Magnetite (Fe3O4) is a common and widespread accessory mineral in many host rocks and mineral deposits. We used electron microprobe analysis (EMPA), laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) analysis, and oxygen isotope analysis to test whether magnetite from the five following geologic settings in western Montana and northern Idaho has distinct geochemical signatures: (1) greenschist facies burial metamorphic rocks of the Middle Proterozoic Belt Supergroup, (2) sediment-hosted stratiform Cu-Ag deposits (Spar Lake and Rock Creek) in Belt Supergroup metasedimentary rocks, (3) hydrothermal Ag-Pb-Zn veins of the Coeur d’Alene district, (4) extensively deformed and partially altered Belt Supergroup host rocks from the Coeur d’Alene district, and (5) two Cretaceous postmetamorphic igneous intrusions. EMPA results show that magnetite from each of these five settings is essentially pure Fe3O4, but LA-ICP-MS analyses results show that magnetite from these five settings has trace element concentrations that generally vary over less than one order of magnitude. These magnetite occurrences show subtle compositional differences that generally correlate with temperatures, as determined by oxygen isotope geothermometry. Burial metamorphic magnetite from the Coeur d’Alene host rocks has the smallest overall trace element contents. Chromium, Co, and Zn are depleted in both hydrothermal and host-rock magnetite from the Coeur d’Alene district. In contrast, magnetite from postmetamorphic igneous rocks in the Belt terrane has relatively large Mg, V, Co, and Mn values, consistent with its formation at relatively high temperatures and subsequent subsolidus reequilibration. Factor analysis was used to trace any underlying or latent relationships among elements that are likely to be incorporated into the magnetite structure. Factor analysis provides geochemical discrimination of at least three types of magnetite in the Belt terrane: (1) Mg-Mn, (2) Ga-Zn-Cr, and (3) Co-Ni-V magnetite. Hydrothermal magnetite from the Gold Hunter siderite vein shows characteristically high values for factor 1. Factor 2 is most pronounced in magnetite from the burial metamorphic host rocks and the sediment-hosted Cu-Ag deposits. Furthermore, factor 2 indicates that Ga, Zn, and Cr concentrations are lower on average in hydrothermal and host-rock magnetite from the Coeur d’Alene district. Factor 3 divides igneous magnetite from other magnetite occurrences. This factor also subdivides magnetite of an alkalic-ultramafic intrusive complex from that of the granitic stock. Hydrothermal magnetite from siderite and calcite veins in the Coeur d’Alene district has consistently low scores for factor 3.

The geochemistry of magnetite can be a useful discriminator and pathfinder for hydrothermal deposits. The relatively low formation temperature and the metamorphic history of the Belt terrane led to low trace element concentrations and subtle differences between magnetite from different geologic settings. Nevertheless, by combining LA-ICP-MS analysis and factor analysis, compositional variations between groups of magnetite samples from different geologic settings can be recognized.

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