Opal is a noncrystalline
form of the mineral silica which, despite its amorphous structure, displays
an amazing degree of internal organization. Opal is related to its more commonly
found but highly crystalline cousins quartz and agate, and is formed from amorphous
"balls" or lumps" of silica rather that from ordered, naturally faceted crystals.
The chemical composition
of opal is SiO2H2O, silicon dioxide combined with water (an opal stone may contain
up to 30% water.) The silicate minerals in the stone add to its weight, giving
it a specific gravity ranging from 1.98 to 2.5 times that of pure water. Opal's
scratch hardness is measured at 6.0 to 6.5 on the Mohs' scale, similar in hardness
to quartz, a little more than halfway between the hardness of talc and diamond.
Most opal is more
than 60 million years old and generally dates back to the Cretaceous period
when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
It is found near
the earth's surface in areas where ancient geothermal hot springs once flowed.
The minerals bubbled up from beneath the surface of the earth and slowly, over
the centuries, lined the walls of cracks, vents and underground cavities in
the bedrock. Most opal is found where geothermal hot springs dried up during
seasonal periods of rainfall and extended dry periods.
Mors than 90% of
the world's quality gem opals come from Southern Australia, although it can
be found in other parts of the world such as Brazil, Mexico, Czechoslovakia
and Nevada. All black opals (see below) come exclusively from Australia.
The story of opal
in Australia begins more than million years ago when the deserts of central
Australia were a great inland sea, with silica-laden sediment deposited around
its shoreline. After the sea receded and disappeared to become the great Artesian
basin, weathering 30 million years ago released a lot of the silica into a solution
which filled cracks in the rocks, layers in clay, and even some fossils. Some
of the silica became precious opal. Opal is one of the few gemstones that is
sedimentary in origin. The water in opal is a remnant of that ancient sea.
The most striking
quality of opal is its ability to refract and reflect specific wavelengths of
light. In fact, the term "opalescence" was coined to describe this phenomenon.
The size and spacing of the amorphous spheres of silica within the stone refracts
specific wavelengths of light; each sphere refracting a single, pure spectral
color much like the individual microscopic droplets of water in a rainbow. The
interplay of these pure wavelengths of light gives opal its unique visual appeal,
and makes it one of the most sought-after gemstones in the world.