Accurate assessment of the duration of zircon crystallization within igneous rocks is critical for constraining the time scales of magmatic evolution and storage, which have important implications for our understanding of magmatic fluxes and volcanic hazards. However, estimation of crystallization durations from finite geochronologic data sets is difficult and typically relies on numerous implicit assumptions. In this contribution, we evaluate these assumptions and provide recommendations for better interpretation of crystallization durations from individual samples by developing a simplified theoretical framework to relate zircon growth, nucleation, and armoring rates to zircon ages. We first investigate single zircon analyses and show that ages produced with methods that integrate the entire grain or grain fragments (e.g., chemical abrasion−isotope dilution−thermal ionization mass spectrometry [CA-ID-TIMS]) are inevitably biased toward the second half of the zircon growth interval, while subsampling of grains via microbeam approaches will only capture the majority of the zircon crystallization duration when the microbeam spot size is less than ∼25% of the zircon minor axis, and the analytical uncertainty of the measurement is less than ∼20% of the duration over which the individual zircon grew.
We subsequently investigate the distribution of zircon mean ages produced through various combinations of zircon growth rate, nucleation rate, and the probability of zircon being armored by major phases. We show that zircon age distributions cannot be directly predicted from the rate of zircon mass crystallized, as many combinations of growth, nucleation, and armoring rates result in distinct age distributions, yet they produce nearly identical mass crystallization rates. Finally, we develop two equations that can be used to constrain the duration of crystallization observed within individual samples. In scenarios where the observed age dispersion is consistent with the reported analytical uncertainties, the first equation can be used to estimate the maximum duration. Otherwise, when the measured zircon population is overdispersed, a second equation constrains the minimum duration of zircon crystallization.