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Desirable Qualities and Characteristics of Opal

Updated on October 16, 2015

Opal is found in many areas of the world. There are numerous varieties and an equally high number of terms associated with the gemstone. Some of the more popular kinds of opal are black opal, fire opal, matrix opal, precious opal and boulder opal.

Opal is a gemstone that is used in the making of jewelry and various adornments, but it is not a mineral. Opal is considered a hydrous silicon dioxide mineraloid because it has no definite crystalline structure. Opal is amorphous and without a specific chemical composition. Common opal is known for its opalescence, or milky luster. The best quality opals—gemstones that exhibit “play-of-color” are as highly valued as the world’s most prized diamonds, emeralds, and rubies.

Sources of common opal

Common opal lack brilliance and they have very little commercial value. However, some specimens are lustrous and brilliant enough to catch attention. There are common opal stones that are cut into highly polished gemstones. Mexico produces honey-colored gemstones. Meanwhile, Peru is the source of blue opals. These do not come cheap although the price tag is still reasonably lower than rare precious opals. However, some specimens of common opal are attractive, colorful and lustrous. They can be cut into gemstones that accept a high polish. They can be beautiful but simply lack a play-of-color that would earn them the name "precious". Common opal is frequently sold as a gemstone, which can command reasonable prices. Shown at right is a honey-colored opal from Mexico and teardrop-shaped stone cut from Peruvian blue opal.

Common opal is widespread and found in many areas around the world. The countries that are considered the main producers of common opal are Brazil, Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and the United States.

Opal gemstones and “play-of-color”

The most valuable opals in the world have a particular characteristic known as “play-of-color.” These flashes may be observed when the stone is moved under a light source. The same effect may also be seen when the light source is moved against the gemstone. When the angle of observation is changed, the brilliant flashes also become visible.

The “play of color” effect exhibited by precious opals is attributed to tiny spheres made of silica, which have an orderly arrangement, and causes light diffraction. When light waves are diffracted, a scintillation of color sheen effect becomes apparent to the naked eye.

Precious opals

Precious opals and the rarest of these gemstones have bright flashes of color when they are turned under the light. The flashes of color from precious opals come in all colors of the visible spectrum. Precious opals flash iridescent colors such as purple, blue, orange, green, and yellow. Gemstones of this quality are the ones, which are made into expensive pieces of jewelry. A precious opal is given its monetary value based on characteristics such as color intensity, uniformity, diversity, and pattern.

Although it is softer than other highly valued gemstones, with a hardness of 5.5-6.0 (Mohs scale), opal remains a popular adornment for brooches, pendants, rings, and earrings. Nevertheless, jewelry makers include protective aspects in the design when they use stones with the degree of hardness of opals. For example, rings that make use of opal gemstones are not usually designed with prong settings. In this way, the stone is not too exposed, and not prone to bumps and direct impact, which may cause significant damage to the stone.

Deposits of precious opal—the kind that may be cut and used as gemstones, are plentiful in Australia. In fact, 90% of the world’s precious opal outputs are sourced from this continent. Precious opal is also found in Canada, the United States of America, Poland, New Zealand, Honduras, Mexico, and Zambia.

Boulder Opal
Boulder Opal

Boulder opals

Boulder opals are valuable gemstones, which are mined from ironstone boulders found deep underground. Very thin veins of opals form in the fissures and cracks and in order to use the colorful stone for jewelry, cutters usually include the ironstone. Opals are also produced in freeform shape in order to maximize the colorful surface. As such, boulder opals are characterized by brown ironstone at its backside. In order to produce a full-sized gemstone, the solid and all-natural ironstone becomes part of the cut. Boulder opals may be distinguished from other types of opals by its dark tone provided by the ironstone. There are boulder opals with an undulating surface while others possess a flat surface. Some boulder opals have a motley appearance due to the transparency of the surface opal. When the backside is visible, the stone is given a lower price tag. The most desirable boulder opals are those with a “clean” face, with no trace of the ironside showing on the colorful surface.

The most valuable boulder opals are usually sourced from Australian mines, specifically in Queensland State. Two of the major opal fields in Queensland are Winton and Quilpie.

If you found an extremely rare and valuable gemstone would you:

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    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 

      3 years ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      I love opals. I never saw them in those colors before. I had several rings with opals bur for some reason the opals would fall out and I would loose them. I got so upset so I told my husband not to buy them anymore. But they are beautiful stone. Thanks for sharing this hub. I voted up and beautiful.

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thanks FlourishAnyway. Wouldn't it be amazing to find a huge opal or any type of gemstone. I am so glad you are enjoying the articles.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      3 years ago from USA

      I love opals, although I'm more attracted to the lighter iridescent ones. I admit to being one of those terrible scoundrels who would rather profit from a huge opal than donate it to a museum. Shame on the bunch of us. Such a wonderful niche you have here; you mine it well! Voted up and more.

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thanks for stopping by Margaret. I think opals are just mesmerizing.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 

      3 years ago from Massachusetts

      I'm a huge fan of opals and opal jewelry! Thanks for all the helpful information.

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Hi oceansnsunsets, thanks for stopping by. Hopefully you will be able to have another opal piece again.

    • oceansnsunsets profile image


      3 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      I love opals. When I graduated from Jr. High, I got my first opal from my dad, a little one in a ring. I loved that ring! I wore it everyday, and eventually it chipped, which I was so disappointed about. So I learned of their softness.

      I love stones of all kinds, and have a boulder opal now, though not sure how "precious" it is, but I like it. I learned a lot here, thank you for sharing!

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Hi Iris. You are right opals are one of the softer gemstones, which makes them even more precious.

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thank you MsDora. The flashes of color in opals are just fascinating to me. They are one of my most favorite gemstones.

    • Iris Draak profile image

      Cristen Iris 

      3 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      My mother has a lovely opal ring. I remember borrowing it to wear a few times and being told to be very careful with it because they are soft. It made me so nervous I stopped borrowing it. Now I just admire it whenever I see it. They really are lovely stones, even without being made into jewelry.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Jewelry and precious stones are not in my everyday conversation and I enjoy learning from your presentations. Now I know a few facts about the opal--colors, Peru the source of blue etc. Thanks! I will also share.

    • PinoyMom profile image

      Shiela Gerona 

      3 years ago from Philippines

      As other people say, jewelry is a girl's best-friend. Those opals looks amazing. I am not able to wear one of those. It's truly eye-catching

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thank you Alicia. I wish I was able to take better pictures of them. They even more flashes of color in real.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting article, Joyfulcrown. The opal in your photographs is beautiful!

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Keeping it is an awesome choice. You are in the land of opals! One of first piece of jewelry I got was an opal pin in the shape of a kangaroo.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      I wouldn't sell it or donate it - I'd keep it to enjoy. Opals are so beautiful and interesting to look at as they change according to the angle they are viewed from. After opals, many other precious gemstones can look quite boring. Interesting article.

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Hi Say Yes To Life, Your pieces sound beautiful. I love opal too. I have a ring and a pin the shape of a kangaroo. I would like to go mining one day too. There are several gemstone mines within a few hours of where I live.

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Jackie Lynnley, I am like you about earrings. I have a pair of earrings on just about everyday. I am glad you liked the article.

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Hi Ericdierker, Your wife is a blessed lady :)

    • Joyfulcrown profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      peachpurple Your mother in law has good taste.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 

      3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      I love opals, too! I have several pieces. I bought nearly all of them myself, even though that's not my birthstone. That's supposed to bring you bad luck, but even though I've experienced a lot of bad luck in my lifetime, I doubt that had anything to do with it.

      I have a pair of earrings that have a purple opal in them! The stone came from Spencer's Mine in Idaho.

      I also have a gorgeous brooch with the lady's head made of opal, mounted on onyx.

      Likewise, I bought a ring at Seattle's Pioneer Square of a dragon clutching an opal.

      There's an opal mine in northwest Nevada, appropriately called the Peacock Mines. You pay a fee, and can carry away all the opals you can find. I would LOVE to visit there sometime!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I just love opals and try to adorn my wife with them. This was well written and very informative. Thank you

    • peachpurple profile image


      3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      my mother in law love jades and opal rings, ear rings, no wonder

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I love these. Earrings are about my only constant but I do love rings too and many of these would make perfect ones. Voting up and sharing. Sure the others would love to see these!


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