The cathodoluminescence analyses of the trigonal carbonates calcite and dolomite have been applied intensively in sedimentary petrology for a long time and the properties of these minerals are well-known, but much less attention has been paid to aragonite. In this study, the cathodoluminescence behaviour and the trace element composition of natural and synthetic aragonite have been studied employing trace element analyses (proton induced X-ray emission) and luminescence spectroscopy. Aragonite doped with Mn2+ has been synthesized in a NH4+–Mg2+–Ca2+–Cl− solution in contact with a CO2–H2O–NH3 atmosphere. The low effective distribution coefficients indicate a rapid growth of the crystals of millimetre size which occurred within hours or days. The natural aragonite samples contain Mn, Fe and Sr in different concentrations. The Mn-bearing aragonites exhibit a bright green luminescence which is caused by a strong emission band at 575 nm with a half-width of about 84 nm. The luminescence intensity shows a strong positive correlation with Mn in aragonite when Fe and Mn do not exceed 2000 p.p.m. The intensity is depressed if the concentration of these elements exceeds the critical values. In the shell of a recent Unio sp., the luminescence intensity deviates from the linear correlation, although the trace element contents are not too high; this is probably an effect of quenching by organic material between the crystallites of the biogenic aragonite.