A mineral is, broadly speaking, a solid chemical compound that occurs naturally in pure form. Minerals are most commonly associated with rocks due to the presence of minerals within rocks. These rocks may consist of one type of mineral, or may be an aggregate of two or more different types of minerals, spacially segregated into distinct phases. Compounds that occur only in living beings are usually excluded, but some minerals are often biogenic (such as calcite) or are organic compounds in the sense of chemistry (such as mellite). Moreover, living beings often synthesize inorganic minerals (such as hydroxylapatite) that also occur in rocks.
Besides the essential chemical composition and crystal structure, the description of a mineral species usually includes its common physical properties such as habit, hardness, lustre, diaphaneity, colour, streak, tenacity, cleavage, fracture, parting, specific gravity, magnetism, fluorescence, radioactivity, as well as its taste or smell and its reaction to acid.
Ernest Nickel's (1995) exclusion of biogenic substances has not been universally adhered to. For example, Lowenstam (1981) stated that "organisms are capable of forming a diverse array of minerals, some of which cannot be formed inorganically in the biosphere." The distinction is a matter of classification and less to do with the constituents of the minerals themselves. Skinner (2005) views all solids as potential minerals and includes biominerals in the mineral kingdom, which are those that are created by the metabolic activities of organisms. Skinner expanded the previous definition of a mineral to classify "element or compound, amorphous or crystalline, formed through biogeochemical processes," as a mineral.
The chemical composition may vary between end member species of a solid solution series. For example, the plagioclase feldspars comprise a continuous series from sodium-rich end member albite (NaAlSi3O8) to calcium-rich anorthite (CaAl2Si2O8) with four recognized intermediate varieties between them (given in order from sodium- to calcium-rich): oligoclase, andesine, labradorite, and bytownite. Other examples of series include the olivine series of magnesium-rich forsterite and iron-rich fayalite, and the wolframite series of manganese-rich hubnerite and iron-rich ferberite.
Crystal habit refers to the overall shape of crystal. Several terms are used to describe this property. Common habits include acicular, which describes needlelike crystals as in natrolite, bladed, dendritic (tree-pattern, common in native copper), equant, which is typical of garnet, prismatic (elongated in one direction), and tabular, which differs from bladed habit in that the former is platy whereas the latter has a defined elongation. Related to crystal form, the quality of crystal faces is diagnostic of some minerals, especially with a petrographic microscope. Euhedral crystals have a defined external shape, while anhedral crystals do not; those intermediate forms are termed subhedral.
The diaphaneity of a mineral describes the ability of light to pass through it. Transparent minerals do not diminish the intensity of light passing through them. An example of a transparent mineral is muscovite (potassium mica); some varieties are sufficiently clear to have been used for windows. Translucent minerals allow some light to pass, but less than those that are transparent. Jadeite and nephrite (mineral forms of jade are examples of minerals with this property). Minerals that do not allow light to pass are called opaque.
In addition to simple body colour, minerals can have various other distinctive optical properties, such as play of colours, asterism, chatoyancy, iridescence, tarnish, and pleochroism. Several of these properties involve variability in colour. Play of colour, such as in opal, results in the sample reflecting different colours as it is turned, while pleochroism describes the change in colour as light passes through a mineral in a different orientation. Iridescence is a variety of the play of colours where light scatters off a coating on the surface of crystal, cleavage planes, or off layers having minor gradations in chemistry. In contrast, the play of colours in opal is caused by light refracting from ordered microscopic silica spheres within its physical structure. Chatoyancy ("cat's eye") is the wavy banding of colour that is observed as the sample is rotated; asterism, a variety of chatoyancy, gives the appearance of a star on the mineral grain. The latter property is particularly common in gem-quality corundum.
When a mineral is broken in a direction that does not correspond to a plane of cleavage, it is termed to have been fractured. There are several types of uneven fracture. The classic example is conchoidal fracture, like that of quartz; rounded surfaces are created, which are marked by smooth curved lines. This type of fracture occurs only in very homogeneous minerals. Other types of fracture are fibrous, splintery, and hackly. The latter describes a break along a rough, jagged surface; an example of this property is found in native copper.