An opal bracelet. The stone size is 18 by 15 mm (0.7 by 0.6 inch).
|Chemical formula||Hydrated silica. SiO2·nH2O|
|Crystal habit||Irregular veins, in masses, in nodules|
|Fracture||Conchoidal to uneven|
|Mohs scale hardness||5.5–6.5|
|Luster||Subvitreous to waxy|
|Diaphaneity||opaque, translucent, transparent|
|Specific gravity||2.15 (+.08, -.90)|
|Polish luster||Vitreous to resinous|
|Optical properties||Single refractive, often anomalous double refractive due to strain|
|Refractive index||1.450 (+.020, -.080) Mexican opal may read as low as 1.37, but typically reads 1.42–1.43|
|Ultraviolet fluorescence||black or white body color: inert to white to moderate light blue, green, or yellow in long and short wave. May also phosphoresce; common opal: inert to strong green or yellowish green in long and short wave, may phosphoresce; fire opal: inert to moderate greenish brown in long and short wave, may phosphoresce.|
|Absorption spectra||green stones: 660nm, 470nm cutoff|
|Diagnostic features||darkening upon heating|
|Solubility||hot saltwater, bases, methanol, humic acid, hydrofluoric acid|
Opal is a mineraloid gel which is deposited at a relatively low temperature and may occur in the fissures of almost any kind of rock, being most commonly found with limonite, sandstone, rhyolite, marl and basalt. The word opal comes from the Latin opalus, by Greek ὀπάλλιος opallios.
The water content is usually between three and ten percent, but can be as high as twenty percent. Opal ranges from clear through white, gray, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, magenta, rose, pink, slate, olive, brown, and black. Of these hues, the reds against black are the most rare, whereas white and greens are the most common. These color variations are a function of growth size into the red and infrared wavelengths. Opal is Australia’s national gemstone.
Precious opal shows a variable interplay of internal colors and even though it is a mineraloid, it does have an internal structure. At micro scales precious opal is composed of silica spheres some 150 to 300 nm in diameter in a hexagonal or cubic close-packed lattice. These ordered silica spheres produce the internal colors by causing the interference and diffraction of light passing through the microstructure of the opal. It is the regularity of the sizes and the packing of these spheres that determines the quality of precious opal. Where the distance between the regularly packed planes of spheres is approximately half the wavelength of a component of visible light, the light of that wavelength may be subject to diffraction from the grating created by the stacked planes. The spacing between the planes and the orientation of planes with respect to the incident light determines the colors observed. The process can be described by Bragg’s Law of diffraction.
Visible light of diffracted wavelengths cannot pass through large thicknesses of the opal. This is the basis of the optical band gap in a photonic crystal, of which opal is the best known natural example. 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 opal, backed by a swart 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.
Combined with modern techniques of polishing, doublet opal produces similar effect of black or boulder opals at a mere fraction of the price. Doublet opal also has the added benefit of having genuine opal as the top visible and touchable layer, unlike triplet opals.
The triplet-cut opal backs the colored material with a dark backing, and then has a domed cap of clear quartz or plastic on top, which takes a high polish and acts as a protective layer for the relatively fragile opal. The top layer also acts as a magnifier, to emphasize the play of color of the opal beneath, which is often of lower quality. Triplet opals therefore have a more artificial appearance, and are not classed as precious opal. They also appear as the birthstone for October.
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 (which can sometimes be of gemstone quality), resin opal which is honey-yellow with a resinous luster, wood opal which is caused by the replacement of the organic material in wood with opal, menilite which is brown or grey, hyalite is a colorless glass-clear opal sometimes called Muller’s Glass, geyserite, also called siliceous sinter, deposited around hot springs or geysers and diatomite or diatomaceous earth, the accumulations of diatom shells or tests.