Meet the Virgin Rainbow, the most beautiful opal in the world

An opal so fine it has been valued at over $1 million is about to go on public display for the first time.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

Enlarge Image
The Virgin Rainbow measures 63.3 by 14.3mm (2.5 by 0.56 inches). Photo Richard Lyons courtesy South Australian Museum

Our world produces some incredible rocks. Take the opal, a precious stone that forms out of silica, in the dark under the surface of the earth. When cut and polished, it flashes with a gorgeous array of colours, from pale milky hues to deep reds and blacks.

Now, an opal that has been named the finest ever unearthed will be making its public debut next month as the centrepiece of an exhibition opening at the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.

Called the Virgin Rainbow, it was discovered in the opal fields of Coober Pedy by opal miner John Dunstan in 2003.

It's actually an opalised fossil, from an extinct cephalopod called belemnitida that existed during the Mesozoic era. During that time, much of South Australia was under a vast inland sea filled with prehistoric aquatic reptiles called plesiosaurs. These died and sank to the bottom of the sea, buried over the millennia by sediment.

When the sea dried up and the land turned into a desert, the acidity levels in the shallow top layer of the sandstone increased. This released silica from weathering sandstone into the layer of clay beneath, where bones and pockets left by disintegrated bones lay buried, carried down via groundwater.

The South Australian desert, once under water millions of years ago. South Australian Museum

Further weathering lowered the acidity levels, which allowed the silica gel to harden into opals in the pockets and impressions left by decayed animal material, like cake poured into a mould, or to soak into bones and create a replica of the internal structure.

The famous Australian opal fields of Coober Pedy are located in this region. No other environment in the world is known to have undergone this same process, which is possibly why over 90 percent of the world's opals come from South Australia.

Opalised fossils in this region are not uncommon. In fact, the South Australian Museum is home to another spectacular opal structure: an almost complete opalised skeleton of a six-metre (20-foot) plesiosaur known as the Addyman Plesiosaur, although you have to look closely to see its opalescent sheen.

Not so with the Virgin Rainbow, which spits a rainbow of coloured sparks from its heart.

"You'll never see another piece like that one, it's so special. That opal actually glows in the dark -- the darker the light, the more colour comes out of it, it's unbelievable," Dunstan told the ABC.

"I've done a lot of cutting and polishing [of opals], I've been doing it for 50 years, but when you compare it to the other pieces that claim to be the best ever, this one just killed it."

Enlarge Image
The Virgin Rainbow will be shown to the public for the first time since its discovery 12 years ago. Denis Smith courtesy South Australian Museum

The Virgin Rainbow isn't the most valuable opal in the world. That honour goes to a massive, 3.45-kilogram (7.6-pound) stone named the Olympic Australis opal, excavated in the Coober Pedy in 1956. In 2005, the Olympic Australis was valued at $2.5 million.

Both the Addyman Plesiosaur and the Virgin Rainbow will be on display among a dazzling collection of opals.

"From jewellery to fossils to specimens embedded in rock, visitors will be treated to a spectacle of unmatched colour and beauty. This is an exhibition literally millions of years in the making because these opals were formed back when dinosaurs walked the earth and central Australia was an inland sea," said Museum Director Brian Oldman.

The exhibition, called simply Opals, will run from September 25, 2015, until February 14, 2016.