The secret life of gemstones

Los Angeles-based artist Danny Sanchez is a photographer of alien landscapes. But the weird worlds he captures are not far-flung moons or planets – he glimpses otherworldly spaces inside gemstones.

021115 crystals 2
These toffee mountains are tiny shards of rutile in quartz. – Danny Sanchez

Sanchez photographs the geological impurities known as “inclusions” that can form inside some gems – for example, the jagged “mountains” of the titanium-rich mineral rutile inside this piece of quartz (above).

021115 crystals 4
The glittering rainbow of hematite encapsulated in quartz crystal. – Danny Sanchez
apsulated in quartz crystal. – Danny Sanchez

“My photos are achieved by carefully lighting an object the size of a pin head inside another object the size of a pea,” Sanchez says. These miniature scenes are photographed through a micropscope.

In the image above, the faceted outer surface of quartz crystal gemstone itself is visible, as well as the rainbow sheen of a hematite inclusion (a mineral of iron oxide) trapped within.

021115 crystals 6
To bring out the gleaming colours of this Mexican opal, Sanchez took multiple images at different focal depths. – Danny Sanchez

When viewed through a microscope, only thin slices of the gemstone can be brought into focus at any one time. To create his images, Sanchez uses a technique called focus stacking. He takes multiple images of the crystal at slightly different focal depths, then stitches them together using software. “Depending on how much depth the scene I’m trying to capture has, it can take upwards of 120 shots to make the final product,” he says.

021115 crystals 1
A topaz crystal suspended in biotite. – Danny Sanchez

Gemstone inclusions have three possible ways of forming. Sometimes the inclusion forms first, and is later swallowed by another growing gemstone. Sometimes the mineral and the gemstone form at the same time.

Most weirdly, the inclusion can form after the gemstone. That happens when traces of impurities dispersed through the gemstone slowly migrate through the material to form little crystals of their own – still encased within the parent stone.

021115 crystals 5
Inclusions produce clouds of colour inside this hyalite opal. – Danny Sanchez

“I could shoot opal forever – especially boulder opal, which is only ever found in Australia,” Sanchez says. Boulder opals – like the one below – form within fissures of large boulders of a sedimentary rock called ironstone. Over the aeons, silica-rich water trickles into these cracks in the ironstone, collects and dries, and spherical crystals of silica – the opal – slowly grow.

021115 crystals 3
The reef-like appearance of boulder opal is produced over millennia. – Danny Sanchez

You can visit Sanchez’s website or follow him on Instagram: @mineralien

Please login to favourite this article.