crystallography - equant quartz with hexagonal pyramidal terminationscrystallography - equant quartz with hexagonal pyramidal terminations

Descriptive Crystallography for Gemologists

Crystallography is the study of crystalline solids. Learn the most common terms gemologists use to describe the structure of crystal gems.

2 Minute Read

Crystallography is the study of the formation and structure of crystalline solids. Gemologists deal with many crystalline gems and use descriptive terms to help visualize how these materials developed.
equant quartz with hexagonal pyramidal terminations
These equant quartz crystals have hexagonal pyramidal terminations. These are just some of the crystallographic terms gemologists can use to describe crystalline gem materials. Orange River, Namibia. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.

Crystal Systems Review

When crystals form, their atoms and molecules lock together in periodic arrays, much like three-dimensional wallpaper patterns. These arrays have various types of symmetry, so gemologists classify them into six major crystal systems:

Some mineralogists consider the trigonal subclass of the hexagonal system as a seventh crystal system.

prismatic hexagonal hedyphane
These lustrous, yellow-tan hedyphanes formed as hexagonal, prismatic crystals. However, the terminations or ends of the crystals have pyramidal shapes. Tsumeb mine, Tsumeb, Otjikoto Region, Namibia. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.

Each crystal system is defined in terms of crystal axes and angles.

  • Crystal axes are imaginary lines in space between the sides of the crystals. They intersect at a common point, and their lengths may be described as equal or unequal to each other.
  • The crystal axes intersect each other at various angles, which further describe the crystal systems.

Terms such as octahedral (8-sided) and dodecahedral or pyritohedral (12-sided) are sometimes used to describe forms characteristic of specific crystal systems.

For more information on crystallography, see our article on crystal systems and mineral habits and our table of gems ordered by crystal system.

Descriptive Crystallography Based on Crystal Structures

Crystallography uses additional terms to describe the crystal structures exhibited by various mineral species. The following are some of the most frequently used descriptive terms.


Crystals that form in a prismatic structure have well-developed, elongated, prism-like crystal faces.

prismatic cerussites
Prismatic cerussite crystals. The longest crystal measures 2.4 cm in length. Bunker Hill Mine, Kellogg, Shoshone Co., Idaho, USA. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


A bladed crystal has slender and flattened blade-like formations rather than prism-like faces.

bladed baryte
This mineral specimen has pastel purple fluorite crystals on white bladed barytes that look like "forests of ridges." Berbes Mining area, Ribadesella, Asturias, Spain. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


Acicular crystal formations feature slender, possibly tapered, needle-like crystals.

acicular pentagonite
This pentagonite specimen looks a teal-blue Christmas tree composed of acicular, transparent crystals. Wagholi quarry, near Poona, Maharashtra, India. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


Filiform crystals are hair-like and extremely fine.

filiform millerite
Hair-like, filiform millerite in a quartz geode. Hall's Gap Road Cut, Lincoln County, Kentucky, USA. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


Sometimes referred to as stout crystals, equant crystals have lengths, widths, and breadths roughly equal in size.

equant bixbyite
Not the very rare gem known as bixbite or red beryl, this single equant bixbyite crystal perches on a base of topaz and smaller bixbyites. (Bixbite and bixbyite were both named after the mineralogist Maynard Bixby). Solar Wind Claim, Thomas Range, Juab Co., Utah, USA. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


Crystals that form pyramidal structures resemble single or double pyramids.

crystallography - pyramidal wulfenite
Pyramidal wulfenite crystals. Onderra Mine, Kaokoveld Plateau, Kunene Region, Namibia. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


Tabular formations feature a tablet shape with crystals slightly longer than wider.

crystallography - tabular peridot
A tabular peridot crystal perched on a magnetite. Sapat Gali, Naran, Kaghan Valley, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.

Descriptive Crystallography Based on Aggregation States

Crystallography uses other terms to describe crystals based on their aggregation states. These terms include the following.


A solid, chunky aggregate without noticeable crystalline shape (although the material is composed of crystals). This term refers to the aggregate's outward appearance, not its size.

crystallography - ruby and massive scapolite
Ruby in a massive scapolite matrix. Dattaw Hill, Dattaw, Mogok, Myanmar. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


A cluster of round, grape-like aggregates.

crystallography - botryoidal apatite
Botryoidal apatite. Astillero Mine, Mapimi, Durango, Mexico. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


A dense, solid aggregate.

crystallography - compact aggregate inesite
Compact cluster of several spherical aggregates of radiating inesite crystals. Wessels Mine, Kalahari manganese fields, Northern Cape Province, South Africa. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


Denotes a crystalline mass that can be cleaved.


Comprised of a mass of compact grains.

crystallography - granular hyalite opal
An unusual granular hyalite opal. Erongo Mountain, Usakos and Omaruru Districts, Erongo Region, Namibia. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


Describes aggregates that resemble stalactites.

crystallography - stalactitic smithsonite
This smithsonite and galena specimen features rare, stalactitic smithsonite "fingers." Touissit Mine, Oujda-Angad Province, Oriental Region, Morocco. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.


Aggregates comprised of masses of spherical grains.

crystallography - oolitic hematite
Oolitic hematite. Photo by GOKLuLe. Licensed under CC By-SA 3.0.


Aggregates made of masses of densely packed powder.

Descriptive Crystallography and Gem Formation

A mineral's growth process and formation environment largely determine its appearance. For example, minerals that form in sedimentary environments tend to be earthy, stalactitic, oolitic, and sometimes massive. On the other hand, igneous minerals tend to be crystalline or massive, sometimes cleavable.

Although these terms are somewhat subjective, they give gemologists a mental image of a mineral's appearance as it occurs in the Earth.

crystallography - amethyst phantom pyramids
Sometimes during a crystal's formation, a new layer grows over a transparent crystal. When the growth of the original crystal resumes, it's left covered with a "shroud." These inclusions of now indistinct, almost transparent crystals are called phantoms. This amethyst specimen contains pyramidal phantoms. La Sirena Mine, Mun. de Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.

Joel E. Arem, Ph.D., FGA

Dr. Joel E. Arem has more than 60 years of experience in the world of gems and minerals. After obtaining his Ph.D. in Mineralogy from Harvard University, he has published numerous books that are still among the most widely used references and guidebooks on crystals, gems and minerals in the world.

Co-founder and President of numerous organizations, Dr. Arem has enjoyed a lifelong career in mineralogy and gemology. He has been a Smithsonian scientist and Curator, a consultant to many well-known companies and institutions, and a prolific author and speaker. Although his main activities have been as a gem cutter and dealer, his focus has always been education.

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