Polished Rainbow Obsidian.  Photo: La Roche Mère
 Polished Rainbow Obsidian.  Photo: La Roche Mère


Obsidian is a naturally occurring volcanic glass. It is formed during the eruption of felsic lavas, which are distinguished by having high concentrations of the chemical element silica. Because of their high silica content, felsic lavas do not behave like the mafic, or silica-poor, lavas we see on the island of Hawaii.

Silica forms bonds with oxygen in lava creating linked molecule chains. These linked molecule chains are called polymers and the process of forming them is called polymerization. Polymers increase the viscosity, or resistance to flow, of the lava.

Obsidian is dense volcanic glass, usually rhyolite in composition and typically black in color.  Obsidian with multicolored iridescence caused by inclusions of magnetite nanoparticles. Obsidian is often formed in rhyolite lava flows where the lava cools so fast that crystals do not have time to grow.

Glass, unlike crystals, has no regular structure and therefore fractures in smooth, curved shapes. The intersections of these fractures can form edges sharper than the finest steel blades. For this reason, obsidian was used by many native cultures to make arrowheads and blades. Even today, surgeons use the knife sharp edges in operations. 

California Rainbow obsidian