outer appearance of the crystals varies.

It has an organized internal structure: The molecules and atoms of a mineral have a stable and repeating pattern, which is why minerals often take on a defined crystalline structure.

The order of the atoms shows in the resulting mineral’s outward physical appearance and in its molecular structure.

People also mean different things when they say mineral, depending on the context of the conversation. For example, geologists have a very different idea of what minerals are than nutritionists.

Nutritionists deal specifically with minerals that are important for human health, while the older meaning of the term is taxonomical.

Before the adoption of formalized taxonomy for plants and animals, things were broken down into simple categories of animal, mineral, or vegetable.

TIP: Double refraction or birefringence is a typical physical property for many minerals. Find out eight common minerals that show double reflection in the article below:
8 Minerals That Show Double Refraction (+ Explanation Why)

What is a Crystal?

What are Crystals?
What are Crystals?

When people say “crystal,” they usually refer to a mineral that has taken a crystalline form. A crystal is a mineral that stands alone as a single structure versus being integrated into an aggregated solid like a rock.

The atoms in a crystal are created along a very strict structural lattice, leading to the resulting solid having a geometric, almost inorganic shape.

Human cultures have long-appreciated crystals, and even in the modern day, many crystals are still regarded to have metaphysical properties, such as the ability to attract love or abundance into their owner’s life if worn or displayed.

Crystals are also commonly used in religious rites, especially in polytheistic or pagan religions such as Wicca and other New Age movements.

While the magical properties of crystals remain a matter of debate, the idea that crystals give off vibrations is a physical truth.

Each type of crystal vibrates at slightly different frequencies depending on its different molecular structures. It is these “good vibrations” that New Age practitioners associate with positive life changes.

However, the vibrations in crystals are also applicable to real practical science. By studying the vibrations of crystals and learning how to control them, chemists and geologists are learning how to make electronic devices that depend on these minerals more energy efficient.

BTW: Do you want to know more about rock and mineral identification? The books listed below are the best ones you can find on the internet (Amazon links):

Differences Between Rocks, Minerals, and Crystals

There is some overlap between rocks, minerals, and crystals, but their differences largely define them. Here are some of the major differences between the three:

Rocks can be made of minerals or crystals but cannot typically be formed by a single mineral except in monomineralic rocks, which are almost unheard of in the natural world.

Rocks can contain crystalline minerals but typically also contain other solid-state molecular structures. This may lead to the crystal in rock appearing either studded into other rock types or isolated as a geode.

Minerals make up both rocks and crystals. The word “mineral” can also describe a taxonomical category or a specific set of minerals ingested in food and drink to form part of a human’s nutritional profile.

Crystals can be features in a rock but are created by a single mineral rather than many. Crystals also feature a specific type of molecular structure that results in rigid geometric patterns.

Minerals and rocks, on the other hand, can encompass a wide variety of different physical appearances and colorations. The word “crystal” refers to a mineral with a crystalline appearance as well as the molecular structure of a crystal itself.

When it comes to the hobby of rock and gem collecting, these three terms generally refer to the same types of specimens for sale.

The only difference is their geological and scientific categorization. If you want a high-quality specimen when you’re looking to expand your collection, you’ll want to look under each term for the broadest selection of potential buys.

It’s also good to know what kind of crystals, minerals, or rocks you specifically want. A rockhound can collect all three.

TIP: If you already own a huge rock collection but want to start to collect new minerals or crystals, read these helpful tips on what to do with your old rock collection:
What To Do With Old Rock Collection? 3 Simple & Practical Ideas

Can a Rock Be Made of One Mineral?

A rock cannot be made of a single mineral by its traditional definition. When you see a rock made of a single mineral, this rock usually has a crystalline structure and is referred to as a crystal, not a rock.

However, rocks that only contain one mineral are known as monomineralic. No naturally occurring monomineralic rock is completely pure through and through.

The monomineralic rocks are marble, dunite, and anorthosite. Marble has been a popular building material for hundreds of years due to its unique colouration, and anorthosite is a monomineralic rock that is found more often on the moon’s surface than it is on the Earth’s.

Dunite is a monomineralic rock that is over 90% pure. This substance is found more often deep in the Earth’s crust than near the topsoil and is sought after by industries for its engineering applications, particularly the refraction of light.

Here are some of the other minerals that are found that are monomineralic despite not being purely monomineralic:

  • Carbonatite
  • Pyroxenite
  • Quartzite
  • Chalk limestone

Most monomineralic rocks found that aren’t pure are still very rare in nature, and most are difficult to find.

Are All Minerals Crystals?

Yes! All minerals are crystals (because they all contain a crystalline atomic structure), and all crystals are formed from minerals. So, if you see crystals or minerals for sale, you can pretty much expect the same sorts of specimens to be available.

However, Unlike minerals, crystals can form from an inorganic or organic substance, such as plant-derived sugar.

Crystal is an atomic structure sometimes reflected in the object’s outward appearance. Most minerals do occur naturally as some kind of crystal.

Minerals and crystals are used in jewelry-making, and any rock can be carved into a crystalline shape. When a mineral is deemed to have aesthetic value and is faceted like a jewel, this kind of rock is called a gemstone rather than a crystal.

The crystalline structure of a gemstone isn’t its natural internal structure; it’s a geometric pattern created by the jeweler.

Crystals such as fluorite and quartz are usually categorized under what rockhounds typically consider semiprecious stones.

These minerals are beautiful and can make great additions to any rockhound’s collection, but typically aren’t as high in value as gemstones like sapphires or rubies. Nevertheless, some semiprecious, such as ammolite or red beryl, are rare.

TIP: Minerals’ streak is one of the most important tests for mineral identification, especially while working with native metals and sulfide minerals. Check out the complete guide on testing mineral’s streak:
DIY Guide: Testing Mineral’s Streak (Explained by Expert)

Special Forms of Minerals and Crystals

So many minerals form different crystals that it’s impossible to find two that look identical despite their similar chemical composition.

Here are some of the most interesting forms of minerals and crystals that you can find and some intriguing qualities of them:

  • Fluorite:

Fluorite comes in many colours, but pure fluorite is completely clear. The colour instead comes from the way that fluorite’s crystalline structure bends and refracts light as it bounces through the mineral.

  • Sunstone (Iceland spar):

The sunstone was a crystal used by the ancient Vikings to navigate their way to the New World and is formed from a specific crystalline form of calcite.

Iceland spar refracts light twice, allowing navigators to line it up with the sun and the horizon to find their way across the ocean.

  • Quartz:

Quartz is most famous for its ability to generate electricity, which is why it has been included in watchmaking and clockmaking activities for hundreds of years.

Quartz crystals are also the mineral that scientists used to analyze and eventually decipher the shape of atomic crystalline structures.

  • Autunite:

Besides its weird scale-like shape and yellow colouring, the interesting thing about Autunite is that it is luminescent under ultraviolet lighting, which is a fancy way of saying it glows under blacklights.

This fluorescent glow is caused by the subatomic movement of the autunite participles in response to the energy being delivered by ultraviolet rays.

  • Hackmanite:

One odd property that some crystals and minerals contain is the ability to change colour according to their exposure to light. Hackmanite is one such crystal, appearing pale blue during the day but a deep purple at night. It also glows with a bright orange-red flare in ultraviolet light.

Hackmanite is a rare mineral that isn’t seen much since it is mostly too soft to be worked for jewellery without shattering.

  • Hematite:

Hematite is an interesting material, and while many people may incorrectly define it as a crystal due to its smooth appearance and mirror-like surface (and the fact that it is often carved into crystalline structures), this stone is a mineral.

Hematite is a form of iron oxide and has the unique property of being magnetic, which makes it a popular healing stone in metaphysical circles.

There are hundreds of precious and semiprecious stones of every colour and quality you can think of, so if you’re trying to aim your Rockhound collection in a certain direction, try picking a certain colour of stones and start searching from there.

TIP: Fluorite is one of the most widespread minerals in crystal collections, probably the second after quartz. Find out the main differences between real and fake fluorite in the article below:
Real vs. Fake Fluorite: Focus on These 5 Differences

Special Forms of Rocks

Many rockhounds focus their collections on shiny crystals and gemstones, but many kinds of specialized rocks can also add interest and personality to your set.

Here are some special rocks you might consider adding to your collection of rocks and minerals:

  • Geodes:

Geodes are crystal caves that are formed from bubbles in volcanic rock or burrows, mud balls, or tree roots in sedimentary rock.

Over time, the organic aspects of these caves rot away, leaving a hollow in the sedimentary rock that becomes crystallized. Geodes are often displayed either sliced in half to display the crystal hollow inside or sliced and polished to make them translucent.

  • Petrified wood:

Petrified wood is a type of fossil and occurs when vegetation, such as a tree trunk becomes mineralized, often taking on the appearance of a crystalline structure.

Unlike some special rock formations, petrified wood is not that rare. It is found in most locations where volcanic activity has occurred at some point in geological history.

  • Amber:

Amber is a tree sap that has become mineralized for hundreds of years and is often used as a semiprecious stone in jewelry. Amber is most famous for capturing prehistoric insects and other creatures inside of it, effectively freezing them in time.

Amber, which contains organic material such as an insect, is typically much more expensive than plain amber, and it can come in several shades, from a light golden color to almost red coloration.

  • Fossils:

Fossils occur when organic material becomes trapped in rock matter and decomposes, leaving a hollow (and a perfect imprint) or petrified bone.

The fossil record is the only reason that humanity currently knows that dinosaurs ever existed. There are many small fossils of everything from prehistoric shark teeth to trilobites that are popular among rockhounds.

Some of these unique rock formations form the focal points for many a rock and gem collection. So, if you want to branch out into some minerals other than pure crystals, these are the way to go.

TIP: Do you know which gemstones come from the ocean? I wrote about the most common gemstones from the ocean in this article:
Which Gemstones Come From The Ocean? Corals, Pearls, & more!

What Does the Difference Between Rocks, Minerals, and Crystals Mean for Rockhounds?

These three terms refer to somewhat different aspects of the gem and mineral collecting hobby, but the difference between them doesn’t mean much if you’re collecting gems and minerals just to collect them.

It’s a lot more important to pay attention to the differences between different kinds of minerals rather than the differences between their classifications.

Knowing that fluorite isn’t rock is good, but it won’t help you grade a piece of fluorite you’re interested in buying or teach you anything about the properties of the mineral.

Instead, rockhounds should focus on learning the properties and lore surrounding each type of mineral and crystal. This is a much more effective use of time for collectors.

Why Are Crystals and Minerals Important?

Even if you don’t believe in the metaphysical properties of crystals, crystals and minerals are vital to modern industry.

The unique properties that these inorganic materials possess often make them superior materials for the construction of electronics and tools.

Minerals are also an important part of the makeup of biological creatures. Without exposure to the right combination of minerals, living things cannot continue to sustain life.

Minerals form some of the most basic building blocks of the human body, along with the cellular structure of every animal and plant worldwide.

TIP: Rock tumblers use various types of grit in the multiple stages of the rock tumbling process to shape, smooth, and polish the stones. Find out everything about tumbling grit in the article below:
Rock Tumbling Grit: Usage, Types, Disposal & Substitutes

Tips for Learning the Differences Between Minerals and Crystals

When gathering up a collection of rocks and minerals, it can be difficult to keep them all straight after a certain amount of time or after you’ve amassed a large enough collection.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish between certain minerals and crystals that look very similar in colouration or shape.

Here are some tips for figuring out the differences between the rocks, minerals, and crystals that you collect:

  • Keep everything labelled.

The easiest way to keep your collection organized is to put it into a clear container like one designed to separate craft beads. Each container compartment can be labelled so you know every crystal and where it should go.

  • Catalog your finds.

This is especially important if collecting rocks and gems in the field is a part of your hobby, as you may need to consult with geographical notes to determine what type of rock or mineral you’ve found.

  • Join a gemology or rockhound club.

It is more fun to share the hobby of collecting minerals with other people who share your passion, but you’re also much more likely to find good rocks and minerals on collection field trips if you go with more experienced rockhounds who know exactly where to look.

  • Make flashcards.

It might seem like something out of grade school, but flashcards are a great way to teach yourself the basic physical qualities of different minerals and make you better at identifying them on sight.

If you’re interested in the alleged metaphysical properties of rocks and crystals, these kinds of notes can also be memorized via flashcards.

  • Keep the label your specimens came with.

These labels are especially important for more obscure specimens in case you need to look something up about them and can’t remember the spelling of the name.

Many labels also denote the specimen’s history, and these kinds of details make each rock and gem specimen unique.

  • Limit your collection.

It may be fun just to purchase any rock or gem that catches your eye, but more impressive collections usually accompany some kind of theme, like a collection of fossils from a certain period of history or crystals according to their metaphysical properties.

If you display them well, you’re always free to collect as many minerals as you like, but limiting your collection to a few high-quality pieces can be easier to display and more valuable.

  • Check out a rock and gem expo.

These large events often have dozens of vendors available where you can find unique specimens of some of the rarest minerals and rocks in the world.

Depending on where you live, you might have to do a bit of travelling to attend, but the chance to buy unique specimens is definitely worth the trip. 

  • Make connections in the rockhound world.

Often in rock and mineral collecting, it’s as much about who you know as it is about what you know. Getting linked up with more experienced gemologists can expose you to markets with high-quality minerals you wouldn’t otherwise be aware of and give you some socialization.

You can work on your collection at your leisure, so don’t feel pressured to spend hundreds of dollars to purchase specimens immediately.

Build your collection slowly and only acquire pieces that have special meaning to you. The more organized and well-displayed your collection is, the more pride you’ll take in it.

Learning the Real Difference Between Minerals Takes a Lifetime of Study

Knowing the basic differences between a rock, a mineral, and a crystal are just the first step to becoming a rockhound.

The real bulk of the knowledge you need to know to collect gems, rocks, and minerals are to learn the difference between the specific types of minerals and rocks you’re collecting.

Luckily, there are so many around the planet that you could collect minerals and crystals for the rest of your life and probably never run out.

So, take your time and learn about what makes rocks, minerals, and crystals unique so that you can build a fantastic collection that you’ll be proud to show off!

TIP: Rock collecting can mean anything between picking up the odd rock on a hike and keeping a full mineral display shelf at home. Check out the complete guide on how to start rock collecting in the article below:
How to Start Rock Collecting? Complete Guide for Beginners