Agate /ˈæɡət/ is a rock consisting primarily of cryptocrystalline silica, chiefly chalcedony, alternating with microgranular quartz. It is characterized by its fineness of grain and variety of color. Although agates may be found in various kinds of host rock, they are classically associated with volcanic rocks and can be common in certain metamorphic rocks.[1]

19.6 kg (43.2 lb) Specimen of "Crazy Lace" agate from Chihuahua, Mexico; the specimen is 38.2 cm (15.0 in) wide
CategoryChalcedony variety
(repeating unit)
SiO2 silicon dioxide
Crystal systemRhombohedral Microcrystalline
Colorbrown banded
Crystal habitCryptocrystalline silica
FractureConchoidal with very sharp edges.
Mohs scale hardness6.5–7
Specific gravity2.58–2.64
Refractive index1.530–1.540
Birefringenceup to +0.004 (B-G)

Etymology and history

The stone was given its name by Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher and naturalist, who discovered the stone along the shore line of the river Achates (Ancient Greek: Ἀχάτης) in Sicily,[2] sometime between the 4th and 3rd centuries BC.[3] Colorful agates and other chalcedonies were obtained over 3,000 years ago from the Achates River, now called Dirillo.

Ancient use

Agate is one of the most common materials used in the art of hardstone carving, and has been recovered at a number of ancient sites, indicating its widespread use in the ancient world; for example, archaeological recovery at the Knossos site on Crete illustrates its role in Bronze Age Minoan culture.[4]

Formation and characteristics

Most agates occur as nodules in volcanic rocks or ancient lavas, in former cavities produced by volatiles in the original molten mass, which were then filled, wholly or partially, by siliceous matter deposited in regular layers upon the walls. Agate has also been known to fill veins or cracks in volcanic or altered rock underlain by granitic intrusive masses. Such agates, when cut transversely, exhibit a succession of parallel lines, often of extreme tenuity, giving a banded appearance to the section. Such stones are known as banded agate, riband agate and striped agate.

In the formation of an ordinary agate, it is probable that waters containing silica in solution—derived, perhaps, from the decomposition of some of the silicates in the lava itself—percolated through the rock and deposited a siliceous gel in the interior of the vesicles. Variations in the character of the solution or in the conditions of deposition may cause a corresponding variation in the successive layers, so that bands of chalcedony often alternate with layers of crystalline quartz. Several vapour-vesicles may unite while the rock is still viscous, and thus form a large cavity which may become the home of an agate of exceptional size; thus a Brazilian geode lined with amethyst and weighing 35 tons was exhibited at the Düsseldorf Exhibition of 1902. Perhaps the most comprehensive review of agate chemistry is a recent text by Moxon cited below.

The first deposit on the wall of a cavity, forming the "skin" of the agate, is generally a dark greenish mineral substance, like celadonite, delessite or "green earth", which are rich in iron probably derived from the decomposition of the augite in the enclosing volcanic rock. This green silicate may give rise by alteration to a brown iron oxide (limonite), producing a rusty appearance on the outside of the agate-nodule. The outer surface of an agate, freed from its matrix, is often pitted and rough, apparently in consequence of the removal of the original coating. The first layer spread over the wall of the cavity has been called the "priming", and upon this base, zeolitic minerals may be deposited.

Many agates are hollow, since deposition has not proceeded far enough to fill the cavity, and in such cases the last deposit commonly consists of drusy quartz, sometimes amethystine, having the apices of the crystals directed towards the free space so as to form a crystal-lined cavity or geode.

When the matrix in which the agates are embedded disintegrates, they are set free. The agates are extremely resistant to weathering and remain as nodules in the soil, or are deposited as gravel in streams and along shorelines.

Agates can also be found in sedimentary rocks. They need a cavity to form, so they are typically seen in limestone, dolomite, and shale which may have shells, tree branches, or roots in them that later decay away. With the void created, silica-rich fluids can enter the cavity and precipitate chalcedony in curved bands forming agates. Other quartz classes like amethyst or opal may then form the inner-most band inside the geode.[5]


A Mexican agate, showing only a single eye, has received the name of cyclops agate. Included matter of a green, golden, red, black or other color or combinations embedded in the chalcedony and disposed in filaments and other forms suggestive of vegetable growth, gives rise to dendritic or moss agate. Dendritic agates include fern-like patterns formed due to the presence of manganese and iron oxides. Other types of included matter deposited during agate-building include sagenitic growths (radial mineral crystals) and chunks of entrapped detritus (such as sand, ash, or mud). Occasionally agate fills a void left by decomposed vegetatable material such as a tree limb or root and is called limb cast agate, due to its appearance. Enhydro agate contains tiny inclusions of water, sometimes with air bubbles.

Turritella agate is formed from silicified fossil Elimia tenera (erroneously considered Turritella) shells. E. tenera are spiral freshwater gastropods with elongated, spiral shells composed of many whorls. Similarly, coral, petrified wood and other organic remains or porous rocks can also become agatized. Agatized coral is often referred to as Petoskey stone or agate.

Coldwater agates, such as the Lake Michigan Cloud Agate, did not form under volcanic processes, but instead formed within the limestone and dolomite strata of marine origin. Like volcanic-origin agates, Coldwater Agates formed from silica gels that lined pockets and seams within the bedrock. These agates are typically less colorful, with banded lines of grey and white chalcedony.[6]

Greek agate is a name given to pale white to tan colored agate found in Sicily, once a Greek colony, back to 400 BC. The Greeks used it for making jewelry and beads.

Brazilian agate is found as sizable geodes of layered nodules. These occur in brownish tones interlayered with white and gray. Quartz forms within these nodules, creating a striking specimen when cut opposite the layered growth axis. It is often dyed in various colors for ornamental purposes.

Certain stones, when examined in thin sections by transmitted light, show a diffraction spectrum due to the extreme delicacy of the successive bands, whence they are termed rainbow agates. Often agate coexists with layers or masses of opal, jasper or crystalline quartz due to ambient variations during the formation process.

Lace agate is a variety that exhibits a lace-like pattern with forms such as eyes, swirls, bands or zigzags (if these predominate, it is called lattice agate). Crazy lace agate, found in Mexico, is often brightly colored with a complex pattern. Blue lace agate is found in Africa and is especially hard.[7]

Polyhedroid agate is agate which has grown in a flat-sided shape similar to a polyhedron.[8] When sliced, it often shows a characteristic layering of concentric polygons. Polyhedroid agate is thought to be found only in Paraíba State, Brazil. It has been suggested that growth is not crystallographically controlled but is due to the filling-in of spaces between pre-existing crystals which have since dissolved.[9]

Other forms of agate include Holley blue agate (also spelled "Holly blue agate"), a rare dark blue ribbon agate only found near Holley, Oregon;[10] Lake Superior agate; carnelian agate (has reddish hues); Botswana agate; plume agate; condor agate, tube agate (with visible flow channels or pinhole-sized "tubes"); fortification agate (with contrasting concentric banding reminiscent of defensive ditches and walls around ancient forts); Binghamite, a variety found only on the Cuyuna iron range (near Crosby) in Crow Wing County, Minnesota; fire agate (showing an iridescent, internal flash or "fire", the result of a layer of clear agate over a layer of hydrothermally deposited hematite); and Patuxent River stone, a red and yellow form of agate only found in Maryland, where it is the state gem.

Other agates include: Blue lace, Purple lace, Pink lace, Moss, Fire, Onyx, Botswana pink, Apricot, Light pink, Condor, Enhydro, Iris, Fairburn, Thunder egg, Plume, Coyamito, Sagenite, Fortification.

Uses in industry and art

Industrial uses of agate exploit its hardness, ability to retain a highly polished surface finish and resistance to chemical attack. It has traditionally been used to make knife-edge bearings for laboratory balances and precision pendulums, and sometimes to make mortars and pestles to crush and mix chemicals. It has also been used for centuries for leather burnishing tools.

The decorative arts use it to make ornaments such as pins, brooches or other types of jewellery, paper knives, inkstands, marbles and seals. Agate is also still used today for decorative displays, cabochons, beads, carvings and Intarsia art as well as face-polished and tumble-polished specimens of varying size and origin. Idar-Oberstein was one of the centers which made use of agate on an industrial scale. Where in the beginning locally found agates were used to make all types of objects for the European market, this became a globalized business around the turn of the 20th century: Idar-Oberstein imported large quantities of agate from Brazil, as ship's ballast. Making use of a variety of proprietary chemical processes, they produced colored beads that were sold around the globe.[11] Agates have long been used in arts and crafts. The sanctuary of a Presbyterian church in Yachats, Oregon, has six windows with panes made of agates collected from the local beaches.[12]

Health impact

Respiratory diseases such as silicosis and higher incidence of tuberculosis among workers involved in the agate industry have been reported from India and China.[14][15][16]

See also


  1. Donald W. Hyndman, David D. Alt (2002). Roadside Geology of Oregon (18th ed.). Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company. p. 286. ISBN 978-0-87842-063-6.
  2. "Agate Creek Agate". Archived from the original on 16 July 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-01.
  3. "Achates". Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  4. C. Michael Hogan. 2007. Knossos fieldnotes, Modern Antiquarian
  5. "Geodes: The rocks with a crystal surprise inside!". Retrieved 2018-05-15.
  6. Brays, Karen. "Customer Agate Finds". Gitche Gumee Museum. Retrieved 18 April 2018.
  7. Polk, Patti (2016). Collecting Rocks, Gems and Minerals: Identification, Values and Lapidary Uses. F+W Media, Inc. p. 80. ISBN 9781440246159.
  8. Plodowski, G., and Werner, R.; Achate: Kleine Senckenberg-Reihe, No. 12 (1981), p. 34, fig. 20
  9. O'Donoghue, M.; Quartz, Butterworth-Heinemann (1987), p. 82. ISBN 978-0408014625
  10. "Socio-Cultural Impacts of Water Resource Development in the Santiam River Basin" (PDF). Oregon State University: Water Resources Research Institute. October 1970. p. 9. Retrieved February 19, 2012.
  11. Background Article on Idar Oberstein
  12. "Agate Windows - Community Presbyterian Church". Archived from the original on 1 March 2012. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  13. Beltrán, Antonio (1984). El Santo Cáliz de la Catedral de Valencia (in Spanish) (2 ed.). Valencia: Nacher.
  14. Chaudhury, Nayanjeet; Phatak, Ajay; Paliwal, Rajiv (January 2012). "Co-morbidities among silicotics at Shakarpur: A follow up study". Lung India. 29 (1): 6–10. doi:10.4103/0970-2113.92348. PMC 3276038. PMID 22345906.
  15. Jiang, CQ; Xiao, LW; Lam, TH; Xie, NW; Zhu, CQ (July 2001). "Accelerated silicosis in workers exposed to agate dust in Guangzhou, China". American Journal of Industrial Medicine. 40 (1): 87–91. doi:10.1002/ajim.1074. PMID 11439400.
  16. Tiwari, RR; Narain, R; Sharma, YK; Kumar, S (September 2010). "Comparison of respiratory morbidity between present and ex-workers of quartz crushing units: Healthy workers' effect". Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 14 (3): 87–90. doi:10.4103/0019-5278.75695. PMC 3062020. PMID 21461160.


  • Cross, Brad L. and Zeitner, June Culp. Geodes: Nature's Treasures. Bardwin Park, California, Gem Guides Book Co. 2005.
  • Hart, Gilbert "The Nomenclature of Silica", American Mineralogist, Volume 12, pages 383–395, 1927
  • International Colored Gemstone Association, "Agate: banded beauty"
  • "Agate",, Hudson Institute of Mineralogy
  • Moxon, Terry. Agate: Microstructure and Possible Origin. Doncaster, S. Yorks, UK, Terra Publications, 1996.
  • Pabian, Roger, et al. Agates: Treasures of the Earth. Buffalo, New York, Firefly Books, 2006.
  • Schumann, Walter. Gemstones of the World. 3rd edition. New York: Sterling, 2006.
  • "Agates", School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (retrieved 27 December 2014).
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