March 16, 2020
Unearth the meaning of fire opal, a sizzling gemstone that enchanted the Aztecs and continues to win modern-day fans.
Fire Opal: An Exotic Stone from the New World
When the Spanish reached present-day Mexico and Central America, fire opal stones were virtually unknown to the rest of the world. The courts of Europe had been transfixed by a small supply of Hungarian opals, but the exotic treasures that awaited in the Aztec Empire were very different from the opal jewelry of the time.
Looting the rich cities of the New World, the conquistadors uncovered a gemstone that had been used in Aztec culture as early as 850 A.D. Beautiful fire opal stones were found in Aztec burial sites, inlaid in art and figurines, and worn as jewelry. Known as vitzitziltecpatl, meaning hummingbird stone in the native tongue, opals were already a part of Aztec culture and rituals when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s.
“Mexican fire opal, noted for its base color ranging from transparent yellow through orange to cherry red, makes its European appearance sometime during the first quarter of the sixteenth century,” writes opal historian Allan W. Eckert in The World of Opals. He goes on to suggest that it was the expeditions of Hernando Cortez that first brought fire opals to Europe, not Christopher Columbus as some might assume.
The cache of plundered opals found in regions conquered by Cortez and company - ranging from present-day Mexico to Honduras - most likely ended up on European markets as the greedy explorers traveled back home, treasures in tow. It’s likely that their booty included gold, onyx, turquoise, jade, and fire opal - both common and precious varieties.
What is a Fire Opal: Common Misconceptions
If you’ve been thinking of the flashy, colorful effect of opal in changing light, you’re not exactly right, but you’re not entirely wrong. The word fire in reference to opals is often interchanged with the more accurate term play of color. “If you call it fire, you’ll label yourself an amateur,” says opal miner Don Skillman. “Don’t do it,” he laughs.
“It’s a complete misnomer,” Skillman explains. “Play of color is what people have in mind when they say fire opal.” What it is to the opal trade, is a description of an opal stone’s body color. “It is more or less clear, generally kind of a butterscotch color or orange color,” Skillman says of the Mexican varieties. “And rarely will it have play of color.”
While common fire opal is most, well, common, another variety of fire opal stones is found in scarcer quantities. Fire opals that exhibit play of color - that prismatic internal light show - are called precious fire opals. So technically, a fire opal can have a dynamic, peacock like sheen, but it doesn’t have to.
Common fire opals will usually be a single color with a semi-transparent, jelly like quality, while precious fire opals can show off refractions of blues and greens in addition to the warmer colors. To the Aztecs, precious opals were denoted by the name, quetza-litzle-pyollili, which translates to stone that changes color with the light.
Known as the hummingbird stone to the Aztecs, a precious fire opal exhibits a warm body color and a prismatic play of color.
Fire Opal Meaning in Astrology and Alternative Medicine
Like many valuable minerals and gemstones, fire opal meanings have worked their way into folk tales, religious ceremonies, and astrology. In her metaphysical guide to the mineral kingdom, Love is in the Earth, author Melody delves into the power of fire opals by color and type.
Cherry opals, as she calls deep red and pink fire opals, are associated with the astrological sign of Gemini. Uses of these common or jelly type of opals are used “to stimulate, to activate, and to cleanse the base and sacral chakras,” she writes. The scientist and metaphysical researcher also highlights cherry opals for their ability to energize, center, and improve accuracy when used in meditation.
Golden fire opal, meaning a warm-colored stone without a play of color, is tied to Leo and Libra signs. “It has been used to assist one in defining and refining those attitudes and ‘beliefs’ which are self-limiting,” writes Melody. Golden opals, she says, can be used in meditation “to activate the crown chakra and to provide for the alignment of the chakras with the ethereal plane.”
Melody also writes of precious fire opal meaning - those containing spectral refraction in addition to warm body color. If you’re born under the signs of Pisces, Sagittarius, Leo, Libra, or Cancer you may find special resonance with fire opals. Melody suggests that the showier precious fire opals can “add brilliance and clarity to the intuitive and reflective processes, and can instill a sense of feeling for the kaleidoscopic mysteries of life.” She goes on to write of precious fire opal’s ability to boost one's hope and faith in self, fight fatigue and burnout, and navigate stressful times.
In addition to sharing the meaning of fire opal in astrology and spirituality, Melody writes of its use in acupuncture and acupressure. She calls fire opal “an excellent stone for the stimulation of the triple-burner meridian.” In traditional Chinese Medicine, the triple burner, or San Jiao, governs the body’s fight or flight response and impacts the immune system. In her book Stone Medicine, Leslie J. Franks suggests that “Fire opal invigorates the blood and promotes heart circulation.” The author recommends holding fire opals to improve cold hands and circulation disorders.
Frequently found as a jelly-like stone with no play of color, the rarer precious fire opals will exhibit a flashy prismatic effect.
Origins, Varieties and Colors of Fire Opals
Named for their resemblance to man’s most valuable invention, fire opals can exhibit as many colors as a flickering flame. Thanks to the Columbian exchange and centuries of awareness, Mexican fire opals on the deeper end of the spectrum are widely recognized.
Fire opals rich in iron, like the new discoveries in southeastern Madagascar, will display orange and red colors, while non-ferrous opals can showcase beautiful pastel yellow, peach, and even blue hues. With the expansion of new global mining regions, reds and oranges (sometimes called tangerine or cherry opals) are not the only fire opals available today.
Ethiopia is arguably the world’s oldest source of opals, and the resurgence of mining in the 1990s unleashed a new supply of fire opals and other varieties of the October birthstone onto the world market. Recent exploration in the country’s Welo province (also known as Wello or Wollo), brought even more diversity of color and accessibility to opal jewelry fans.
Whether you’re a gemstone jewelry collector, a student of meditation and alternative medicine, or a world history buff, we invite you to continue exploring the fascinating fire opal meaning, power, and origins.