( Fr- marbre, calcaire, dolomie; Ger- Marmor, Kalkstein, Dolomitgestein/Bitterspat;
Nor- marmor, kalkstein, dolomitt; Rus- )


A. Marble cabochon (greater axis - ca. 3.5 cm). Brecciated yellow, black and white marble from Italy. Smithsonian Institution collection. (photo by Lee Bolton)

B. Marble cabochon (greater axis - ca. 2.5 cm). Black and white marble from Spain. Smithsonian Institution collection. (photo by Lee Bolton)  

C. Marble figure, "Sky King" (length, left to right - ca. 100 cm), sculpted from Carrara marble by Dennis R. Christy. Sculptor's personal collection. (© photo by Dick Dietrich)

D. White calcite-veined limestone (bottom width - 20 cm;  height -10.1 cm) thought to have been carved in China. Smithsonian Institution collection, added 1892. (© photo by B. Chromy)

DESCRIPTION:  Properties of calcite and dolomite, the chief mineral constituents of these rocks, precede general properties for the three rocks.

colorless, white, gray, tan, reddish, bluish, greenish, lavendar, brownish or nearly black
     H. 3
    Light transmission - transparent to opaque
- pearly to vitreous
    Breakage  - three perfect cleavages yielding rhombhedrons with angles of 75° or 105° between faces
- effervesces vigorously with dilute HCl (Hydrochloric acid);  colorless grains can be seen macroscopically to exhibit double refraction. 

Colors - colorless, white, gray, tan, reddish, bluish, or greenish
    H. 3½ - 4
    S.G. ~ 2.85

    Light transmission - translucent to opaque
    Luster - pearly to subvitreous
    Breakage - three poor-fair cleavages
    Miscellany - when powdered, effervesces slowly (so-to-speak smolders or simmers) when attacked by dilute HCl (hydrochloric acid); some dolomite is triboluminescent.  

Marble: Most marble consists of 90 percent or more of calcite or dolomite.  As noted in the second paragraph under the OTHER NAMES subheading, the term marble has different connotations in geology versus the marketplace -- briefly, geologists consider it to be a metamorphic rock whereas marketers consider it to be any predominantly calcite- or dolomite-rich rock that takes a polish.
    Colors - white, brown, black and nearly every color;  commonly streaked, mottled, variegated, etc. with one or more hues of one, two or more colors
H. 3-4, depending upon composition
    S.G. 1.8-2.85
    Light transmission
- translucent(in thin pieces)
to opaque
    Luster - dull to pearly to subvitreous
    Breakage - irregular
    Miscellany - typically saccharoidal to relatively coarsely crystalline -- i.e., made up largely of grains a millimeter or more in greatest dimension.  See NOTE following description of dolostone re distinguishing calcite from dolomite marbles.

Limestones are sedimentary rocks, most of which are made up of 95 percent or more of calcite. 
    Colors -
diverse shades of gray (e.g., dove-gray), off-white; less commonly brownish or reddish; and rarely greenish
H. 3
Light transmission - translucent (in thin slices)  to opaque
    Luster - dull to pearly(polished)
    Breakage - irregular to subconchoidal
    Miscellany - grains size is typically microscopic;  see NOTE following description of dolostone

Dolostone: Dolostones are diagenetic, and/or possibly sedimentary, rocks.  Dolostone is used in this document as part of my mission to discontinue the dual application of the mineral name to both the mineral and the rock.  This breaks with the widespread traditional usage whereby rocks made up largely of the mineral dolomite are also called dolomite.  (Alternatively, either rock dolomite or dolorock would seem more appropriate terms than continuing the dual usage.)
    Colors - white, gray, tan, reddish, bluish, greenish, brownish
    H. 3½ - 4
    Light transmission - translucent (in thin piecesto opaque
    Luster - dull to pearly(polished)

    Breakage - irregular to subconcoidal
    Miscellany - grain size varies from microscopic to coarse granular;  see the following NOTE.   

NOTE:  Although some dolostones and limestones (and also calcite and dolomite marbles) closely resemble one another, a simple test that can be administered in the field serves to distinguish between them.  As is apparent from the properties of calcite and dolomite:  When a drop or so of dilute HCl is placed on limestone or calcite marble,  a vigorous effervescence occurs,  whereas when a drop or so of dilute HCl is placed on dolostone or dolomite marble, it causes at most only a slowly smoldering/simmering effervescence (in fact, some dolostone and dolomite marble has to be powdered to give even that reaction).  There also are stain tests to distinguish between calcite and dolomite, but they are usually used only in research involving rocks made up of mixtures of the two minerals.

OTHER NAMES: ... Marble, ... Limestone, ... Dolomite (regrettably not Dolostone) : For a given unit, the ellipsis is replaced by a geographic name, and the resulting binomial designation is the accepted stratigraphic unit designation (see Appendix B, Glossary), which is used in geological reports and on geological maps.  Examples are the Shelburne Marble of Vermont; the Cedar Valley Limestone of Iowa and adjacent areas of Illinois and Minnesota; and the St. Ignace Dolomite that is well exposed in the Mackinac Straits area of Michigan.

Although geologists restrict application of the term marble to metamorphosed carbonate rocks, in the marketplace marble is frequently applied to any predominantly carbonate rock -- including coarsely crystalline limestones and dolostones as well as their metamorphosed products (i.e., marble) -- that take a good polish.  The widely used stylolite-bearing "Tennessee marble," which is a coarsely crystalline (recrystallized!) dolostone that has NOT undergone metamorphism, is an example of the broader marketplace application of the term.  Although this broader usage has been applied for the most part by dealers in ashlar and other decorative facings stone, more recently,  this extended nomenclature has also been applied by dealers in ornaments made from such rocks.

Yet another nomenclature problem relating to marbles and other carbonate-rich gemrocks exists:  Some travertine deposits, especially speleothems, have been called marbles in the marketplace.  Probably the best (worst?) example relates to the many designations that fall into a group that may be called, for lack of a better name, the onyx marbles --e.g., Mexican onyx. These rocks are neither marble nor onyx according to definitions accepted by most geologists (see TRAVERTINE entry).

In the marketplace, such things as colors,  patterns of colors, former use, and/or some locality of occurrence are frequently applied as adjectives preceding the name marble or even as "bald names" for individual marbles.  Many of the names are of Italian origin, which reflects the fact that Italy has had such a long history in the production of diverse marbles.

Examples of names given marbles, limestones, and dolostones used as gemrocks follow:

USES: Because they are relatively easily worked and many things fashioned from them are attractive, these three rocks, particularly marble, have been used widely as gemstones as well as for statuary, ashlar, tombstones, altars, steles, etc.  Examples of gemrock use are beads, cabochons and carved stones (including cameos) for jewelry;  carvings (e.g., fetishes, figurines and ornaments);  and functional pieces such as bookends, bases for lamps and desk sets, decorative cases for clocks and kaleidoscopes, cutting boards and lazy susan tops and both stoppers and partly hollowed-out cylinders for chilling bottles of wine.  The just mentioned cameos include both "solid black" and "solid white" marble cameos  (Crowningshield, 1960) and so-called "lava" cameos fashioned from fine-grained gray and borownish yellow limestone (Liddicoat, 1963).  Also, especially in the past, bituminous limestone was used as the base for inlay pieces, and chalk, which is limestone, has been used for carving, especially by novices.  In addition, marble and limestone have been stained blue and marketed as turquoise (Crowningshield, 1963).  ***Marble egg-shaped masses have been marketed for placing in places where owners want their hens to lay their eggs -- e.g. within their coops -- and also as parts of decorative items -- e.g., a "Wren's nest ..." described as an "appealing table decoration."   Somewhat peculiar, though certainly anticipated  uses:  Marble, has been dyed pink and fashioned into beads to imitate opal from the Peruvian Andes (Milisenda, 2006)  AND dyed green marble has been marked with such names as Hanbai jade, Afghanistan jade and antique jade (Lai, 2015).

OCCURRENCES: Typical limestones are relatively common chemically or biochemically deposited sedimentary rocks in marine sequences. Most dolostones are diagenetic rocks, also occurring in marine sequences. True marbles occur where sedimentary rock sequences including limestones and/or dolostones have undergone metamorphism of the type usually referred to as regional metamorphism.

NOTEWORTHY LOCALITIES: True marbles are widespread: Italy is a major producer;  in the United States, the marbles of Proctor, Rutland County, Vermont are well known;  the Cotham Marble (an argillaceous limestone) from near Bristol, England is a well-known source of landscape marble;  Caymanite is recovered from the eastern end of Grand Cayman and reportedly also from Cayman Brac (Koivula, Kamamerling & Fritsch, 1994, p.193);  fine white dolomitic marble occurs in Dutchess County, New York.  A few  localities are noted for other marbles as well as for certain limestones and dolostones along with the appropriate listings under the OTHER NAMES subheading.

REMARKS:  The roots and changes through the ages and languages that led to the word marble are extremely complex and not fully clear -- see QED summary.  The origin of the term limestone is quite apparent;  that of dolostone is based on its consisting largely or wholly of the mineral dolomite, which was named in late 18th century for the  French geologist and mineralogist M. Déodat de Dolomieu. 

For untold decades, marble -- especially white or nearly white marble -- has been dyed one or more colors and marketed as " ... marble" or even " ... onyx" with the ellipsis replaced by the imposed color or colors with NO indication that the appearance is anything but natural, and in the case of the "... onyx" no indication that it is marble.  In addition, some marketplace marbles have been impregnated by such things as paraffin or plastics, and a few have been touched up with paint and/or dyes to make them appear more nearly homogeneous.

Two marbles -- Carrara and Parian marbles -- are mentioned in the "Dictionary of gems and gemology ..." (GIA, 1974) as having been used for fashioning of diverse items since ancient times;  my recollection is that during a visit to the Vatican the guide said that Michelangelo's pietà and several of his other works were sculpted from Carrara marble.   Some landscape and ruin marbles have been used as the "canvas" upon which artists have painted -- see, for example, those that illustrate literary works of Ariosto, Boiardo and Dante (Caillois, 1985).  Indeed, these marbles also  have been used for untold ages as decorative stones -- e.g., as tiles for interiors and landscape accents, for sculptures and headstones and even as ashlar -- this, despite the fact that marble is ill-suited for some of these uses, especially when put out-of-doors in certain climatic environments. Two examples of such ill-conceived use are: 1.In some areas -- especially where there is acid rain (and dew) -- marble undergoes relatively rapid chemical weathering;  this means, among other things, that inscriptions on monuments placed in such places become indecipherable after exposure over relatively short periods.  and   2.Some marble tends to "flow" under its own weight, which in some cases creates hazardous conditions (Titamgim, 1992).

A surprizing, at least to me,  ancient use of marble was as disks (15-20 cm in diameter), many with pupils and irises painted on them, as ophthalmoi (eyes) on ancient vessels used in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and other large waterways. These "eyes", fastened on each side of a prow was "to give life to a ship or to help it see its way through the waves ... [They were] common to many cultures from Portugal to India" (Bass, 2002).

"The Standard of Ur, made of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone [my emphasis] [that intricately] depicts a banquet on one side and a battle on the other ... [which was] made in Ur ca. 2550-2400 BC" is illustrated on page 21) of the July/August 2003 issue of "Saudi Aramco World."

Marble is the state rock of Alabama, Colorado(?) and is one of three state rocks of Vermont;  limestone (though not as a gemrock per se) is the state rock of Tennessee and the state stone of Indiana?.

Attention is directed to the quotation from the Preface of The Marbles and Granites of the World (Grant, 1955) given in the second paragraph  under the REMARKS subheading in the GRANITE entry.


***Bonded marble, bonded stone, cast stone, cultured marble etc. - fine particles of ground or crushed marble and/or limestone bonded by a polymer, resin or, rarely, fiberglass.  All apparently consist of more than 75 percent, and most of more than 90 percent, of the marble and/or limestone particles.  Some of these materials are marketed with names such as Bonded ... Marble, with the ellipsis replaced by the name of the constituent marble or limestone -- e.g., Bonded Carrara Marble; others have been given marketplace names such as "Athena marble" and "oxolyte."  Most of these simulants have homogeneous textures;  some have pigments added so desired colors and/or color patterns (e.g., marbleized appearances) are produced; all may be cast (i.e., poured into molds).  The major use of these materials is for such things as bathroom fixtures, fireplaces, statues (including replicas of famous works) and birdbaths;  some have been carved or sculpted.  (I have been reminded, however, that sculptors who use such materials in lieu of natural marble are considered to be "amateurs or neophytes who don't know how to deal with the inhomogeneities [found in many natural marbles], something that 'real sculptors' consider an important aspect of their art."  Statuettes, reliefs (e.g., wall plaques) and diverse ornaments and curios made -- either cast or sculpted/carved -- of these simulants are advertized in several specialty house catalogs. Fortunately, they are usually noted as consisting of, for example, cultured or faux marble so potential and real buyers know the items are not marble per se. - [handlens observation suffices for anyone familiar with marble etc. to see that these materials are not natural].

***Glass and porcelain that have been marbleized have been fashioned into decorative ornaments such as vases, and some have been marketed with misleading descriptions such as a recently advertized "red marble vase." - [All have hardnesses greater than marble (etc.)  and lusters of most are noticeably higher than those of even highly polished marbles(etc.).].

***Hydrostone (hand cast alabaster and limestone plaster) - same uses as Bonded marble (q.v.). - [inferior hardness of constituent dust;  Does not effervesce with dilute HCl.].

***Incolay stone - described as "a complex combination of quart[z] based minerals such as Rose Quartz, Sapphire Blue, Sardonyx, Carnelian, Onyx and Banded Agate, combined ..." (e.g.,  Several colors (etc.) of this material have been fashioned into all sorts of decorative ornaments and curios, most of which include white cameolike features atop the overall material.  Thus, this material could be listed as a simulant for a few other gemrocks as well as for marble.  It is listed here because of all the colors and patterns I have seen or seen illustrated, only a few rare marbles are the only  natural materials with which I think it might be confused. - [Observation should suffice;  also, some constituents give it an effective hardness that is greater than that of marble.]. 

Slate bearing painted designs have been substituted for "Ashford Black Marble" inlays. - [Appearance suffices.].

[A reversal of roles is the marketing as dyed dolomite (and other carbonates such as magnesite) as turquoise (McClure, Kane and Sturman, 2010 -- recorded with a bald reference so I could not check it or give it here).]

REFERENCES: No general reference. Grant, 1955.

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Last update:  18 February 2015
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