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July-August 2015

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Connoisseur's Choice: Willemite, Tsumeb Mine, Tsumeb, Otjikoto, Namibia

Mineral nomenclature is usually pretty straightforward. Traditionally, minerals have been named for their chemistry, discoverer, or for a famous scientist. There are some, however, that make one wonder why they are named as they are. A prime example of this is the zinc silicate willemite, which has a great back-story, particularly if you are a history buff. Willemite was described in 1822 by John Torry (1796–1873) as a siliceous oxyd [sic] of zinc (Dunn 1995). The first full description was made by Lardner Vanuxem (1792–1848) and William Hypolitus Keating (1799–1840) in 1824, from specimens obtained from Franklin, New Jersey; they called the mineral a siliceous oxide or silicate of zinc but for some reason failed to give it a formal name. That was left to French mineralogist Armand Lévy (1795–1841) to do in 1830. Using specimens from what is today known as Altenburg, near Moresnet, Belgium, to describe willemite, he named the mineral for the king of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, William I (1722–1843). But why did he have a mineral named for him?       

Paul W. Pohwat, a consulting editor of Rocks & Minerals, is the collection manager (minerals) in the Department of Mineral Sciences at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution).       

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