Star Phenomena Resulting From Interference of Light

If two rays of identical light are superimposed so that they travel in exactly the same path, two things may occur: (1) If they are in phase, they will ASSIST each other; (2) if they are out of phase, they will tend to CANCEL each other. In the latter case, if they are exactly out of phase, the wave motion will be entirely cancelled, resulting in DARKNESS. When they assist each other, the result is INCREASED INTENSITY. If rays of WHITE light overlap, the resultant interference may produce spectral colors. In other words, waves of certain of the hues that comprise white light may cancel each other, leaving only waves of certain other hues.

In figure 4 two waves (A and B) of the same length traveling the phase XY at the same time, but so timed that A is on the upward swing when B is on the downward motion, result in the two cancelling each other. In effect, A and B, which are equal in length, are subtracted from one another.

When the two waves are superimposed on one another so that each is moving from X to Y "in step" (as in Figure 5), the result is intensification; A is added to B. If two waves are between the two extremes shown in Figures 4 and 5, the results vary from some cancellation to some intensification of the light, depending on whether the relationship of A and B is closer to that illustrated in Figure 4 or than in Figure 5.

There are only a few situations in nature in which the necessary conditions for interference occur, for the basic condition of two or more beams travelling the same path at the same time is an unusual occurrence.

Figure 6 illustrates how interference is produced. A ray of light is directed at an extremely-thin transparent film such as oil on water. To simplify the illustration, we will consider only two portions of the ray, labeled A and B. As these rays strike the film, a portion of the light is reflected; the remainder is refracted into the film, reflected from the bottom surface, and refracted back into the air, following the same path as the light reflected from the surface. This point at which the reflected and refracted rays coincide and begin to travel the same path is encircled in the sketch.

Thus for a certain thickness of the layer, or film, as well as of different angles of incidence for the light, the red waves might amplify o ne another to produce an intense red light, whereas some of the other waves are cancelled; or the red rays may cancel one another and the blue rays be intensified. The colors thus produced are known as INTERFERENCE COLORS. The brilliant colors of soap bubbles and the colors produced by cracks in topaz, rock crystal, glass, etc. are due to this interference. Whenever there are such thin, transparent films or layers of different material, this interference of light occurs, with its resulting colors.

Play of Color

This is the name applied to the multiple colors displayed by fine opals. These colors form a patchwork, with the color of each patch changing as the stone is turned. A predominance of red flashes is most desirable, with green next, and blue less desirable.

Play of color is caused by diffraction of light and variations in refractive index from innumerable, regularly arranged, optically transparent spherical particles of amorphous silica and from the spaces, or voids, between these particles. The spheres, and hence the voids, are arranged regularly in three dimensions (face-centered cubic), so that the whole arrangement makes a three-dimensional diffraction grating. The important feature is that the spacing of the voids is the same as that of the spheres, and when this is about that of the wavelength of visible light, diffraction occurs. The angle through which the light is diffracted varies continuously with wavelength, so that different colors appear at different angles, thus producing play of color. Only pure spectral colors can arise from this process. This theory of the internal structure of precious opal was proved in the mid 1960's by research with the electron microscope.

The play of color associated with fine opal is sometimes referred to as "opalescence" but this term more correctly refers to an internal milky or pearly appearance. Because of its double usage, the word is avoided in the gemology. Play of color should not be confused with "fire", which is another name for dispersion, as observed in transparent faceted stones.

Labradorescence (pronounced lab-rah-door-ESS-ence)

Labradorite, a species of the feldspar group, is usually a some what dull gray stone in the rough. When it is polished, large patches of a vivid solid hue often appear that change gradually as the stone is moved. They do NOT appear in flashes as in the opal. This effect is sometimes called CHANGE OF COLOR, as distinguished from the play of color in opal. However, as mentioned previously, change of color is also used to describe the phenomenon seen in alexandrite, an entirely different effect.

Labradorite is repeatedly twinned and is made up of a large number of very thin plates. These thin plates set up the condition necessary for light interference, as described in the foregoing paragraphs. In addition to this effect, it is probable that a distribution of tiny areas of feldspar of a different composition cause a diffusion, or scattering, of light that is superimposed on the interference caused by the thin plates.

Iridescence (pronounced ear-ih-DESS-ence)

Iridescence is a display of prismatic colors produced by light interference from very narrow fissures enclosing thin films of air or liquid. Such a condition is given a name in quartz (iris quartz or iris agate), but it may be encountered in any gemstone that has been fractured or in which a cleavage has started to develop.


This is the prismatic sheen on which the beauty of the pearl mainly depends. Interference and diffraction of light on the tiny overlapping plates on the surface of the pearl produces this effect. Diffraction produces the multiple colors sometimes seen on the jagged edges of broken glass. It is a phenomenon distinct from both dispersion and play of color.

Adularescence (pronounced ad-u-lar-ESS-ence)

Adularescence or moonstone effect, often confusingly called "opalescence" or "schiller" is the name given to feldspar (usually orthoclase) that exhibits a blue to white sheen in certain directions. When the stone is cut in cabochon, a floating, billowy, bluish or white light is noticed as the stone is turned.

This moonstone effect, which is visible only in certain directions in the feldspar crystal, seems to be caused by somewhat diffused reflection of light from repeated-twinning planes or parallel intergrowths of another feldspar of a slightly different R.I. from the main mass of orthoclase.

Girasol Effects (pronounced JIR-ah-sol)

The adjective girasol is applied to the varieties of several species the minerals, including opal, corundum, chrysoberyl and quartz, that exhibit a movable or billowy light effect as the stone is turned. The effect is often mistaken for adularescence, but, although somewhat similar, the appearance is more cloudy. As a noun, girasol refers only to the variety of opal that produces this effect, but it is used as an adjective in such terms as girasol sapphire .and girasol quartz.