Australia: Largest Producer of the World’s Opals

Spoke to an expert on opals, really interesting subject. Here is some information.

Australia produces around 97% of the world’s opal. 90% is called ‘light opal’ or white and crystal opal. White makes up 60% of the opal productions but cannot be found in all of the opal fields. Crystal opal or pure hydrated silica makes up 30% of the opal produced, 8% is black and only 2% is boulder opal.[citation needed]

The town of Coober Pedy in South Australia is a major source of opal. The world’s largest and most valuable gem opal “Olympic Australis” was found in August 1956 at the “Eight Mile” opal field in Coober Pedy. It weighs 17,000 carats (3450 grams) and is 11 inches (280 mm) long, with a height of 4+3⁄4 inches (120 mm) and a width of 4+1⁄2 inches (110 mm). It is valued at AUD$2,500,000[8]

Mintabie Opal Fields located approximately 250 km north west of Coober Pedy has also produced large quantities of Crystal opal and also the rarer black opal. Over the years it has been sold overseas incorrectly as Coober Pedy Opal. The black opal is said to be some of the best examples found in Australia.

Boulder opal is simply opal and rock. It appears as “seam” and matrix opals. This kind of precious opal forms on ironstone boulders, hence the name.

The opal veins and layers in the ironstone are usually so thin that boulder opals need to remain on its ironstone host.

boulder opal

The stone forms a natural backing. Don’t confuse that with opal doublets, which are man-made and have less value.

Don’t think that boulder opals have no value. On the contrary! They come second after black opal in the ranking of Australia’s precious opals. Due to the dark ironstone backing these opals have a dark body tone and a vibrancy of colours similar to black opal.

First discovered on a station south of Quilpie in 1872, boulder opals are found in a belt stretching from Quilpie to Winton. They are only found in Outback Queensland.

Winton – The town is home of Waltzing Matilda, but also home of boulder matrix, a rare form of opal. Small streams of opal run throughout the ironstone and form interesting stones.

Courtesy of wikipedia.

Opal is an amorphous form of silica related to quartz, a mineraloid form, not a mineral. 3% to 21% of the total weight is water, but the content is usually between 6% to 10%. It 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. Opal is the national gemstone of Australia, which produces 97% of the world’s supply.[4]

Opal’s internal structure makes it diffract light; depending on the conditions in which it formed it can take on many colors. 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. It varies in optical density from opaque to semi-transparent. For gemstone use, its natural color is often enhanced by placing thin layers of opal on a darker underlying stone, like basalt.

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.[5] 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.

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