Abstract

The Grass Valley orogenic gold district in the Sierra Nevada foothills province, central California, is the largest historical gold producer of the North American Cordillera. Gold mineralization is associated with shallowly dipping north-south veins hosted by the 160 Ma Grass Valley granodiorite to the southwest of the Grass Valley fault and steeply dipping east-west veins in accreted oceanic rocks to the northeast of this major fault. Quartz veins from both vein types show well-preserved primary textural relationships. Using a combination of petrographic and microanalytical techniques, the paragenetic sequence of minerals within the veins and the compositions of ore minerals were determined to constrain the mechanisms of quartz vein formation and gold deposition. The veins are composed of early quartz that formed through cooling of hydrothermal fluids derived from a geopressured reservoir at depth. The early quartz shows growth zoning in optical cathodoluminescence and contains abundant growth bands of primary inclusions. The primary inclusion assemblages and myriads of crosscutting secondary fluid inclusions have been affected by postentrapment modification, suggesting that early quartz formation was postdated by pronounced pressure fluctuations. These pressure fluctuations, presumably involving changes from lithostatic to hydrostatic conditions, may be related to fault failure of the host structure as predicted by the fault-valve model. Fluid flow associated with pressure cycling took place along microfractures and grain boundaries resulting in extensive recrystallization of the early quartz. Deposition of pyrite, arsenopyrite, and first-generation gold from these hydrothermal fluids causing recrystallization of the early quartz occurred as a result of wall-rock sulfidation. The gold forms invisible gold in the compositionally zoned pyrite or micron-sized inclusions within pyrite growth zones. The latest growth zones in euhedral quartz crystals that formed in association with this stage of the paragenesis contain very rare primary fluid inclusions that have not been affected by postentrapment modification. The hydrothermal system transitioned entirely to hydrostatic conditions immediately after formation of the latest quartz, explaining the preservation of the primary fluid inclusions. The formation of minor quartz in open spaces was followed by the deposition of second-generation native gold and telluride minerals that are commonly associated with base metal sulfides. Ore formation at this stage of the paragenesis is attributed to the rapid decompression of hydrothermal fluids escaping from the geopressured part of the crust into the overlying hydrostatic realm. There is no fluid inclusion evidence that this pressure drop resulted in fluid immiscibility of the hydrothermal fluids. Fluid inclusion evidence suggests that the north-south veins formed at a paleodepth of ~8 km, whereas the east-west veins appear to have formed at ~10 to 11 km below surface, confirming previous inferences that the NE-dipping Grass Valley reverse fault accommodated a large displacement. The findings of the study at Grass Valley have significant implications for the model for orogenic gold deposits, as the reconstruction of the paragenetic relationships provides evidence for the occurrence of two discrete events of gold introduction that occurred at different conditions during the evolution of the hydrothermal system.

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