Jasper is a form of chalcedony, is an opaque, impure variety of silica, usually red, yellow, brown or green in color; and rarely blue. This mineral breaks with a smooth surface, and is used for ornamentation or as a gemstone. It can be highly polished and is used for vases, seals, and at one time for snuff boxes. When the colors are in stripes or bands, it is called striped or banded jasper. Jaspilite is a banded iron formation rock that often has distinctive bands of jasper. Jasper is basically chert which owes its red color to iron inclusions. The specific gravity of jasper is typically 2.5 to 2.9. A 6.5-7 on the Mohs scale of hardness.

The name means "spotted or speckled stone", and is derived via Old French jaspre and Latin iaspidem from Greek ἴασπις iaspis.

Jasper is an opaque rock of virtually any color stemming from the mineral content of the original sediments or ash. Patterns arise during the consolidation process forming flow and depositional patterns in the original silica rich sediment or volcanic ash. Hydrothermal circulation is generally thought to be required in the formation of jasper.

As for the history of jasper in Russia, Deposits of hard semiprecious minerals were discovered in the Urals as early as the sixteenth century. Peter the Great displayed a great interest in the use of such “coloured stones” to finish palace interiors and laid the foundation for a stone-cutting industry in Russia. On his orders the first lapidary works in Russia was opened at Peterhof, a suburb of St Petersburg, in 1725 and began to produce articles from attractive minerals and to train craftsmen in the art of stone-cutting.

In the middle of the eighteenth century an interest in mineralogy became common among the Russian aristocracy. In 1765, on the orders of Catherine II, an expedition led by Yakov Dannenberg was dispatched to the Urals, where it discovered new deposits of jasper, agate, cornelian and other minerals. By the early 1780s Russian lapidary works had developed the technology to make articles from hard semiprecious stone and the long-cherished dream of decorating palace halls with natural coloured stone became a real possibility.

(taken from http://eng.tzar.ru/museums/palaces/catherine_park/cameron/agate_rooms)