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What is a Fire Opal?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A fire opal, sometimes called girasol, is a distinctive type of opal found in Central and South America, which has a deep orange to red fiery color that has captivated jewelers for centuries. Unlike other opals, the fire opal is not actually opalescent, although it is composed of silicon dioxide, like other opals and quartzes. The color of the stone comes from iron oxide, a distinctively red-orange contaminant which frequently colors gemstones. The rich flamelike color dances with light when the stone is cut properly, but the inside of the stone is usually clear and free of inclusions.

Among the Amerindians, the fire opal was greatly valued and used in rituals and to ornament high placed members of society. The stone was known as quetzalitzlipyolliti, or the “stone of the bird of paradise,” because the Amerindians believed that the vivid color of the stone could only come from the fountain of paradise. The stones were observed by early European explorers, and by the 1850s, jewelry made with fire opals had become very popular in Europe. The traditional cut for the stone is a cabochon, a soft, round cut which minimizes damage to the stone and highlights the gorgeous color.

Mexico and Brazil are the two primary sources for the fire opal, although deposits of them do exist in other nations as well. The stone is so crucial to Mexican history and economy that it is the national stone of Mexico, and several beautiful specimens are kept in the National Museum of Mexico. The fire opal is mined in open-pit mines and exported all over the world, with some mines also cutting and polishing their raw stock while others send it to market uncut.

Like other opals, the fire opal is notoriously difficult to handle. The color can literally seem to flow out of the stone if it is cut wrong, and the stone is very brittle, making it easy to shatter catastrophically while being cut and polished. In addition, the fire opal needs to be kept in a pH neutral environment, and will be easily damaged by extreme heat, cold, or dampness. At the same time, the delicate balance of water inside the fire opal must be maintained: most jewelers agree that frequent wear helps to keep the opal moist, but opals should not be allowed to make contact with cosmetics and other substances that might cause them to cloud.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By Amphibious54 — On Jun 21, 2011

Opal is one of the coolest gemstones. I bought my mother a bangle with Australian black opal inlay that was amazing. I found it on one of my travels to Hawaii at a jewelry gallery on the Big Island. The color of black opal is very unique, and is more blue than black. Blue is my mother's favorite color, so I had to buy it once I saw it.

By parmnparsley — On Jun 20, 2011

@Babalaas- True fire opal only comes in shades of red to yellow. Yellow fire opals are also pale, with the vibrant yellow being other types of opals. Most of the Fire opals found in Brazil are yellow, and they are prized by artisans because of their size. They can range in size up to that of a softball, but they lack the transparency of the Mexican opals. I actually have a few rough pieces of fire opal that are display pieces. They are really beautiful when they are still in the agate. Maybe one day I will try to find someone to cut one of my pieces to make custom opal jewelry, but for now, I like my rough stones.

By aplenty — On Jun 19, 2011

@Babalaas- Fire opals are beautiful and will surely win your wife's affection. Besides carat weight, three factors determine the value of fire opals. The first is play of color, which refers to iridescence of the opal separate from its body color. If you see an opal that seems to shimmer or glisten with the colors of the rainbow, you are witnessing the play of colors. The second value determinant is the body color. The most valuable body colors will be the deep red orange found in Mexican fire opals. Finally, the third determinant is the transparency of the stone. A rare fire opal mined from a dry region of Mexico will display a highly transparent, yet highly iridescent deep red. These transparent stones will often be cut into a faceted stone.

The cabochons are usually the cloudier stones, which are equally as beautiful. These stones may come from Nevada, Oregon, or Brazil, but the best in the world are the Mexican stones. As for the price, you can find a lab created fire opal ring for about $300 a carat (14k gold, diamond accents). Something similar in an AAA Mexican fire opal will probably run about three times that price. Custom pieces will probably run you even more.

By Babalaas — On Jun 17, 2011

This was a great article. I think I just discovered what I am going to purchase for my wife's birthday. How expensive are red fire opals, and how do I determine the quality and value of the stones? Do fire opals come in any other hues besides red, like orange, yellow, or purple? Are they only cut in cabochons or can they be found in faceted cuts? I would really like to learn more about this gem because her birthday is coming up in a little over a month. Someone please give me some information.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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