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soapstoneboxSoapstone jewelry box from India, carved by Gulam Rasool.  Item for sale at http://jewelry-boxes.novica.com/

While you are far more likely to own a soapstone jewelry box than a piece of it to your next formal event, this humble rock built the foundations of civilization and our existence.  It was so commonplace and ingrained in everyday life that I actually had trouble finding historical references to make it shine.

As a rock and not a true mineral, soapstone’s composition can vary but it is usually 30-80% talc (Mg3Si4O10(OH)2) with impurities of mica and other minerals.  Talc has the lowest score on the Mohs scale, giving the softer soapstones their soapy, slick feel that can be scratched with a fingernail.  For its physical meekness, soapstone is stronger in other ways, such as being able to withstand and hold extreme heat, being nonporous, and resistant to dissolving by acids and bases. 

These traits made soapstone valuable and useful to man for centuries the world over.  Floors in Greece, bronze casting molds in Scandinavia, bowls and smoking pipes for the Native Americans, fireplace hearths in Europe, and teapots and signature seals in China were all hewn from quarries across the ancient world and shaped by skilled hands.  Today you are most likely to find soapstone as ornamental carvings, countertops, sinks in school chemistry labs, non-diluting ice cubes (whiskey stones), and as an additive to paints and cosmetics.

soapstonesealPersonal soapstone seal of the Chinese Emperor Kangxi.  The inscription reads “To work assiduously for the people.”  Item sold through auction at Christie’s: http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/custom/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=4919836

Soapstone is typically in neutral shades of greys and browns, but other minerals can make it take on cheerful yellows, reds, and greens.  Contrary to what I said before, you can find soapstone to wear, mostly as beads or carved pendants.