How Opal Color is produced

Ok, this article on opal color is not an earth science, geology, or chemistry lesson, but since many folks wonder what makes opals glow in a rainbow of colors, here’s a quick explanation that’s hopefully not too technical. Just in case some of the terms are unfamiliar, there’s Glossary of Terms following the text.

How Opal Color Was Discovered How Opal Colour is produced

It took the development of the electron microscope to work this out. Precious opal is made up of tiny uniform spheres of transparent hard silica, which fit together in an orderly three dimensional frame, sitting in a “bath” of silica solution. It is the orderliness of the spheres that separates precious opal from common opal.

Light passes through the transparent spheres in a direct line, but when it hits the ‘bath’ of silica, it is bent and deflected at different angles, thus producing a rainbow effect.

Deflection & Diffraction

Depending on the size of the spheres, varying colors of the spectrum are diffracted. So it is a combination of deflection (bending) and diffraction (breaking up) of light rays that creates the color in opal. If you move the stone, light hits the spheres from different angles and bring about a change in color. The name opal actually means “to see a change in color.” The way in which opal color changes within a particular stone as it is rotated and tilted is called the stone’s play of color as you can see featured in these amazing opal pendants.

How opal color is defined

The size of the spheres has a bearing on the opal color produced. Smaller spheres bring out the blues, from one end of the spectrum. Larger spheres produce the reds from the other end. The more uniform the spheres are placed, the more intense, brilliant and defined the colour will be.

Glossary of Terms:

Amorphous

Shapeless. Not consisting of crystals. Non crystalline. Glass is amorphous. Sugar is crystalline.

Deflection

The bending of rays of light from a straight line.

Diffraction

The Breaking up of a ray of light into either a series of light and dark bands, or into colored bands of the spectrum.

Diffuse

To spread out so as to cover a larger space or surface. To scatter.

Fluorescent

A light produced by the electrical stimulation of a gas or vapour. Fluorescent lights have a similar effect on opal as a bright cloudy day–they do not properly bring out the colors in opal.

Hydrate

A compound produced when certain substances chemically combine with water.

Incandescent

Glowing with heat (red or white hot) as in a light bulb which glows white hot, but produces a light that more closely simulates natural sunlight. Sunlight and incandescent lights bring out the natural opal color.

Opal

Opal comes from the Latin word opalus which means to see a change in color. (that is, opal color) Chemically, opal is hydrated silica, similar to quartz. (use graphic 1168 to show change of color in the three images)

Opalescence means a play of opal color

A play of color, similar to that of an opal.

Opaque

Not allowing light to pass through. The opposite of transparent.

Play of Colour

The way in which colors change as an opal is tilted in different directions.

Silica

(Silicon Dioxide) A hard, white or colorless substance, that in the form of quartz, enters into the composition of many rocks and is contained in sponges and certain plants. The needle in the mouth of a female mosquito is made of silica. Flint, sand, chalcedony, and opal are examples of silica in different forms.

Spectrum

The band of colours formed when a beam of white light passes through a prism or by some other means (e.g. mist or spray, in the case of a rainbow) The full range of spectrum colors are: red, orange, yellow, green blue, indigo, and violet.

Sphere

A round three dimensional geometric shape whose surface is equally distant at all points from the centre point.

Translucent

Letting light through without being transparent. An object that lets some light pass through

Transparent

Easily seen through.(glass like) it means that you can see through it. if you take a clear glass plate and put it to your face, you can still objects on the other side.

Please leave a comment if you have any further questions about opal color.

8 Responses to “Opal Color”

  1. Gustavo Soto Garcia

    Tengo una mina y me interesaria vender opalo de la mejot calidad, pulido o en bruto cantera o limpio.

    Reply
  2. Nila Sari

    Hi Peter,

    Nice website, very informative.
    I have an opal I bought a few years ago. I am told that it has a lot of growth lines and that this is not good.

    Can you please tell me what growth lines are and why they are not good?

    Many thanks,
    Nila

    Reply
    • Peter Brusaschi

      Nila, this is a good question. Miners sometime call these growth lines ‘Kopi’ which is a clay based material which apparently mixes itself with the silica in the opal. It really looks apart of the stone but somehow destabilizes it and apparently ‘grows’ over a period of time, causing the stone to crack. I personally have not seen this happen with any stones i have owned so if someone else has some comments to make about this it would be appreciated. In the meantime, if you want to install ‘photobucket’ on your computer, you can take a picture of your stone and load it onto this online gallery. Just let me know the URL and i will take a look and make some more comments.

      Reply
    • admin

      Nila, more to your question about growth lines. cutters them ‘potch lines’ or ‘cobwebs’ I have known in some cases of risky opal fields where these potch lines have grown and even crazed. Having said that, i owned a stone like that for around 15 years without any problems of cracking or ‘growth’ lines so it seems to be that this only occurs in opal from mines that are too damp. In actual fact another way of looking at cobwebs or growth lines is that it identifies it as a natural opal and in fact can look quite intriguing. Hope this extra information helps Nila, Peter

      Reply
  3. Sheri

    I recently inherited an amazing crystal collection. Among the boxes of crystal that the original owner (who passed away last year) had collected was a little bag of gems which included a couple of opals. I’ve been told they are both White Austrialian. My question is, when I hold them up to the light they loose their brilliance and just look kind of murky orange. Is that normal?
    Thanks.
    Sheri

    Reply
    • admin

      Hi Sheri. Pleased to offer some comments on your opals. It sounds like they are white opals probably from the Coober Pedy field in South Australia. Opal from this area is often opaque. That means that the opal cannot be seen through and if you hold it up to the light you wont see much through it, only dull light. The other type of opal from the same area is called ‘crystal’ and this is more translucent and more valuable too. If you go through the http://www.opals.co encyclopedia you will find a lot of details about the different types of opal. If you like you can take a picture and send it to us for verification. There is no charge for this. Please feel free to do that and don’t hesitate to ask more questions on any of the forums in this blog. It sounds like you have a great collection there. Best wishes, Peter

      Reply
  4. juan antonio rodriguez s.

    Saludos.
    Primeramente gracias por recibir mi comentario.
    Soy de un estado de mexico.
    Caminando por unas montañas de esta zona , en plan de exploracion , al parecer encontramos unas piedras raras y al preguntar a gente mas preparada en el tema, nos dicen que es Opalo.
    Pudiera enviarles algunas fotos de estas piedras para su identificacion?
    Gracias.

    Reply

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