By Jim Brace-Thompson
“What is this stuff?” I asked myself as I picked up a lightweight chunk from a silent auction table at a gem show. It felt and looked like a piece of black plastic. A handwritten label on a napkin read, “Ozokerite, Hydro Carbon (wax-oil), Soldier Summit, Wasatch Co., Utah.” Intrigued, I plunked down a bid and went home the owner of a weird wonder.
Waxy and Versatile Mineral
I have since learned that ozokerite is a waxy mineral mixture of hydrocarbons. While colorless or white in its pure form, it more often ranges in color from light yellow, to yellow-brown, dark brown, dark green-black, or black and is said to have an unpleasant odor when fresh from the ground. Although my chunk doesn’t have any odor, that is what contributed to its name, which is derived from two Greek words: oze (stench) and k?ros (wax).
“Stench wax” was first described in 1834, and deposits have been found in at least 30 countries in association with petroleum deposits. It often occurs as veins in sedimentary rocks. It is speculated that natural petroleum in cracks and fissures slowly evaporated and oxidized, leaving behind this waxy residue. In some places, such as the Galicia region of Poland, deposits are extensive and have been mined for over 125 years.
Ozokerite in Modern Products
Although ozokerite production fell off greatly in the 1940s, it is still mined and used in several ways. Some of those listed in various sources include candles with a higher melting point than those made of traditional paraffin, electrical insulation, polishes (especially for the heels and soles of boots and shoes), cosmetics (lipsticks, ointments, sunscreens), and electrotyping (forming a metal object using a wax model). While various substances have replaced “stench wax” over the years, apparently for some applications there still is no substitute for this weird wonder.