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At its best, spectrolite, a type of labradorite first found in Finland, looks like a cross between black opal and ammolite—the world’s two best-known spectral color-play gems (hence the name). This similarity helps to explain why many of the miners of this feldspar have been Australians keen on providing an opal impersonator at a fraction of the cost.

And by fraction, I mean a tiny sliver. “When spectrolite has everything going for it,” says lapidary Jason Penn, based in Tijeras, New Mexico, 25 miles east of Albuquerque, “we’re talking $100 per stone.”

Indeed, the price gap between spectrolite and black opal is so vast that one wonders why the former isn’t better known—just by dint of being such a bargain beauty.

Alas, low price is a two-edge sword. Spectrolite fetches so little money that miners can no longer afford to extract it from the tundra-like environs in Finland in which it is found. With diesel fuel now at nearly $10 per gallon in Scandinavia, production, which depends heavily on heavy machinery, is a losing proposition. Supplies that were considerable five years ago have dwindled to nearly nothing.

“The only people you’re going to find with backlogs of fine material are those who have been into spectrolite for a long time,” says Penn.

Spectrolite first appeared in meaningful quantities during the early 1990s. Now, Penn admits, he doesn’t cut as much of the material as he used to—“in part,” he explains, “because there’s not much left and in part because I don’t get the calls I used to.”

Given the fact that spectrolite is a challenge to cut, Penn says spending less time cabbing this gem isn’t causing him grief. But there is clearly a part of him that misses the labors of labradorite. Just based on the difficulties of cutting spectrolite, the gem seems woefully underpriced.

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Spectrolite, 22 x 38 x 33mm, cut by Jason Penn,, courtesy of Jeff Graham of Gram Faceting & Gram Cabbing, (520) 241-4543,

Photo by Jim Lawson