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What Makes African Fire Opal Unique

raw form fire opals

The African fire opal is known for having bright yellow, fiery cherry and deep orange colors. People have prized fire opals for centuries, and holistic healers even use these gems to treat blood disorders and depression.

About Fire Opals

The Aztecs valued opals and named them the "gem of the bird of paradise." The Opal has long been a symbol of passionate love, and it's no wonder since this stone has such vibrancy and radiance. The Aztecs believed that the opal was the byproduct of God's creation of the world, having bubbled out of the ground as a gift from their maker.

North American fire opals are mined mainly in Mexico. Australia, known for its opal mines, also produces fire opals that are highly prized. The fire opals of Africa are mostly found in two countries: Ethiopia and Tanzania. However, some mines in Mali produce a significant amount of fire opals.

Mining of Fire Opals in Africa

Mineral mining in Ethiopia resumed in 2000 after the Eritrea-Ethiopian War ended. Prior to that, renowned archeologist Louis S. G. Leaky found the first recorded African opal in 1939 in East Africa. The opal was part of an artifact discovered in a cave in Kenya and was carbon dated to about 4,000 BC. At the time of this discovery, there were hardly any opal mines operating in Africa. 21 years later, the mining of green opals in Tanzania and subsequently a fire opal vein discovered in Morocco brought Africa into the opal limelight.

The Famed Fire Effect

What distinguishes fire opals from other opals is the color display. The color of a fire opal is consistently bright throughout the stone. It wasn't until the mid-1960s that scientists possessed the right technology to determine what's responsible for the fire in opals. Fire opal colors range from semi-transparent to transparent, while revealing tiny spheres of bright yellows, oranges and reds that seem to float around inside the stone. Researchers discovered that these floating spheres are a silica gel composite and are trapped inside the stones. The floating effect isn't an illusion. The spheres are literally floating between pockets of air and water. The movement of the spheres, combined with the play of light refracting off of the water and air, gives a brilliant display of sparkle that is referred to as fire.

Fire Opal Cuts

Not only can a fire opal be cut in the traditional opal cut of cabochon, it can also be faceted. Stone cutters and jewelers recommend that you use a fire opal for a jewelry piece that won't receive hard impacts. This means it's best to use this stone for a pair of earrings, brooch or pendant. Jewelers don't suggest using fire opals in a ring, since it's very easy to hit the stone against a hard surface and chip or crack it.

Since opals have a tendency to be fragile, they are sometimes treated with mineral oil or wax, similar to the treatments for emeralds and other soft gems. In light-colored opals, this type of treatment carries the risk yellowing of the stone.

Shopping for African Fire Opals

If you want to purchase an African fire opal, you may have better luck by refining your search to include "Ethiopian fire opal" or "Tanzanian fire opal." Opals mined in Africa are usually marketed according to their specific country, rather than the more general class of African fire opals. You will find most of the fire opals on the market and used in jewelry are faceted. When you shop, be sure to examine the stone closely since it can be rather brittle and easily damaged.

The following retailers offer a good selection of fire opals:

You may have better luck finding loose stones that you can then have customized into the type of jewelry piece you wish. Be sure to check back often when shopping on websites, since the stock changes constantly and many pieces of jewelry or gems offered are one-of-a-kind.

What Makes African Fire Opal Unique