(Fr- cinnabre; Ger- Zinnober; Nor- Sinnober; Rus- )

Cinnabar, HgS. (See also CHICKEN-BLOOD STONE entry.)

A. Cinnabar, upper left.  High-grade mercury ore specimen (height - 3.9 cm) from Almadén district, Spain. (© photo from Graham C. Wilson,

B. Cinnabar lacquer, middle.  Carved box with floral designs (overall width - ca.18.5 cm, height - ca. 5.9 cm). "This 'tsuishu' (carved cinnabar) box is an exquisite example of the . . . intricacy of the Chinese art and craftworks." (© photo courtesy Chuu Inc.,

C. "Cinnabar" brooch (greater axis ca. 3.3 cm) is carved into flowers; bezel is gold wash over silver. Cleora's Vintage Costume Jewelry. (© photo by Cleora Craw,

D. Cinnabar
, lower left.  Microcrystalline cinnabar atop bleached basalt (specimen width - 8.75 cm) from east dump, Sulfur Bank mine, Clear Lake, Lake County, California. (© photo by J.A. Crowley,

E. "Cinnabar quartz"i.e., cinnabar-bearing, quartz-rich breccia – cabochon (height ca. 3.0 cm).  Specimen is from an unlisted locality. Heaven & Earth, LLC . (© photo, www.heavenandearthjewelry) 


PREAMBLE: This late entry was prepared in response to comments and requests made by visitors to this web site.  Cinnabar was not included originally because the jewelry and decorative items marketed as cinnabar (with and without enclosing quotations marks) that I had examined consist of red lacquer.  In addition, even had I known about the use of natural cinnabar as a gemrock, I would have had misgivings about including it because of its toxicity -- i.e., I would have worried that including it might prompt someone to search for it, collect it, and try to fashion it into something, which could lead to their contracting physiological and/or mental problems, and perhaps even death.

Whatever, readers' continual urging prompted me finally to search for and record pertinent information. From that information I found, some of which I consider of doubtful verity, I postulated a hypothetical history that has the use of massive cinnabar as a gemrock as the precursor of similar uses of cinnabar-pigmented lacquer -- see paragraph three of REMARKS -- and decided I could present information treating toxicity problems with appropriate (Better Safe than Sorry!!) emphasis.

In addition, the compiled information led me to think that cinnabar-pigmented lacquer -- unlike simulants of other entries -- should be described virtually as fully as cinnabar per se.  With such coverage, however, to be sure readers will have no doubts about what pertains to natural massive cinnabar and what pertains to the lacquer, the information is given under Massive cinnabar and Cinnabar lacquer (short for cinnabar-pigmented lacquer) as secondary headings under each of the major subheadings, which are the same ones that are used for the other entries in this GEMROCKS document.



Massive cinnabar: Properties for compact masses (i.e., not for crystals) follow:  
    Color - cochineal red to brownish red
    H. 2 - 2½
    S.G. 8.0 - 8.1
    Luster - dull to submetallic or adamantine
    Miscellany - streak -vermillion;  photo sensitive -- i.e., extended exposure to light causes it to darken;  volatilizes on heating, emitting toxic fumes.

Cinnabar lacquer: Properties for relatively thick masses of the polymerized resins used as a medium for carving jewelry etc. -- see also the first paragraph under the Cinnabar Lacquer secondary heading, in REMARKS -- follow:
    Color -
vivid reddish orange to dark reddish purple
    H. ~ 2 ½
    S.G. < 1, ranging slightly higher with amount of pigment -- Notice how much this differs from the specific gravity of massive cinnabar(!)
    Luster - satinlike to glossy
    Miscellany - some is photo sensitive like massive cinnabar;  see also paragraph two under REMARKS about Cinnabar Lacquer).

OTHER NAMES: Listing "other names" for this entry is a nomenclature nightmare:  1.As well as being the accepted name of the trigonal trimorph of HgS, cinnabar (with or without enclosing quotation marks) is used both as a noun and an adjective for cinnabar-pigmented lacquers -- and, in addition, for at least a few other red lacquers with other pigments -- that have been fashioned into jewelry and/or other pieces.  [and]  2.The term lacquer, with no modifiers, is used widely for red lacquers (originally cinnabar-pigmented ones) despite the fact that lac tree sap and lacquer produced from it is a dull gray color until it has been colored, by the addition of, for example, yellow, green, brown, and/or black, as well as other red pigments.  Problem "1" is apparently based on the fact that cinnabar has become in essence a color term in general parlance.   Aspect "2" (in my opinion) directs attention to the fact that the term lacquer should be used as a generic noun preceded by its color and/or the identity of its pigment.

Nonetheless, a few other names seem noteworthy.

Massive cinnabar:

Cinnabar lacquer: see names of predominantly lacquer materials given under SIMULANTS.


Massive cinnabar: As well as its probable historical role as a gemrock, even now "Massive cinnabar in limestone is a very desirable carving material among the Chinese" (Kellar and Fuquan, 1986).  In addition, cinnabar-bearing rocks such as breccias and "cinnabar quartz" have been fashioned into cabochons used as pendants, earrings, and ring stones (see Figure E).  See also the CHICKEN-BLOOD STONE entry. 

Cinnabar lacquer: Although some jewelry, such as beads and pendants, has been carved from cinnabar-pigmented lacquer masses, many of these and other pieces that are so represented have been carved from wood and are only coated with a red lacquer, not necessarily even cinnabar-pigmented lacquer.  These beads, pendants etc. are frequently combined with, for example, tumbled chips, spheres, ellipsoids, or even faceted beads of other materials such as silver, gold, diverse jades, lapis lazuli, black "onyx," tiger's-eye, pearls, coral, and ivory.  Examples of relatively small functional and decorative pieces made from or coated by red lacquer, some of which is cinnabar lacquer, include the following: boxes for all sorts of uses, candle sticks, lamp bases, snuff bottles, trays, and vasesLacquer pieces with inlays of, for example, mother-of-pearl, which have been used both in jewelry and for several of the other decorative and functional objects, are additionally noteworthy here.


Massive cinnabar occurs as relatively thin crusts to relatively thick coatings on fracture surfaces, as veins, and as impregnations, some of which are interpreted to have replaced preexisting components of the current host rocks;  host rocks represented are of several diverse compositions and nearly all geological eras. Most occurrences, however, are in disturbed areas and thought to have been deposited by hydrothermal solutions spatially associated with relatively recent volcanic activities or in so-called hot spring areas.  For additional information, see Becker (1888).

Cinnabar lacquer does not occur naturally.


Massive cinnabar: Almadén del Azoque, Ciudad Real, Spain, where mining dates back to at least 415 B.C.; Idria, Slovenia (formerly Gorizia, Italy);  Guiyang, Guizhou Province (formerly Kweiyang, Kweichow/chau Province), China;   the Cordillera Occidental (e.g., near Huancavelica), Peru, "where, as all historians are agreed, the subjects of the Incas were familiar with the use of vermilion" (Becker, 1888, p.8);  and sporadicially in the Coast Range of, for example, Lake and Napa counties, California, where discovery of cinnabar-bearing ore bodies predated the 1849 gold rush.  For additional world-wide localities, see, Becker (ibid.).

Cinnabar lacquer does not occur naturally.

REMARKS: According to Mitchell (1979), the name cinnabar is "from Medieval Latin cinnabaris; with a long history which can be traced to Persian zinjifrah, apparently meaning dragon's blood, in allusion to its red color."

The toxicity of mercury and cinnabar appears to have been recognized before 2000 B.C., when "the task of mining quicksilver [was assigned] to slaves and prisoners.  The average life span of miners was 3 years from when they started this hazardous work."   Nonetheless, during the Middle Ages, many alchemists used mercury in their experiments and procedures -- athough they, too, suffered ill effects.  Among several widely cited examples are: King Charles II of England;  Sir Isaac Newton "who actually tasted the chemicals he worked with ... -- In 1979, hair strands from his corpse were tested for mercury and found to contain 75 parts per million (Normal levels are about 5 parts per million.)";  Michael Faraday;  Abraham Lincoln;  and hat makers of Danbury, Connecticut, where a "mercuric nitrate was used to soften fur for hats, [and] exposed workers contracted the classic syndrome called the 'Danbury Shakes'." (Preceding quotations, paraphrased statements, and additional pertinent information are on, for example, mercuryinschools.uwex. edu.)   In addition, recall the plights of Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter in "Alice in Wonderland."   In any case, mercury toxicity is well established, and "Cinnabar (used in jewelry)" is listed as one of the sources of mercury exposure. (e.g.,

Unfortunately, contrary statements relating to the toxicity of cinnabar, especially that powdered and used as a pigment, have been published and repeated(!!) in some fairly recent literature -- e.g., Wehlte, 1975, p.106 and Albus, 2000, p.315;  because such misinformation is in the literature and repeated on web sites, I think it is important to direct attention to the fact that both of those authors are artists, not mineralogists or chemists, and to reiterate the following statements:  1."Toxicity: Some authorities consider natural cinnabar to be non-toxic. Anita Albus writes that the deadly poison of mercury becomes harmless when it is stably bound with sulfur. However, we consider cinnabar to be toxic and urge caution in handling the dry powder pigment, as well as the pigment dispersed in medium." (from a pigment marketer - www.iconofile./pigments_cinnabar)   2.According to Sax's Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials (10th ed., 2000), which is widely considered to be the authoritative source on toxic materials, Mercury Sulfide is given the highest Hazard Rating (3 on a scale of 1-3).  [and]  3."It is not generally appreciated that mercury is a virulent poison and is readily absorbed through the respiratory tract, the gastrointestinal tract, or through unbroken skin.  It acts as a cumulative poison since only small amounts of the element can be eliminated at a time by the human organism." (Lide, 2002)

There are two additional aspects of toxicity that relate to the toxicity of cinnabar lacquer, although I hasten to add I have found no recorded data about either -- i.e., each is only a conjecture as to why or how pieces fashioned from cinnabar-pigmented lacquer might have relatively low toxicities:  1.lacquer has less cinnabar per unit volume so its toxicity is of lower concentration;  and or more layers of colorless, cinnabar-free lacquer could be used as the final sealing coats and might so-to-speak encapsulate the toxicity. So far as this latter possibility -- if indeed it might serve the desired purpose -- the sealing coats would, of course, have to be applied after any carving (etc.) to provide the inferred safety.

Hypothesized History: Chiefly because of its vivid red color, powdered cinnabar was among the mineral pigments used during ancient times for such things as "war" and ceremonial face and body paint.  With extended "artistic" efforts, for the most part for self adornment, massive cinnabar became a favored medium because of its fairly widespread availability and the ease with which, for example, pendants and beads could be fashioned from it.  With time, however, it became apparent that the artisans who fashioned those things and also those who wore them often developed physiological and/or mental problems (because of cinnabar's toxicity).  In spite of such recognition, the desire for pieces having the attractive red hues of cinnabar prevailed.  As a result of this scenario, probably as the result of several experiments and/or errors, it was discovered that cinnabar-pigmented lacquer could be applied in multiple coats to produce masses large enough to be carved (etc.).  Subsequently, these masses of cinnabar lacquer gained their role, which ultimately essentially supplanted the use of massive cinnabar so far as fashioning beads, pendants, etc., and later led to their use for fashioning several other decorative pieces. ----- (A tangent: Whether mixtures of lac pigmented by powdered cinnabar had already been produced, for whatever use, and found apparently not to affect people negatively is not significant so far as this hypothetical history.) ----- To me, the least supported parts of this hypothetical history relate to the following:  1.early use of massive cinnabar as the medium from which pendants etc. were fashioned;  and  2.the implied thought processes that recognized the likelihood that cinnabar-pigmented lacquer might be less toxic than massive mercury, and, in turn, the consequent devising of procedures for producing large masses of cinnabar lacquer. -- The color, availability, and easy workability of massive cinnabar support the first premise, and the following published statement can be construed as at least permissively supportive: "The Greeks shot arrows at lofty cliffs to dislodge the cinnabar, and cinnabar carvings were popular during the Ming dynasty in China." (   I cannot, however, vouch for the veracity of that information.  The second premise -- the alluded-to thought processes -- is pure conjecture, at least in my mind.  However,  IF the hypothesized history is accepted, ancient uses of massive cinnabar as a gemrock became the precursor of similar uses of specially prepared, relatively large masses of cinnabar-pigmented lacquer.   AND, continued and extended utilization of the lacquer for all practical purposes, supplanted gemrock uses of its natural cinnabar precursor.  [[As already note, however, this is not to say that utilization of massive cinnabar preceded all uses of cinnabar-pigmented lacquer.  Indeed, apparently well documented evidence indicates that such lacquer was used at least as early as during the Han dynasty (B.C.206  - A.D.220), and archaeological discoveries coupled with Carbon-14 dating indicate that black lacquer ware dates back to Neolithic times in China (see wwwregenttour.camalso; and also see www.isei.or.ip/Lacquer_Museum)]]

Massive cinnabar: Derivation of the name cinnabar has been attributed differently by different authors. According to Mitchell (1979) it is "from Medieval Latin cinnabaris; with a long history which can be traced to Persian zinjifrah, apparently meaning dragon's blood, in allusion to its red color."

Cinnabar lacquer:  Production of cinnabar lacquer used for carvings etc.Early red lacquer consisted of a resinous sap collected from the lac tree, Rhus verniciflua -- which is related to poison ivy, poison sumac, etc. -- grown in central and southern China, plus powdered cinnabar.  The cinnabar lacquer masses used, especially in the past, commonly consist of more than 200 (some times as many as 500) coats, with the built up masses made thick enough for carving the desired items (e.g., beads, brooches, and pendants; boxes, bowls, and trays).  The process was laborious and time-consuming because each coat of lacquer had to be applied and then completely dried under carefully monitored conditions before the next coat was applied.... Indeed, it is recorded that "a fine large piece might take years to prepare and then years to carve ... [and that] Ten years was not considered excessive." ( For additional information, and suggestions dealing with the care of lacquer, see

According to Grove's Dictionary of Art "Vermilion has proved to be essentially a stable pigment, although this is not always the case. In an aqueous medium and exposed to strong light it can change to the metastable black modification of mercuric sulphide, metacinnabar" (  Consequently, just as for anything fashioned from massive cinnabar, cinnabar-pigmented lacquer pieces should not be kept wet for any extended period (if, for example, they are washed with water, they should be dried with all due haste) and they should not be exposed to extensive sunlight, at least not for any prolonged time.  The following recorded examples are of interest so far as the photo sensitive characteristic of lacquer: "Colour may be fugitive. ... It is said that a twelfth-century monochrome box when recovered from a tomb was a lustrous coral red that later darkened; and a nineteenth-century box darkened merely from being exposed for a few months on an occasionally sunlit window-sill whereas the under curve of the box, being in shade, remained in a higher key.” (Clifford, 1992, p.22)

Two tidbits for possible conversation use by those showing their cinnabar lacquer pieces:   1.A set of four postage stamps issued in 1993 by the People's Republic of China features cinnabar lacquerware:  A bowl, a duck, a round tray and a box with lid are shown.   2.A carved cinnabar lacquer circular box and cover (diameter, 32 cm) -- "Yongle six-character mark and period (1403-1424)" -- was sold at Auction for a "world record price for an Asian work . . . of Chinese lacquer." The price was $1,578,850 (Auction Report, 18 May 2001 -

SIMULANTS: In one sense, all of the materials listed under this subheading -- i.e., under both secondary headings -- could be considered simulants of Massive cinnabar. Those below the "Cinnabar lacquer" secondary heading are given there because they appear to represent materials produced to resemble it rather than natural massive cinnabar.

Massive cinnabar:

***Lacquer - especially that with cinnabar pigment but also those with other red pigments are simulants for two reasons:  1.If the hypothesized history fundamental to including this entry is accepted/correct, the original thick masses of cinnabar-pigmented lacquer were prepared to serve as simulants.   2.In the marketplace, cinnabar (in some cases enclosed in quotation marks) -- used as a noun or adjective preceding lacquer -- is used widely to designate jewelry and other pieces fashioned from or coated by lacquer. See listings under the next secondary heading.

***Polymer clay -- this material, appropriately color-dyed, is commonly stamped into, for example, beads and other items that appear to have been carved.

***Synthetic cinnabar -- Although synthesis has been accomplished using different procedures, most of which are relatively simple and have been used for several centuries (see, for example, Palache, Berman, and Frondel, 1944), I have found no record of synthetic cinnabar's ever having been used for fashioning jewelry etc.

Cinnabar lacquer: The starting point here is the tentative assumption that materials listed under this subheading have been used to simulate cinnabar lacquer jewelry and pieces such as those noted under the USES subheading.  Three different kinds of material warrant mention:  1.Red lacquers the colors of which derive from a pigment other than cinnabar -- e.g., cadmium red (also toxic), cochineal, hematite, lead chromate (called Austrian cinnabar or Persian red), madder, pig’s blood, or safflower;   however, to me, and I suspect several others, none of these quite matches the red hues that I associate with cinnabar- pigmented lacquer;   2.Materials that consist of one or more other materials, such as wood, bone or metal, that are merely coated with red lacquer, be its pigment cinnabar or something else;  [and]   3.Other materials such as red colored plastics. Those given below are only examples -- i.e., the list is not comprehensive.

Bastard lacquer (also called "piled red") - name applied to lacquer with brick dust as the pigment (Clifford, 1992, p.107).

Cinebar - designation (apparently not just a "typo") given an otherwise unidentified material that in photographs accompanying advertisements for pendants closely resembles cinnabar-pigmented lacquer.

"Cinnabar wood"- marketplace designation applied to some wood carved articles with red lacquer coatings. A large percentage of the beads, pendants (etc,) marketed today as "Cinnabar" consist of a carved wood base and untold layers of lacquer. Two procedures have been used:   1.Coating wood with lacquer and then carving the lacquer, and   2.Carving the wood and then covering it with lacquer. Different references describe such pieces in different ways: "Sendai Tsuishu ('layered [or built up] red') is a lacquerware made by coating wood with over a hundred layers of vermillion lacquer, and then carving traditional patterns in them." (;  and "This new craft was given the name Kamakura bori, or "Kamakura carving." (

***Cinnebar (the "e" is as it appears) - A description of "hand carved" cinnebar beads -- which closely resemble lacquer -- states that "Cinnebar is from the Cinnebar Tree which grows in Southeast Asia. The beads are made by pressing a pattern into the wood and then the color is enhanced with a resin to give it stability as the wood is very soft. Do not confuse this material with the mineral also known as cinnabar." (

***Japanese Cinnabar Lacquer - a particular name given several pieces that consist largely of wood overlaid with layers and layers of lacquer -- cf. "Cinnabar wood" listing.

***Porcelain - Reticulated pieces -- e.g., snuff bottles -- that resemble carved lacquer are available in the marketplace.


Massive cinnabar: No general reference.

Cinnabar lacquer: No general reference.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:   Frances S. Dietrich, Kurt R. Dietrich, Richard S. Dietrich, David D. Ginsburg, and Emmett Mason helped me find pertinent publications and/or critiqued preliminary drafts of the manuscript that evolved to this entry. I gratefully thank each of these professionals for their contributions. Those who gave me permission to include their photos are noted in the captions.


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Last update: 13 May 2005
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