Fairburn Agate: South Dakota, Banded Thrill

Fairburn Agate is a type of agate distinguished by its exceptionally complex and irregular banding. Unlike regular banded agate, Fairburn agate features scallops, sharp angles, and intricate curving patterns. These agates often contain inclusions, adding to their unique character. 

When polished, Fairburn agates can exhibit spectacular displays of color, with some boasting the most striking and bold patterns found anywhere in the world. In fact, Fairburn agate, named after its discovery location in South Dakota and it is the state's official gemstone.

Fairburn agate is a variety of fortification agate, Prized for its exceptional rarity and captivating beauty.

Finding a Fairburn Agate is considered quite an achievement for rockhounds. Some collectors spend years searching without ever encountering one.


Fairburn Agate:
Fairburn Agates, South Dakota
Photo on the left by: James St. John
Photo on the right by: The Agate Dude

Fairburn Agate Properties

Fairburn agates, like many other gemstones, boast a fascinating array of properties that contribute to their beauty and value. Here's a closer look:

Physical Properties

Composition: Primary: Silicon Dioxide (SiO₂) - Chalcedony (microcrystalline quartz). This microcrystalline structure, where crystals are too small to be seen individually, is what gives Fairburn agates their distinctive waxy or greasy luster.

Color: Fairburn agates come in a stunning array of colors, including tan, brown, yellow, red, orange, blue, green, black, and white. They often exhibit multiple colors within a single agate, creating a beautiful banded effect.

Transparency: Fairburn agates can range from translucent to nearly opaque. The transparency often varies within the same agate, with some layers appearing more translucent than others.

Luster: The luster of Fairburn agates can be waxy, greasy, or vitreous, depending on the specific agate and the presence of a polish.

Habit: Fairburn agates have a massive habit, meaning they don't form in distinct crystals with defined external shapes. Fairburn agates can be found in various shapes and sizes, ranging from pebbles to nodules. They are typically smooth and rounded due to tumbling in streams and rivers over time.

Hardness: Fairburn agates, like other agates, rank 6.5 to 7 on Mohs scale of mineral hardness. This makes them relatively hard and durable for gemstones.

Density: Fairburn agates have a density of around 2.6 g/cm³, which is a measurement of mass per unit volume.

Fairburn agates
Fairburn agates, From South Dakota
Photo: Captain Tenneal "Tom Shearer"

Optical Properties

Fluorescence: Some Fairburn agates may exhibit a weak fluorescence under ultraviolet (UV) light. This means they might glow faintly when exposed to UV rays.

Refractive Index: The refractive index of Fairburn agates is around 1.53 - 1.54. This value indicates how much light bends as it passes through the agate, influencing its optical properties.

Inclusions: Fairburn agates may sometimes contain inclusions of other minerals, such as calcite or dolomite. These inclusions can add unique visual interest to the agate and can even be diagnostic of their origin or formation process.

What do agates look like on the Outside

Unpolished agates can look quite different on the outside than the beautiful, colorful stones they reveal on the inside. They often appear unremarkable, like ordinary rocks. They can be rough and uneven, with a dull or matte texture. Their colors can be quite varied, ranging from browns and grays to yellows and reds. They may also have a waxy or greasy luster.


Raw unpolished fairburn agates

Raw unpolished Fairburn agates. Often rough and (tan, brown, yellow),
they hold hidden beauty within.
Trained eyes seek subtle clues like banding or a waxy luster.


Where can I find Fairburn Agate?

Fairburn agates are found in the agate beds of Southwestern South Dakota and Northwestern Nebraska, particularly in a wide band extending from east of Rapid City through the Badlands National Monument, and along the White River and Cheyenne River breaks into the northwest tip of Nebraska (north of Crawford), and extending a few miles east into Wyoming.

Fairburn Agate Rockhounding

The most popular spot for finding Fairburn agates is primarily in the grasslands of southwestern South Dakota, near the town of Fairburn (where they were first discovered, hence the name). This region, particularly the area around the town of Fairburn and the Buffalo Gap Grasslands, is a prime location for Fairburn agate hunting. Erosion by wind and water continually exposes new areas where these agates might be found.

Some specific locations:

  • The Kern Agate Beds: Located east of Fairburn, South Dakota, this is the most famous spot for Fairburn agates and is considered the type locality for this gemstone.
  • Buffalo Gap Grasslands: This vast expanse of grasslands in South Dakota offers a wide area to search for Fairburn agates, with new finds being exposed all the time due to erosion.
  • Oglala National Grasslands: Stretching into Nebraska, these grasslands offer another chance to find Fairburn agates exposed by the elements.
  • Areas east of Highway 79: Generally, the entire region east of Highway 79, from south of Rapid City down to the Badlands, has the potential to yield Fairburn agates.

Always remember to check regulations and obtain permits if required before collecting on public lands.

Private Lands: With landowner permission, some promising areas for Fairburn agates can be found on private property, especially near gravel pits along the Cheyenne River.

Fairburn agates in their natural state, South Dakota.
Fairburn agates in their natural state, scattered amongst field stones, South Dakota.
Photos by: tohnihdreahd

Fairburn agates

Close-up for the Fairburn agates from the previous image.
Photo by: tohnihdreahd

Identifying  Fairburn Agate

Recognizing and Identifying a Fairburn agate in the field among other rocks can be challenging, but here's your best shot:

Focus on the Bands

Focus on tight banding: Fairburn agates are known for their intricate patterns. The bands tend to be closer together compared to other agates, creating a more compact design.

Look for hints of vibrant colors: Even unpolished, Fairburn agates might show glimpses of red, orange, yellow, white, and sometimes black peeking through the rough exterior. These colors tend to be brighter than what you'd see on other common stones in the area. Even a faint suggestion of these colors within the unpolished bands is a good sign.

Check the Matrix

Check the non-banded area: The matrix, the unbanded part of the rock, is often jaspery in Fairburn agates. This can appear relatively opaque and dull compared to the potentially colorful bands.

Unpolished colors can be subtle: The true vibrancy of Fairburn agates is often hidden beneath the rough surface. Don't discard a rock solely based on muted colors.

Final Tips

  • Bring a hand lens: This can help you magnify the bands and see the colors in more detail. 
  • Compare with local agates: Research commonly found agates in your area. Fairburn agates can resemble Mexican agates, Tepee Canyon agates, and Dryhead agates. Look for the distinct features mentioned above, like tighter banding and less transparency, to differentiate them.
  • Compare to pictures: Take photos of your finds and compare them to pictures of unpolished Fairburn agates online or in a rockhounding guide.
  • Take photos for later reference: If you're unsure about a rock, take pictures from different angles and consult a rockhounding guide or online resources later for a more detailed analysis.

Ultimately, identifying Fairburn agates in the field takes practice. Don't get discouraged if you're not sure at first. Keep searching, compare your finds with reliable resources, and consult experienced rockhounds if possible. Happy hunting!

Fairburn agate

Can you spot the Fairburn agate? Fairburn agate in its natural state, found amongst other field stones. Fairburn agates can be challenging to identify due to their unassuming appearance before cleaning and polishing.
Photo on the left by: Eric Eckman
Photo on the right by: Bailey Rohrich

Fairburn Agate from South Dakota

Fairburn agates can blend in perfectly with their surroundings.
The Fairburn agates in the middle of the photo.
Photo by: Lane Joanna Jandreau

Identifying  Fairburn Agate

Fairburn agate hiding amongst the rocks. See its amazing t
ransformation after a cleaning (close up).
Photos: Bailey Rohrich

Fairburn Agates FAQ

Can I find Fairburn Agates myself?

Fairburn Agates can be found by rockhounding in permitted areas of the Black Hills and surrounding regions. However, due to their rarity, finding a high-quality Fairburn Agate can be challenging.

Are Fairburn Agates hard to find?

Yes, Fairburn Agates are considered rare and can be difficult to find, especially high-quality specimens. Even in areas where they are known to exist, successful rockhounding requires time, effort, and some knowledge of where to look.

What makes them rare?

The rarity of Fairburn Agates stems from a combination of factors. Firstly, the agate itself is not particularly common in the area. Secondly, the specific conditions needed to create the desired fortification banding are uncommon.

Read also:
Landscape Agate: Rare Type of Agate 
Copper Replacement Agate
Crazy Lace Agate

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