Opal: The Mesmerizing Gem of October


Opal, sharing its birthstone status for October with tourmaline, has a name rooted in diverse ancient languages: the Sanskrit ‘Upala’, meaning “precious stone”; the Latin ‘Opalus’ and the Greek ‘Opallios’, both signifying “to see a color change.” Historians believe that the earliest opal artifacts, likely sourced from Ethiopia, were unearthed in a Kenyan cave, dating back to around 4000 B.C. Since its discovery, opal has been meticulously crafted into jewelry and ornamental pieces, much like other cherished gemstones. Australia has been at the forefront of opal production since the late 19th century. The gem’s allure was so profound that legends speak of rulers willing to part with vast portions of their kingdoms for a single opal.

Formation and Characteristics

Opal is essentially hydrated silica (SiO2.nH2O). Its formation is a result of silica dissolving into groundwater, which, over millions of years, evaporates in permeable rocks. As silica naturally repels water, it tends to cluster together, eventually forming a gel. As this gel loses water, it solidifies, often resulting in a continuous mineral structure. Occasionally, gaps between silica spheres emerge during this process. These gaps diffract light, producing the dazzling spectrum of colors characteristic of precious opal.

Varieties of Opal

Opal presents itself in four primary types:

  1. Boulder Opal: Predominantly found in Australia, this opal type embeds itself in the fissures of brown ironstone boulders. Its low water content ensures it rarely cracks.
  2. Crystal Opal: A transparent pure opal variant, it’s known for its vivid color flashes.
  3. White Opal: The most widespread opal type, it boasts a milky white backdrop adorned with color flashes.
  4. Black Opal: Mainly sourced from Australia’s Lightning Ridge mines, this is the pinnacle of opals, prized for its striking color play against a dark base.


Opal deposits span across numerous countries, including:

  • Australia
  • Zambia
  • Ethiopia
  • Guatemala
  • Poland
  • Peru
  • Hungary
  • Canada
  • New Zealand
  • Indonesia
  • USA
  • Brazil
  • Mexico

Properties and Enhancements

With a rating of 5.5 – 6 on the Mohs scale, opals are relatively delicate and demand careful handling. Their water content, ranging from 2-6%, makes them susceptible to cracking in arid conditions. To counteract this, opals are sometimes oiled or coated with protective resins. Heating opals is ill-advised as it can induce cracking.

Lab-created opals, devoid of water, differ in composition from their natural counterparts. However, their enhanced durability and characteristic color flashes make them an attractive alternative.

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