Anisotropic crystals will have optical properties that vary with the direction of light. The polarization of light determines the direction of the electric field, and crystals will respond in different ways if this angle is changed. These kinds of crystals have one or two optical axes. If absorption of light varies with the angle relative to the optical axis in a crystal then pleochroism results.
Anisotropic crystals have double refraction of light where light of different polarizations is bent different amounts by the crystal, and therefore follows different paths through the crystal. The components of a divided light beam follow different paths within the mineral and travel at different speeds. When the mineral is observed at some angle, light following some combination of paths and polarizations will be present, each of which will have had light of different colors absorbed. At another angle, the light passing through the crystal will be composed of another combination of light paths and polarizations, each with their own color. The light passing through the mineral will therefore have different colors when it is viewed from different angles, making the stone seem to be of different colors.
Tetragonal, trigonal and hexagonal minerals can only show two colors and are called dichroic. Orthorhombic, monoclinic and triclinic crystals can show three and are trichroic. For example hypersthene, with two optical axes, can have red, yellow or blue appearance when oriented in three different ways in three-dimensional space. Isometric minerals cannot exhibit pleochroism. Tourmaline is notable for exhibiting strong pleochroism. Gems are sometimes cut and set either to display pleochroism or to hide it, depending on the colors and their attractiveness.
The pleochroic colours are at their maximum when light is polarized parallel with a crystallographic axis. The axes are designated X, Y and Z. These axes can be determined from the appearance of a crystal in a conoscopic interference pattern. Where there are two optical axes, the acute bisection of the axes gives Z for positive minerals and X for negative minerals and the obtuse bisection give the alternative axis (X or Z). Perpendicular to these is the Y axis. The colour is measured with the polarization parallel to each direction. An absorption formula records the amount of absorption parallel to each axis in the form of X < Y < Z with the left most having the least absorption and the rightmost the most.
Pleochroism is an extremely useful tool in mineralogy for mineral identification, since minerals that are otherwise very similar often have very different pleochroic color schemes. In such cases, a thin section of the mineral is used and examined under polarized transmitted light with a petrographic microscope. Another device using this property to identify minerals is the dichroscope.
List of pleochroic minerals
Purple and violet
- Amethyst (very low): purple / purple
- Andalusite (strong): green brown / dark red / purple
- Beryl (medium): purple / colorless
- Corundum (high): purple / orange
- Hypersthene (strong): purple/orange
- Spodumene (Kunzite) (strong): purple / purple / clear / pink
- Tourmaline (strong): pale purple / purple
- Putnisite: pale purple / bluish grey
- Aquamarine (medium): colorless-light blue / light blue, dark blue
- Alexandrite (strong): Dark red-purple/orange/green
- Apatite (strong): blue-yellow/blue-colourless
- Benitoite (strong): colorless / dark blue
- Cordierite (very strong): orthorhombic blue brown / yellow / greenish brown / gray blue / blue to purple
- Corundum (strong): violet-dark blue / light blue-green
- Iolite (strong): colorless / yellow / blue / dark blue-violet
- Topaz (very low): colorless / pale blue / pink
- Tourmaline (strong): dark blue / light blue
- Zoisite (strong): blue / red purple / yellow green
- Zircon (strong): blue / clear / gray
- Alexandrite (strong): dark red / orange / green
- Andalusite (strong): brown green / dark red
- Corundum (strong): green / yellow green
- Emerald (strong): Green / Blue Green
- Peridot (low): yellow-green / green / colorless
- Titanite (medium): brown green / blue green
- Tourmaline (strong): blue green / brown green / yellow green
- Zircon (low): greenish brown / green
- Citrine (very weak): pale yellow / pale yellow
- Chrysoberyl (very weak): red-yellow/yellow-green/green
- Corundum (weak): yellow / pale yellow
- Danburite (weak): very pale yellow / pale yellow
- Orthoclase (weak): pale yellow / pale yellow
- Phenacite (medium): colorless / yellow orange
- Spodumene (medium): pale yellow / pale yellow
- Topaz (medium): tan / yellow / yellow orange
- Tourmaline (medium): pale yellow / dark yellow
- Zircon (weak): tan / yellow
- Hornblende (strong) light green/dark green/yellow/brown
Brown and orange
- Corundum (strong): yellow brown / orange
- Topaz (medium): brown-yellow/brown yellow dull
- Tourmaline (very low): dark brown / light brown
- Zircon (very weak): brown red/brown-yellow
- Biotite (medium): brown
Red and pink
- Alexandrite (strong): dark red / orange / green
- Andalusite (strong): dark red / brown red
- Corundum (strong): violet red / orange red
- Morganite (medium): light red / red violet
- Tourmaline (strong): dark red / light red
- Zircon (medium): purple / red brown
- "Webmineral: Pleochroism in minerals".
- Bloss, F. Donald (1961). An Introduction to the Methods of Optical Crystallography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 147–149.
- Bloss, F. Donald (1961). An Introduction to the Methods of Optical Crystallography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 212–213.
- "The Pleochroic Minerals".
- Rogers, Austin F.; Kerr, Paul F. (1942). Optical Mineralogy (2 ed.). McGraw Hill Book Company. pp. 113–114.