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From windows to powder and lipstick: how mica was used in the Grand Duchy of Moscow and what this mineral is used for today.

The Kolomenskoye Museum-Reserve has opened the exhibition “Moskovitskoye Glass. The Art of Mica Craftsmen “, dedicated to the history of the use of mica in the arts and crafts. This mineral of natural origin, unusually heat-resistant and flexible, for a long time replaced glass in windows, and was also used in the manufacture of household items. How mica was used in Russia in the 16th-19th centuries, why it was nicknamed Muscovite glass and at what price it was sold, says the exhibition coordinator, historian Natalya Polonnikova.

Goods from Muscovy

Mica was known in Antiquity. In India, Egypt, China, Greece and the Roman Empire, it was used to decorate temples, and in a crushed form was added to clay in the manufacture of dishes. Much later, already in the Middle Ages, mica began to be valued higher, it was considered an excellent substitute for glass. In the 16th century, the Grand Duchy of Moscow (or Muscovy) became the largest supplier of mica to European markets. The name by which the Western world knew Russia at that time also gave the name to the product – so mica (one of its types) became Muscovite, or Muscovy glass. Most of all mica was mined by the Solovetsky Monastery – there was a lot of it on the lands belonging to him.

In hard rocks, such as granite, they looked for a crack or punched an inclined pit. A fire was first made in the hole, and then filled with cold water. Then a variety of tools were used to extract the mica. The color of a mineral depends on what elements formed it: it can be black, yellow, green, red, smoky transparent. The exhibition in the palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich presents more than 30 samples of different shades from the collections of the State Geological Museum named after V.I. Vernadsky and Mineralogical Museum named after A.E. Fersman.

Mica was very expensive – for a pood (16.3 kilograms), traders asked from 15 to 150 rubles. For comparison: a cow could be bought for only four rubles. The price depended on the degree of purity of the mica and its transparency; colored copies were more expensive. The exhibition presents documents describing trade processes, for example, “Extract from the case of the Solovetsky Monastery”, dated 1692. One of the important documents of the era is the book by the German geographer and historian of the 17th century Adam Olearius “Description of the journey to Muscovy and through Muscovy to Persia and back”, in which he talks about his impressions of the Muscovite homeland. The book was published in 1656 in Germany, at the exhibition you can see its later edition, dated 1906.

From windows to the Royal Doors

Mica could not protect from the cold, but it transmits light perfectly. It was for this reason that the windows were additionally protected with shutters – it was much warmer with them. Several 17th century mica windows from the collections of the Moscow State United Museum-Reserve (MGOMZ) and the Novgorod Museum-Reserve are also presented at the exhibition.

“Mica transmits light from the inside and outside, it is more transparent and cleaner than glass, and therefore it also deserves an advantage over glass and horn, that it does not crack like the first, and does not burn like the last,” wrote the English poet and diplomat Giles Fletcher in the essay “On the Russian State” (XVI century).

Mica was used to decorate the interiors of the royal chambers, transport (ships and carriages) and household items. On the ceilings, painted mica inserts were made in a slotted iron. Such details were covered with gold and silver embossed frames with precious stones. In the 17th – 18th centuries, furniture and household items decorated with mica inserts were popular. In “Kolomenskoye” you can see, for example, a casket with flower paintings from the first half of the 18th century, caskets from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as outriggers. They were provided by the State Research Museum of Architecture named after A.V. Shchusev, Novgorod Museum-Reserve, Historical Museum and MGOMZ. Usually colored mica was used in the manufacture of lanterns. If there was no tint mica at hand, then colored foil was placed under the plate.

Small plates of mica were also used to create religious objects. At the exhibition “Moscovite Glass” there is a miniature icon (18th century) from the Novgorod Museum-Reserve, a three-winged road fold (18th century, modified in the 19th) from the collection of the Andrei Rublev Central Museum of Old Russian Culture and Art. An interesting exhibit is “The Royal Gates” (second half of the 17th century) from the MGOMZ collection, during the decoration of which the masters used muscovite in an unusual way. The mineral powder was mixed with white river sand particles and glue, then applied to a wooden base. The gates were located in the eastern part of the temple: when the sun penetrated into the church, the parishioners saw a beautiful glow emanating from them.

Until the 18th century, Russian craftsmen widely used flexible, durable, heat-resistant mica. Gradually, with the spread of glass, the fashion faded away, but did not disappear.

Cosmetics and gramophone

At the beginning of the 19th century, the mica industry was going through hard times, largely due to changes in fashion and the ubiquity of glass. The mines and deposits that once brought in a lot of money have been abandoned. But by the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century, muscovite found application in electrical and radio engineering.

It was also widely used in everyday life. A rare house did without a kerosene stove, on which food was cooked and heated. A window in a tin wall was covered with a thin sheet of mica – both the wick and the nature of the flame were clearly visible through it. Muscovite was excellent for this purpose – the mineral easily withstands the highest temperatures. Such a kerosene stove, made in the middle of the 20th century at the plant for metal household products No. 6, is on display.

Gramophones could not be imagined without muscovite. A thin mica plate was placed in them as a membrane. The edges of the mica were fixed in a tight rim, a lever connected through a series of hinges with a gramophone needle was fastened to the center of the membrane. The vibrations of the needle were transmitted to the mica, which played the music. One of the most interesting exhibits is a gramophone (portable gramophone) with a built-in horn, made in the 1920s, from the collection of the Polytechnic Museum. Muscovite was also used in the manufacture of children’s toys – a wooden prefabricated house is presented in the museum, the role of glass in which is played by mica plates.

Russia remains one of the world leaders in the extraction of mica. Today, muscovite is used everywhere – it is added to cement and other building mixtures, to insulation for walls. You can also see mica in the composition of decorative organic cosmetics – powder, blush, lipstick. It is this mineral that gives a cosmetic product shine and radiance. The area of ​​use of mica depends on its type: biotite, for example, is used in thermal insulation, fuchsite in medicine, and shiny white-yellow damurite in powder form in cosmetology.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a translation. Apologies should the grammar and or sentence structure not be perfect.

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