The Demidoff Malachite Mine, Nizhne-Tagil'skoye, Russia
Last Updated: 26th Jan 2008
The Demidoff Malachite Mine
Russia’s Treasure House
by Daniel E Russell
Few ornamental stones are so closely associated with Imperial Russia as malachite. The appreciation of this simple copper carbonate by Russia’s aristocracy is attested to by the exquisite vases and tabletops, produced by Russia’s lapidaries, culminating in the construction of the famous “Malachite Room” in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
One of the primary sources for Russia’s supply of gem malachite, and a vital producer of copper, was a large deposit located in Nizhne-Tagil'skoye, in Sverdlovskaya Oblast'. (It was not the sole producer of malachite for ornamental use, with a nearby deposit at Bogoslowsk and another at Gumeschewsk further to the south both producing malachite as copper ore and as ornamental stone.) [As always, the transliteration of Russian language placenames is an entertaining past-time, and has produced a diversity of variations of spellings over the past 200 years.]
The copper deposits here were discovered by Nikita Demidoff, operator of the first munitions factory in Russia. Charged by Peter the Great to cast cannon for the government, Demidoff was sent east into the Urals to search out suitable iron and copper deposits to provide the raw metal his factory needed. In 1725, after finding the iron he needed, he noted lumps of green mineral in the possession of the serfs in the area around “Nijni-Tagnil” (often spelled Nizhni-Tagilsk; today, Nizhne-Tagil'skoye) which he immediately recognized as malachite. It would become one of the most important copper deposits in Imperial Russia, producing copper ore and gem malachite for more than 175 years.
Around 1835, 1836 or 1837, “the largest mass of malachite ever known” was discovered at the Demidoff mine. According to Knox (1877):
The miners, who were working a vein of copper, found some shreds or strips of copper extending downward, and the superintendent of the mine ordered them to follow these shreds, in hopes of striking another vein. The work was pushed forward, or rather downward, and the stray threads of ore were traced in all their windings. Two hundred and eighty feet below the mine, the shreds disappeared, and the superintendent was about to give up the enterprise in disgust and despair, when the men suddenly came upon a huge mass of malachite. It was broken up and taken to the surface, and the aggregate weight of the mass was estimated at seventy tons! It was this lot that supplied the most of the malachite in the Church of St. Isaac [in St. Petersburg], and from it, also, was made the enormous vase which the Emperor of Russia sent to His Holiness the Pope.
The Encyclopedia Americana (1919)adds the block’s dimensions were “length, 10 ½ feet, width, 8 feet, height 3 ½ feet; the estimated weight was from 25 to 30 tons. As many as 125 horses were used to haul this mass from the mine to Ekaterinburg.” Dana (1854) notes that at at Nizhne-Tagil'skoye “a bed of malachite was opened which yielded many tons of malachite; one mass measured at top 9 by 18 ft.; and the portion uncovered contained at least half a million pounds of pure malachite.”
During the second half of the 19th Century, the Demidoff Mine was producing about 40% of Russia’s total output of refined copper (which, in 1872, amounted to 1,501,026 kilograms of refined copper from Nizhne-Tagil'skoye alone). The ores were extremely rich, containing up to 16% copper – most of which was in the form of an easily reducible carbonate.
In 1873, the Demidoff Mine (then under the control of Prince Paul Demidoff) sent an exhibit of their copper ores an intermediary smelting products to the Vienna International Exhibition. According to Painter (1875) their display consisted of ores that included “copper and iron pyrites and copper carbonates. The products were slag from ore-smelting, matte, black and refined copper; the latter was of a light-rose color, and had a remarkably distinct crystalline structure.”
Of the use in Russia of malachite as an ornamental stone, Oliver C. Farrington, curator of Chicago’s Field Museum, wrote in 1903:
Malachite is prepared for ornamental use by sawing masses of the character of those previously referred to into thin strips, which are then fastened as a veneer on vessels of copper, slate, or other stone previously turned to the desired shape. Putting pieces together so that neither by their outlines nor color will it appear that they are patch¬work, requires a high degree of skill, and such work is done almost exclusively in Russia. Table tops, vases, and various other vessels are manufactured in this way, and form objects of great beauty.
Russia furnishes most of the malachite suitable for work of this kind, and the art of cutting and fitting the stone is possessed almost exclusively in that country. Most of the Russian malachite has been obtained from the mines of Nizhni-Tagilsk and Bogoslowsk, in the northern Urals, or Gumeschewsk, in the southern. The supply has gradually decreased till now only the Nizhni-Tagilsk mines are productive. The malachite occurs there in veins in limestone.
The pinnacle of Russian excellence in lapidary work.
Photograph by Allison L. Faust, March, 2007. All rights reserved
The Demidoff Mine as it appeared circa 1910
Photograph Courtesy of US Library of Congress (prok 02142)
Dana, James Dwight A System of Mineralogy New York 1854
Farrington, Oliver Cummings: Gems and Gem Mineral, New York City 1903
Howard Painter Report On The Metallurgy Of Lead, Silver, Copper, And Zinc, Vienna International Exhibition, 1873. Government Printing Office. 1875.
Knox, Thomas W. The Underground World. Hartford 1877
Encyclopedia Americana “Malachite” New York (1919)
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