Nevada’s official gemstone born of ancient forests, volcanoes


The bidding started at $250 for the 14-gram opal. For $600, potential bidders could “buy it now.”

The Virgin Valley Black Fire Opal is No. 1 in Nevada’s state gemstone pecking order. The opal is the Silver State’s official “precious” gemstone, a notch above the state’s “semiprecious” gemstone, the Nevada turquoise.

Precious gemstones tend to be harder and more valuable, but it’s possible for a “semiprecious” stone in good condition to be worth more than a “precious” stone in lousy condition.

The unique Black Fire opal is found in Nevada’s northern Virgin Valley, the one in Humboldt County, near the border with Oregon.

It’s the only place the mineral is found in North America in any significant quantity, according to the Nevada Legislature’s website.

The origins of Virgin Valley’s prized opal go back nearly 17 million years, when the area was covered in forest and situated near various “super-volcanoes,” according to Jonathan G. Price, state geologist at the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

Eruptions from these “super-volcanoes” caused areas of land to collapse and create volcanic features called “calderas.” When calderas erupted, they emitted massive clouds of ash that covered the land and burned or knocked down trees that sometimes sank to the bottom of nearby lakes. Over time, the ash-covered wood was petrified as opal.

That’s how Nevada’s premier opals have remained buried for millions of years.

In “Minerals of Nevada,” a 2004 Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology publication, geologists Stephen B. Castor and Gregory C. Ferdock describe the opal’s signature features:

“Virgin Valley opal is considered by most experts to be the brightest precious opal available, and it is also considered to include the world’s finest black opal. Flashes of green, red, violet, blue, and yellow are spectacular in this material.”

The Royal Peacock Mine in Virgin Valley is one of the only remaining places that allow visitors to hunt for their own opals — for a daily fee, of course.

Harry W. Wilson, 83, owns the mine, which his father bought in 1944. He said visitors have come from France and Japan, among other countries, to search for opals.

Wilson said one visitor from India was especially memorable.

“He crossed his legs out there and got out his flute. He started playing music and thought that would bring the opals out of the ground. He blew and blew and blew, but nothing came out,” Wilson said.

“We get all kinds out here.”

It was Wilson who first filed the petition for the rare Nevada opal to become a state emblem in 1986 after he said he was approached by the Nevada Bureau of Minerals. Bureau officials asked that a display be set up in Carson City to showcase the opal, Wilson said.

“They asked if we would display it down there for 30 days. They had such a response in the capital that they asked if we’d leave it there,” Wilson said. “It was six months before we took it out.”

Wilson’s grandson, Jacob Anderson, gives mine tours to visitors and teaches them how to dig for the gemstones.

He said for those who find the sometimes elusive gemstones, their discovery yields a rewarding feeling.

“It’s a big burst of motivation, it makes you want to keep digging,” said Anderson of the sometimes arduous excavating process. “You start thinking ‘Oh, this sucks,’ and all of a sudden — boom, there’s one. It gets the blood flowing I guess.”

If you’re lucky enough to find a good one, preserving it can be a problem. The gemstone itself needs to be kept moist because it’s susceptible to cracking. For this reason, most opals are collected as specimens rather than for jewelry, Anderson said.

Despite advances in technology, Wilson is convinced that nothing beats traditional tools like a pick and a shovel.

“People come out here with all kinds of devices that are gonna show you how to find opals,” he said. “I haven’t seen any work yet.”

Contact Alex Corey at acorey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0270. Find him on Twitter: @acoreynews.