All About Opals
What are Opals
Where do Opals Come From
Types of Opals
Is it a Real Opal?
What are Opals
The mineraloid opal is amorphous SiO2.nH2O; hydrated silicon dioxide, the water content sometimes being as high as 20% but is usually between three and ten percent. Opal ranges from colorless through white, milky blue, gray, red, yellow, green, brown and black. Common opal is truly amorphous, but precious opal does have a structural element.
The word opal comes from the Sanskrit upala, the Greek opallios, and the Latin opalus, meaning "precious stone."
Opal is a mineraloid gel which is deposited at relatively low temperature and may occur in the fissures of almost any kind of rock, being most commonly found with limonite, sandstone, rhyolite, and basalt.
Opal is one of the mineraloids that can form or replace fossils. The resulting fossils, though not of any extra scientific interest, appeal to collectors.
Precious opal shows a variable interplay of internal colors and does have an internal structure. At the micro scale precious opal is composed of hexagonal or cubic closely packed silica spheres some 150 to 300 nm in diameter. These ordered silica spheres produce the internal colors by causing the interference and diffraction of light passing through the microstructure of opal (Klein and Hurlbut, 1985, p. 444). In addition, microfractures may be filled with secondary silica and form thin lamellae inside the opal during solidification. The term opalescence is commonly and erroneously used to describe this unique and beautiful phenomenon, which is correctly termed play of color. Contrarily, opalescence is correctly applied to the milky, turbid appearance of common or potch opal. Potch does not show a play of color.
The veins of opal displaying the play of color are often quite thin, and this has given rise to unusual methods of preparing the stone as a gem. An opal doublet is a thin layer of colorful material, backed by a black mineral, such as ironstone, basalt or obsidian. The darker backing emphasizes the play of color, and results in a more attractive display than a lighter potch. Given the texture of opals, they can be quite difficult to polish to a reasonable lustre. The triplet cut backs the colored material with a dark backing, and then has a cap of clear quartz (rock crystal) on top, which takes a high polish, and acts as a protective layer for the comparatively delicate opal.
Besides the gemstone varieties that show a play of color, there are other kinds of common opal such as the milk opal, milky bluish to greenish; resin opal, honey-yellow with a resinous lustre; wood opal, caused by the replacement of the organic material in wood with opal; menilite brown or grey; hyalite, a colorless glass-clear opal sometimes called Muller's Glass; geyserite, (siliceous sinter) deposited around hot springs or geysers; and diatomite or diatomaceous earth, the accumulations of diatom shells or tests.
Other Varieties of Opal
Fire opal is a translucent to semi-opaque stone that is generally yellow to bright orange and sometimes nearly red and displays pleochroism at certain angles.
Peruvian opal (also called blue opal) is a semi-opaque to opaque blue-green stone found in Peru which is often cut to include the matrix in the more opaque stones. It does not display pleochroism.
Sources of Opal
Australia produces around 97% of the world's opal. 90% is called 'light opal' or white and crystal opal. White makes up 60% and all the opal fields produce white opal; Crystal opal or pure hydrated silica makes up 30%; 8% is black and only 2% is boulder opal.
The town of Coober Pedy in South Australia is a major source of opal. Common, water, jelly, and fire opal are found mostly in Mexico and Mesoamerica. Another Australian town, Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, is the main source of black opal, opal containing a predominantly dark background (dark-gray to blue-black displaying the play of color).
Boulder opal is found sporadically in western Queensland, from Kynuna in the north, to Yowah and Koroit in the south.
A source of white base opal in the United States is Spencer, Idaho. A high percentage of the opal found there occurs in thin layers. As a result, most of the production goes into the making of doublets and triplets.