Could the Mississippi Opal become the state’s first official gemstone?

A push is underway to make the Mississippi Opal the official gemstone of the state of...
A push is underway to make the Mississippi Opal the official gemstone of the state of Mississippi.(James Starnes)
Published: Jan. 24, 2023 at 5:18 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Nearly two decades after it was first discovered in Mississippi, a push is underway to make opal the state’s official gemstone.

In December, the State Board of Registered Professional Geologists signed off on a resolution asking the legislature to make the Mississippi Opal the official gemstone of the state.

The move was backed by the Mississippi State Oil and Gas Board and the Mississippi Geological Society.

In January, lawmakers on both sides of the State Capitol authored legislation to codify the request.

Rep. Becky Currie, the principal author of the House version, hopes to bring the measure out of committee this week.

“In Mississippi, it would be the only stone considered a gemstone, and, so, I just thought, ‘Well, if it’s the only one we have, it needs to be the state stone,” she said. “In one of my counties, Copiah County, which I represent, there is a great deal of it.”

Opal is the only gemstone in the state to be considered a precious gem and can be characterized as having “brilliant flashes of fire, ranging in color from red to green,” according to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s website.

Jim Starnes, director of the Surface Geology Division for MDEQ, as well as president of the State Board of Registered Professional Geologists, says the measure if passed could generate more interest in the sciences and the state’s natural environment.

Starnes displays some Mississippi Opal at an event at the Mississippi State Capitol.
Starnes displays some Mississippi Opal at an event at the Mississippi State Capitol.(Special to WLBT)

“We already have a state fossil, which is the fossil whale. We also have a state stone, which is petrified wood,” he said. “But what we don’t have is... we do not have a state gemstone.”

Part of the reason is geologists in the state didn’t know Mississippi had any gemstones until 2004.

That’s when a study conducted by the Mississippi Geological Survey discovered the stone in Claiborne County.

Further study showed that the precious stone can be found in something known as the “Catahoula Formation,” which runs along 11 counties in South and Central Mississippi. Those counties are Claiborne, Copiah, Covington, Hinds, Jasper, Jones, Rankin, Simpson, Warren, and Wayne.

“This was formed by volcanic ash,” he said. “There was a lot of volcanic activity going on out west at a time called the ‘Late Oligocene period’’ so we’re looking at about 20 million years ago.”

At the time, the sea levels were higher, and counties in the Catahoula Formation had geological features more like the Mississippi River Delta – where the river enters the Gulf of Mexico.

“And that volcanic ash was spread over North America. As you know, the prevailing winds were carrying the stuff from west to east, and it was deposited with the sand and that’s what ended up forming sandstone. And, so, it’s that volcanic ash in there that chemically [decomposed] to make opal.”

Starnes was inspired to push for making opal the state’s gemstone when he was working with Yinan Wang, the author of The 50 State Gems and Minerals: A Guidebook for Aspiring Geologists, which was published in 2020.

“Basically, what it is, it’s inspiring young kids to be interested in geology and earth sciences. We were supposed to if we did not have a state mineral or state gem, we were supposed to nominate one for the book,” he said.

“And Mississippi is a coastal plain state... Coastal plain states just aren’t known for gemstones. Usually, you see that kind of stuff in hard rock country and in the mountains and places like that... Having something as precious as opal in Mississippi, it’s kind of a great thing.”

You can find out more about the Mississippi Opal and efforts to make it the state gemstone at the upcoming Mississippi Gem and Mineral Society’s 64th Annual Show, slated for Feb. 25-26 at the Mississippi Trade Mart.

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