The Fire Opal of Mexico
An Iridescent Wonder
Ensenada is an exciting city that holds the past gently while embracing the 21st century. Sunlight flashes off the bay, sparkling around the towering cruise ships in the harbor, gulls call to one another and the massive Mexican flag unfolds with the westerly breeze over the malecón. Today, I’m in search of the Opal Mine, which is not a mine at all, but a store that offers exquisite jewelry set with the fiery Mexican opal. The Opal Mine shares the building with Doña Engracia Tequilera at the corner of Costero Blvd and Alvarado.
Entering off the street, the building is constructed to replicate the rock quarries and a mural shows a weary miner with his payload. The display cases glow with inner light and beacon me into a fantasy of owning what is often called “The Mexican Diamond.” The displays are created with an array of intense and brilliant colors, while others are filled with gel, white and soft yellow. Each case features a particular hue with names like sky blue, fire orange, cherry, emerald and blue rain.
Overhead a flat-screen guides the visitor through the history to contemporary mining. Fire opal was born in the ancient volcano flows of Mexico. They were formed during the Cretaceous period and brought to the Earth’s surface during the Pleistocene age. The Aztec Indians of Mexico were among the first to discover the opal of many colors. They called it the Hummingbird stone, or vitzitziltecpal, named for how the colors in the opal were iridescent like hummingbird’s plumage. According to historic dates, Mexican opals were used by the Aztec people for ornamental and ceremonial pieces between the years 1200 CE and 1519 CE.
Opals are called amorphous solid, because they do not have a crystalline structure, they’re not organized in a definite pattern. Such solids include glass, plastic, and gel. Opals are classed as a mineroloid. Rough opals are imbedded in what is called cantera, a rock that many of Mexico’s buildings were constructed with, causing the pink coloration of historic city centers in Michoacan. Opals play with deep rich colors. This comes from a wonder of natural forces from a solution of silicon dioxide and water. Ancient streams ran down through the earth, picking up silica from sandstone. This found its way into natural faults. As the water evaporated, it left behind the silica deposit. Opals can still contain up to 20% water in weight and the reason that opals refract light in such extraordinary colors and patterns.
We can appreciate the grueling labor that is required to remove the opal from the surrounding stone. Called “bank mining,” first heavy equipment dig into a hillside, exposing the “opal-bearing substrate.” From this point it is manual labor all the way and miners proceed with caution. It is a delicate process done with small pointed mallets and soft brushes. Laborers kneel on the ground and work around a silicate deposit, chipping away carefully. While others sit on the ground coaxing the rough gems free. They have to watch carefully for tiny opals that might fall into the dirt. In many shops in Mexico a traveler might find the “cantera opal,” where by the polished opal is left in its pink matrix and sold as a gift item. Of the twenty-five varieties of opals, the most significant fire opals are mined in Mexico’s largest site in Magdalena, Jalisco. There are nearly 300 opal mines in the region. From here the rough opal goes through cleaning, polishing and jewelry design. At The Opal Mine we can see the extraordinary artistic creations by silversmiths. Omar Sabino, store manager, is very knowledgeable and happy to talk opals. A passionate gem lover will want to spend time with the beauty of fire and color combined in the precious opal.
Trivia about the opal
- The opal is the national gemstone of Mexico.
- What is “noodling”? A process of picking through old mine sites. People actually make their living noodling for tiny or forgotten opals.
- Mexican fire opal is the only natural opal that is normally faceted with precise calibration.
- The best opals can command prices per carat that rival the most expensive diamonds, rubies and emeralds.
- The largest faceted fire opal weighs 42 carats, the ring is selling for $30,000.
- Opal does not lose its color. However, if allowed to dry out, it can crack.
- Opal is the birth stone for Libra, people born in October.
- The opal is not bad luck. It was an early rumor spread by diamond traders to block opal sales.
A little 'far-out' trivia:
- Among the indigenous people of Central America, fire opal was thought to be a stone filled with life and created in the heavenly waters.
- The Aztecs considered the stone to be a charm that would protect against “evil eye and curses.”
- The metaphysical properties of fire opal are related to loyalty and trust. Because of the interplay of colors and light, fire opal is considered a stone of magical powers. Fire opal is said to be a great stimulant, helping stoke the inner fires and enhancing a person’s own individual power. It is a warming and energizing stone, and some say it can magnify passion.
- The explosion of color and light in these gems make it nearly impossible to choose a favorite. But the fire opal is so extraordinary, it is easy to see why the ancients gave it a power beyond human understanding. Here at the Opal Mine we can delight in the fire of this exquisite gem and be grateful for those gentle and skilled hands which cared for it along the way.
Lázaro Cárdenas 921
Zona Centro, 22800 Ensenada, B.C., Mexico
Phone from the US: 011-52-646 178 2738
Omar Sabino Hernandez, store manager
Updated: Jun 27, 2018 10:04 AM