Alabaster doesn't just look soft; it is soft. Its softness makes it easy to carve into elaborate objects: fine cups or urns that combine the delicacy of porcelain with the intricacy of lace. But alabaster also chips and crumbles easily, so it can't be used on a grand scale the way marble, its noble cousin, can. It isn't even tough enough to withstand the daily wear and tear of kitchen use. Lacking such practical advantages, alabaster has had to rely on its aesthetic charms to get by.
Throughout history, alabaster has suffered the whims of fashion -- particularly in Italy, where the majority of the stone was for centuries mined and manufactured. In the 18th century, alabaster sculptures were displayed in the palaces of Italian princes. One hundred years later, the emerging middle class could suddenly afford to acquire its own versions of these aristocratic treasures, and workmen started churning out mountains of replicas and objets d'art. Before long, Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa inkwells and sentimental figurines were being hawked in bazaars. Chic Italians quickly lost interest. And once they had rejected alabaster, everyone who aspired to be like them followed suit. Fortunately for today's collectors, Italian manufacturers, when they realized their best customers lived abroad, exported thousands of alabaster objects.
True alabaster is a form of gypsum, the chalky material used to make plaster of paris and Sheetrock. Gypsum alabaster is formed by the evaporation of inland seas and is commonly mottled or streaked, with areas of greater and lesser translucence. Moreover, alabaster frequently contains traces of iron oxide, which give it a gold or orange cast.
When it comes to cleaning, there are as many schools of thought as there are collectors. The most precious and intricate carvings require an extremely light touch, and they cannot withstand any contact with sharp objects, abrasives, or liquids, any of which could penetrate the surface. Even a splash of water could cause iron in the stone to oxidize and form a stain. Ideally, pieces should be dusted with a soft-bristle brush and taken to a conservator every 30 or 40 years for a thorough cleaning.