The Flame Queen Opal: World's Most Expensive Opal

the flame queen world's most expensive opalThere are plenty of record-breaking opals, but which is the most expensive opal? That honor goes to the Flame Queen opal, the most expensive opal in the world that sold for the modern-day equivalent of over $3 million.

The Flame Queen opal has a couple of other names — it’s also called the “Fire Queen” opal and “Dunstan’s Stone.”

In this guide, we’ll fill you in on the legendary history of the Flame Queen opal, its many fascinating characteristics, and just how much this record-breaking opal is worth.

the flame queen world's most expensive opal

What Is the Flame Queen Opal?

The Flame Queen opal is an unmounted black nobby opal weighing 261.03 carats (52.21 grams). The stone’s dimensions are roughly 72 x 58 x 11.5 mm (2.8 x 2.3 x 0.45 in).

Its form is triangular and somewhat pear-shaped. Additionally, the Flame Queen displays beautiful and rare red color flashes, so it’s sometimes called a “red-on-black” opal. The border is greenish-blue and the color flashes appear electric blue under certain types of lighting.

If some of those terms above confused you, we’ll break down what they mean.

An “unmounted” stone is simply a loose gem, not attached or mounted to any type of jewelry or display stand. This term is important for measuring the weight of gems alone, rather than the total weight of a piece of gemstone jewelry.

Next, black opal is a type of opal with a dark body tone, meaning the base or background color. An opal must fall between N1 to N4 on the body tone chart to count as a black opal.

Black is the rarest, most valuable opal color for both its scarcity and the way the dark background allows for a brighter play-of-color when the opal is precious rather than common. Red color flashes (another term for play-of-color) are especially prized.

If you’ve ever wondered: what is the world’s most expensive black opal? The Flame Queen opal holds that record as well!

Lastly, “nobby” refers to a shape of rough (uncut) opal almost exclusively found at the famous Lightning Ridge fields of Australia. It’s characterized by a naturally lump-like shape, though there are some variations. One nobby shape called a “witch’s hat” or “China hat” has a flat base and cone-like shape with a peaked center.

This opal is among the many famous opals in Australian mining history.

So, who discovered the Flame Queen opal? And when was it discovered?

Lightning Ridge Miners Association

History of the Flame Queen Opal

The Flame Queen opal was discovered in Lightning Ridge, Australia, in the early 1900s. There are two conflicting stories surrounding its discovery. One credits three partners for making the discovery around 1914, while the other credits Charlie Dunstan as discovering it in 1906.

We’ll cover the Dunstan story first.

First Theory: Charlie Dunstan

According to some reports, Charlie Dunstan discovered the “Fire Queen” opal in 1906 at the Angledool Diggings in Lightning Ridge, Australia, initially naming it “Dunstan’s Stone.”

The opal allegedly weighed 900 carats, and Dunstan soon sold it for £100, which translates to £8,152 or $10,001 dollars in modern-day. Tragically, Dunstan was found dead in his hut soon after.

From there, the opal’s ownership changed a few times, landing in the Chicago Museum in 1928 where it was valued at £40,000 (£1,992,684 or $2.4 million today). It was then renamed the “Fire Queen” opal, though it’s still called the “Flame Queen” today.

American business magnate J.D. Rockefeller bought the opal in the 1940s for £75,000, which translates to the record-breaking $3,620,700 amount that the opal is known for.

Second Theory: Phillips, Bradley, and Hegarty

The alternate story about the Flame Queen’s discovery starts with three men who established the Bald Hill Workings area, expanding on the digging after a previous miner who had started digging there left to serve in World War I.

Those three partners were Jack Phillips, Walter Bradley, and “Irish” Joe Hegarty.

This was right around the “opal rush” of 1914-1915, when an accidental discovery by a 14-year old boy kicked off the establishment of many of the now-famous Australian opal mining fields.

Hegarty finished digging the tunnel, but didn’t find much valuable opal initially. He and Bradley dug a dangerous vertical tunnel, and the risk paid off when Bradley discovered the Flame Queen nobby opal around 35 feet underground.

Bradley had the most gem-cutting expertise, so he cut and polished the rough opal. Once done, his work revealed a red dome with a greenish-blue border.

The men needed money, so they quickly sold the opal to Australian opal dealer Ernie Sherman for £93, the modern-day equivalent of £7,581 or $9,300. Sherman was the same dealer who bought the famous Pride of Australia opal.

Soon after, Sherman sold the Flame Queen to a British opal collector, Kelsey I. Newman.

The Flame Queen was exhibited (as part of Newman’s collection) in 1937 at the Geological Museum of London to honor King George VI’s coronation. The opal remained in Newman’s collection until 1973, when the renowned auction house Christie’s acquired it.

That brings us to the many times the Flame Queen opal was auctioned.

flame queen opal historyImage credit: David Plane

The Flame Queen Opal Price

The record-breaking Flame Queen opal sale happened in 1980, when it was auctioned via Christie’s for $1 million to a private client via David Callaghan; the client was likely Jack Plane. That amount equates to roughly $3.4 million today!

Callaghan was the Chairman of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain at the time, and he convinced Plane to allow them to borrow the Flame Queen to display at Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee celebration.

The Flame Queen was displayed at the Geological Museum in South Kensington until 1981.

In 2008, Bonham’s held a Natural History auction in Los Angeles, California, USA, offering the "Rare and Renowned Red-on-Black Opal - The Flame Queen” for auction. In the Bonham’s auction, the Flame Queen sold for $120,000.

Various private collectors kept the opal until 2020. In Christie’s Magnificent Jewels auction in New York held in July of that year, the Flame Queen was auctioned as the “Property from the Collection of Gloria Manney.” It sold for $87,500.

Why is the Flame Queen Opal So Expensive?

The Flame Queen opal’s impressive price comes from a few factors. For one, it has historical significance in its early-1900s origin, especially being found around the previously mentioned “opal rush.”

Secondly, the Flame Queen may not be the largest opal ever found, but it’s still quite large.

Lastly, the Flame Queen is beloved for its unique and rare appearance. Besides being a rare black opal, it also has bright red flashes that may appear electric blue under certain types of lighting and a greenish-blue border.

Of course, the Flame Queen opal isn’t the only famous opal in history.

Other Record-Breaking Opals

Grading opal value is complex, so there are many opals that hold significant value for different reasons. Besides the Flame Queen, some of the other record-breaking or otherwise famous opals include:

Virgin Rainbow Opal

virgin rainbow opal

The Virgin Rainbow opal is often cited as the world’s most expensive opal by those who don’t account for inflation adjustments, as it’s valued at $1 million. Its impressive size, color spectrum, and glow-in-the-dark properties have led many to call it the most beautiful opal ever found.

This opal is a precious black crystal opal and technically an opalized fossil — also called a belemnite opal — as it formed in the impression left by a prehistoric marine animal.

Olympic Australis

Olympic Australis The Worlds Most Famous Opal

The Olympic Australis is an uncut white opal often credited as the largest uncut opal in the world at 17,000 carats (7.5 lb or 3.4 kg). It sold for nearly $2.5 million (AUD) in 1997. It’s currently owned by John Altmann and Rudi Cherny, who display it in their showroom in Sydney, Australia.

Speaking of the largest opals…

Halley’s Comet Opal

halley's comet opal

Halley’s Comet opal holds the Guinness World Record for the largest uncut black opal nobby at 1,982.5 carats. It’s also the largest opal nobby ever found at Lightning Ridge. It was discovered when Halley’s Comet was appearing in Australia, hence the name. In 2006, it was available at auction for $1.2 million.

But Halley’s Comet opal isn’t the biggest black opal ever found.

Sea of Opal

sea of opalImage credit: Mckenna Praetorius

The Guinness World Record for the biggest black opal in the world goes to the Sea of Opal, which weighs 11,340.95 carats. The stone features a central blue patch resembling a swimming fish and a green flash reminiscent of seaweed.

In 2015, the Sea of Opal was being offered at auction for $150,000 to $250,000.

Now, what is the rarest opal in the world? Many would say the Eternal Flame opal.

Eternal Flame Opal


Another contender among the largest opals in the world is the Eternal Flame opal, a black crystal opal weighing 568 carats that displays a stunning rainbow color-play.

It’s also considered the rarest opal in the world, as it formed in volcanic soils instead of inland. Most volcanic opals are under 10 carats, making the Eternal Flame’s size that much more impressive.

How much does the eternal flame opal cost? The stone is valued at over $675,000.

Fire of Australia

fire-of-australia-opal-sa-museum1.jpgImage credit: South Australia Museum, Paula McManus

The last famous opal we’ll discuss is one you may confuse for the Flame Queen: the Fire of Australia. The Fire of Australia has been dubbed the “world’s finest uncut opal” by some. It weighs 4,990 carats (about the size of a softball) and is valued at over $675,000. Another notable quality of the opal is its spectrum of color flashes.

The Flame Queen: An Opal of Royal Proportions

Though the most beautiful opal in the world is largely subjective, the Flame Queen is objectively the most valuable. With a unique shape, rare color flashes, and over a century of history, the Flame Queen is certainly worthy of its acclaim.

Find your own beautiful opal today!

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