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 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 the national gemstone of Australia.
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 Braggs 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, micro fractures 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.