Posted on by Nevil Agrawal

A unique gemstone that serves as a bit of a paradox to the gemstone world, the Ethiopian opal or Welo opal is new to the modern opal markets but is a gemstone very well-known during ancient times. The Ethiopian opal boom is anything but new, archeology points towards opals playing a part in East African trade since 4000 B.C. In 1939 archeologist Louis Leakey’s discovery brought to light that opals were in the hands of humans in Kenya for nearly 6000 years before the Ethiopian opal was discovered.

Australia has been the epicenter of the opal industry for the longest time and has set the standards for opal trading, but Ethiopian opals are well set to overtake Australia in terms of production. Often compared to Australian opals, Ethiopian opals can be differentiated by their ability to change states in water. Opaque-to-translucent opals from Wegel Tena become transparent when soaked in water displaying a phenomenon called hydrophane. They are resistant to crazing and are shockingly durable. The unique hydrophane property can be seen as a vulnerability in other varieties of opal, but it only makes Welo opal even more fascinating.

Young collectors and opal jewelry enthusiasts can now buy from the opal market due to the availability and relatively affordable Ethiopian Welo opal. Ethiopian opals do not carry heavy price tags as gems from Australia, but some exceptional and rare pieces can match the Australian prices. Here is a buying guide that will tell you everything about Ethiopian opal and how to identify a real one. 

ethiopian opal gemstone


How are opals formed?


Opals are usually formed after centuries of seasonal rains leach microscopic silica particles from sandstone. These are then carried into underground fissures and cavities. The dried deposit materials and the microscopic silica spheres become compressed into a closely-packed lattice. As light travels through this microstructure, it creates stunning flashing rainbow colors. This phenomenon is called play-of-color.


Opals are also formed due to volcanic activity within nodules in the volcanic ash. Opals formed due to volcanic activity are also called hydrophane opals. The word ‘hydrophane’ comes from the Greek word, which means water-loving. They are given this name because of their ability to absorb water; when wet, the stones become transparent before returning to their opaque color. This vivid play of color can be compared to the appearance of the magnificent Northern Lights. The stunning beauty the Ethiopian opal carries makes it a natural choice for valued jewelry collections consisting of the very finest gemstones.


Where are Ethiopian opals found?


Although they are located on precarious high elevation plateaus that can reach 10,000 ft (+3000 m), Ethiopian opal mines are just as worked today much as they might have been centuries ago. They are found at several significant mining districts in Ethiopia. Each district has its own distinctive colors and types of stone.

The first big deposit of Ethiopian opal to hit gem markets was found in the 1990s in a province previously known as the Shewa Province. Gems ranging from transparent pale yellows to rich chocolatey browns were found in the Yita Ridge, which is now a mining area in a defunct province.

Opals known as Menz Gishe, Shewa, or Mezezo opals, are mined about 150 miles (240 km) northeast of Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. Welo opals reshaped the structure of global opal trade and got their name from the Wollo province in which they were discovered in 2008.


ethiopian opal cabochons


The 3 C’s of Ethiopian opal:




Opals are often distinguished by their colors; hence color play is an important facet of any opal. Ethiopian opals are mostly transparent or can have a white tone. They may also display a transparent to yellow, tan, or orange hue. Ethiopian opals display intense color flashes of bright yellow, green, orange, blue, red, and rainbow. You can find these color flashes across the surface, inside the gem, or in some cases, a combination of both. It can be difficult to capture the exact color of opal in a photograph because it reflects different colors from different angles.




Like a diamond, the clarity of crystal opal is graded by using the terms VVS, VS, SI, I, etc. Regardless of the variety of opal you choose, it is vital to choose a stone that doesn’t have any cracks. A few solid inclusions can be found in crystal opals and they aren’t much of a problem; pay attention to any irregular lines that you find on the exterior as well as the interior of the stone. These are usually fractures, and if the stone starts cracking, the cracks tend to spread and weaken the stone.


Carat Weight:


A considerably light stone, a 1-carat round brilliant-cut opal is typically larger than a 1-carat round brilliant-cut diamond (approx. 7.5 mm vs. 6.5 mm). You need to know the exact size of the stone if you plan on using it in a piece of jewelry.


Variances of the Ethiopian Opal:


All forms of Ethiopian opal originate from volcanic material and dark opals are the sediments from the volcanic black ash clouds.

  • Ethiopian Welo Opals(Fire opal): Welo opal is found in Wegel Tena, it is also spelled as Wello or Wollo. This opal is mined 2500-meter-high above sea level in this mountainous terrain. Welo opals have grown in popularity and are considered better than opals mined at Shewa due to their stability.  


    ethiopian fire opal gemstone


    • Shewa opal/Mezezo opal: This opal gets its name from the place it was first discovered. Opals found in the Menz Gishe District in the northern part of the Shewa Province occur in a wide range of body colors like brown, red, orange, yellow, white, and clear.
    • Black opal: This variety of opal was first found in 2013 at the Stayish mine in the Wollo province. Opals that have a dark color like black, dark gray, dark blue, or dark green body color are known as black opals. The dark body of the stone creates a unique contrast with the fire of black opal that is more obvious and makes them very desirable.

    Ethiopian Opal Treatments:


    Ethiopian opals can be sold in their natural state or after they undergo some form of treatment. Due to their porous nature, they are suitable for dye, smoke, and sugar/acid treatments. A gemstone that undergoes any of these treatments decreases in value. The price of a treated opal is much less than natural opal with the same appearance. Ethiopian opals undergo the following treatments –

    1.Dye Treatment: Ethiopian opals are hydrophane, which makes it easy to dye. The liquid used for coloring is easily absorbed and seeps through the pores of the stone. Dyed opals can be identified on-sight only when an excessive amount of color is used. When slightly enhanced, an opal that has undergone dye treatments can be detected with microscopic examination or by cutting into the opal to see if the color is concentrated only near the surface or throughout the stone.

    2.Smoke Treatment: When opal is wrapped in paper, and the paper is heated until it smolders, the fine smoke particles of paper can enter the pore spaces of opal and darken its body color. Opals undergo smoke treatment because the darker body color contrasts with the opal’s color play and gives it better contrast and makes it more obvious. Smoke treatment can be identified when black soot particles are spotted during a microscopic examination or by using laboratory tests such as Raman spectroscopy.

    3.Sugar/Acid Treatment: When opal is soaked in a warm solution of sugar water for a couple of days and then submerged in sulfuric acid, the acid oxidizes the sugar in the pore spaces of the opal and produces dark-colored carbon particles and stains. Similar to smoke treatment, this treatment can be detected by microscopic examination or with laboratory tests for carbon.


    ethiopian opal beads


    Facts About Ethiopian Opal :


    • A region called Tsehay Mewcha, which is a rocky, volcanic plateau at the headwaters of the Blue Nile is the most important source of Ethiopian opal.
    • Ethiopian opals have some of the most unique markings of any opal, the stunning specimens have areas of common opal intermixed with precious opal. This type of composition gives them patterns that look like snake skin, leopard spots, or elongated columns known as digits.
    • Ethiopian opals also show a rare combination of play of color and chatoyancy, a cat’s eye effect formed by inclusions of other minerals.
    • Flame-like markings on the inside of the stone display a vintage glass marble on one side and a vibrant play of color on the other.
    • It is believed that the Queen of Sheba, a figure that features in the Hebrew bible and countless regional tales, was said to have brought opals with her to Jerusalem on her visit to King Solomon. The origin of her treasure might be unconfirmed, but it’s quite possible that Ethiopian opals were traded across the Red Sea and were part of the queen’s treasure on her fabled journey.
    • The Ethiopian Ministry of Mines has strict control over the opal mining and it being the socialistic government that it is, has made it very difficult for opal miners.
    ethiopian fire opal beads


    How to clean Ethiopian opal?


    Opal's mineral name is hydrated silicon dioxide, so water is already one of the chemical components. The best way to clean an Ethiopian opal would be to soak the solid opal in water for an hour every month, depending on how often it is exposed to the outside world. Opals gradually lose their natural water when exposed to dry conditions and start to crack.

    Oil and detergent solutions should never be used to clean Ethiopian opal because they can cause discolorations. Incase your stone has any first on it, the dirt can be removed by wiping with a tissue paper dipped in rubbing alcohol. Never use heat to clean opal, even if an opal is soaked in water too long, there are chances that the opal will have internal fractures once it is taken out of the water and dried.


    ethiopian opal rosary chains


    Where to buy Ethiopian opal?


    At GemsforJewels, we offer Ethiopian Welo opals in seven beautiful shades, including white, green, and blue. These stones can be bought as cabochons,connectors, or even as strands; there are many varieties for you to choose from. We also offer this gemstone in different shapes, your options include round, oval, pear, rectangle, and eight other fascinating shapes. Ethiopian opal used in any form of jewelry will be a big hit with your customers.