Carnelian vs Agate – The Similarities and Differences (With Photos)

By Keith Jackson - Geologist

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Carnelian vs Agate – The Similarities and Differences (With Photos)

By Keith Jackson - Geologist


At first glance, carnelian and agate might look very different. After all, the first one glows warmly like a sunset, while the latter is designed with layers upon layers like the rings of a tree.

But if you dig a little deeper and compare carnelian vs agate closely, you’ll find that they share a lot of characteristics. If you’re wondering how two rocks that seem so unlike be the same, you’re in for a treat!

In this article, we’re going to embark on a journey to explore the world of differences between carnelian and agate and to discover their handful of similarities.

Not only will we learn what makes carnelian and agate unique from each other, but also how they are chapters of the same fascinating geological story. Let’s begin!

Carnelian vs Agate – The Major Differences

You might think the differences between carnelian and agate are easy to see from the outside, but did you know that these two are more different in aspects beyond their looks?

Color – Agate has bands and waves of different colors

An amazing agate with bands of orange, red, yellow, white, and brown
Agate photo provided by and available for purchase at MouStones

When you look at carnelian, it’s like staring into the warm flames of a campfire.

This stone is known for its rich, cozy colors that make you think of autumn leaves or the glowing embers of a fire.

Think of the shades you’d see in a slice of ripe mango or a setting sun. It’s always dressed in shades of orange, red, and sometimes even a deep, chocolatey brown. Its color is usually pretty even, without changes as you turn it in your hand.

Agate, on the other hand, doesn’t just stick to one color. It shows off lots of different colors, and it does this in cool, wavy lines and bands.

Picture a stone with layers like a cake, each one a different flavor— that’s what looking at agate is like.

You might see stripes of white, then a band of blue, followed by layers of green and even pink. It’s like each agate stone is a collection of mini landscapes.

Luster – Carnelian has a waxy luster

Five peices of raw carnelian on a wooden platter
Carnelians photo provided by and available for purchase at SKGemsNBeads

When you hold a piece of carnelian up to the light, it has a kind of glow that seems to come from inside it, kind of like a wax candle. This is because it has what we call a waxy luster.

It’s not super shiny like a mirror, but it has a soft, smooth shine that makes it look nice, especially when it’s made into jewelry.

As for agate, it’s a bit of a different story. Since it has all those bands, the shine can look different depending on which band you’re looking at.

Some bands might be a little bit see-through and have a glassy shine, while others could be more cloudy and have a less shiny, more satin-like finish. This mix of shiny and less shiny bands all in one stone makes it super interesting to look at.

So, while carnelian has a consistent, waxy shine that makes it warm and inviting, agate’s luster is like a mixtape of shiny and subdued, all working together to show off the stone’s unique personality.

Density – Agate’s density can vary depending on its bands’s composition

Half-nodule of a banded agate
Agate photo provided by and available for purchase at PargemStone

Carnelian and agate might look like they could be the same on the inside because they’re both kinds of quartz, but they can have different densities.

Carnelian is pretty straightforward. It’s usually just one color, right? This simplicity goes all the way through the stone, and that means its density is usually pretty consistent.

If you had a bunch of carnelian marbles, they’d all feel about the same weight in your hand. But, the iron that colors it can make it a little lighter or heavier, although you might not feel the difference unless you had a super accurate scale.

Agate is more of a wild card. Remember how it has all those layers? Those layers can have different stuff in them, like water or minerals, that can change how heavy the rock feels.

If you had a bunch of agate marbles, you might find some that feel heavier or lighter, even if they’re the same size as the carnelian ones.

Composition – Carnelian is made of silica and iron

Pieces of raw carnelians on a petri dish
Carnelians photo provided by and available for purchase at RhodopeMinerals

Both carnelian and agate start with the same base ingredient: silica, which is a common mineral that makes up a lot of the earth’s crust.

But just like a chocolate chip cookie becomes something else when you add raisins instead of chocolate, carnelian and agate get their own flavors from extra ingredients.

Carnelian’s got iron oxide, and that’s what gives it its awesome red, orange, and brown colors. It’s a simple composition: silica plus iron equals carnelian.

But agate is a more complicated one. It’s got silica, but then it’s also got a whole bunch of other mineral mix-ins that give it its bands and colors. These extra ingredients can be anything from iron to manganese.

So, even though these two are sort of like mineral siblings, their compositions have different twists. Carnelian’s got that one big punch of iron, while agate is more like a mineral party, with all sorts of different elements hanging out in its layers.

Formation – Agate forms layer by layer in rocks’ spaces and cracks

A bold red Lake Superior agate with bands and swirls of white, yellow, and orange
Lake Superior Agate photo provided by The Agate Dude

Carnelian forms when silica-rich water finds its way into deep cracks and spaces underground. The space gets filled up, and then with a lot of time and a bit of heat from the earth’s belly, the liquid turns into a solid, turning into this rock.

The iron in the mix is like food coloring that gives it that orange or red tint. It’s a pretty simple process, like freezing popsicles.

Agate’s a bit more like making a fancy layer cake. You’ve got that same silica starting the process, but it happens over and over again, adding layer after layer in the cracks and spaces inside rocks.

Each layer might have a little different flavor, maybe a sprinkle of this mineral or a dash of that one, and that’s what makes those awesome bands.

These two start with the same stuff, but time, pressure, and a pinch of this or that mineral give you two totally different kinds of rock.

Fluorescence – Carnelian does not fluoresce

A 2-pound red carnelian nodule
Carnelian photo provided by Chris Sims

When we flip on a black light in a dark room, some rocks can light up in funky colors. This trick is called fluorescence. But not all rocks exhibit this, so let’s see how different agate vs carnelian is when it comes to this.

Carnelian is more of a stay-in-the-shadows kind of rock. If you shine a black light on it, it’s just going to sit there, not glowing or anything.

That’s because the iron that gives carnelian its orange color doesn’t fluoresce.

Agate, on the other hand, loves the spotlight and sometimes shows off with a glow under a black light. Since it can have all sorts of different minerals inside, some of them can get pretty flashy when you hit them with a UV ray.

It’s not always a sure thing, though. Some agate rocks might just give a little twinkle, while others can light up like a neon sign, all because of what’s mixed in there.

Location – Agate can be found everywhere

A polished fire agate from Arizona
Fire Agate photo provided by Muhammad Haris

Carnelian and agate are both found around the world, but they pop up in different places.

Carnelian is often found in places like India, Brazil, and Uruguay. These countries have just the right conditions underground for this rock to form.

And if you’re wondering where to find carnelian within the U.S., you can check out our article on that. You can also read our guide to finding gems near you for more information.

Agate, meanwhile, is everywhere. You might find it in Brazil and Uruguay too, but it’s also in a bunch of other countries. From the United States to Madagascar, it’s like each country has its own flavor of agate.

That’s because it can form in all sorts of places where there are the right kinds of rocks for it to grow in. To find agate near you, refer to our article. We also recommend checking out our guide to the best rockhounding locations in the U.S.

Price – Carnelian is generally more affordable

A bunch of raw, orange-red carnelians
Carnelians photo provided by celestial studios

Like many other things in store, when we’re talking about carnelian and agate, there’s a bit of a price tag difference between them.

Since carnelian is usually found in larger amounts and doesn’t have all those fancy patterns that agate has, it’s generally more affordable.

It’s not going to break the bank, and you can find it at a pretty good price most of the time. To give you an idea of carnelian’s price point, check out this article.

On the other hand, agate can get pricier, especially if it’s got unique patterns or colors that make it stand out. The value of agate depends a lot on how it looks.

It can come in all sorts of cool designs, like with crazy stripes or swirls, and sometimes it even has little scenes inside it, like a picture made by nature. And just like anything else that’s got something special going on, those can cost you more.

Carnelian vs Agate – The Similarities

As we’ve said above, carnelian and agate have a fair share of similarities between them, even if their looks don’t easily give it away. Below are the major categories where these two agree on:

Crystal structure – Agate and carnelian have microcrystalline structures

Agate with amazingly colorful bandings and patterns from north Ankara, Turkiye
Agate photo provided by Turkish Agate Stones

When you’re building something out of blocks, the shape of the blocks doesn’t change, even if you’re making different things with them.

This is a bit like how carnelian and agate are made up of the same tiny building blocks, even though they end up looking quite different when you see them as whole rocks.

These building blocks are crystals. Both carnelian and agate are made from silica, which is the stuff you find in sand. Imagine if each grain of sand was a tiny crystal; that’s what’s going on inside these rocks.

The cool part is that even though these two rocks look different on the outside, their crystals are arranged in a very similar way. Their crystals form in a pattern called the hexagonal crystal system. It’s like a honeycomb or the shape of a pencil.

Both their crystals line up in this hexagonal way, which is why they’re called microcrystalline. Even though carnelian might be all one color and agate has stripes, underneath it all, they’re not so different.

Cleavage – Carnelian and agate do not have cleavage

A 1.5 pound raw, orange carnelian
Carnelian photo provided by Chris Sims

In the world of rocks, cleavage is all about how a mineral breaks. If you’ve ever tried to break a piece of wood, you know it splits easier along the grain than against it.

Minerals can be like that too, but here’s the thing about carnelian and agate— they both don’t have cleavage.

When you try to snap carnelian or agate, they break into a conchoidal fracture. This means they break off into smooth, curved surfaces, kind of like how a piece of thick glass would. If you’ve ever seen a shard from a glass bottle, you’ve got the idea.

Whether you’re looking at a piece of carnelian or agate, they’re going to break the same way. They don’t have any natural breaking points or flat cleavage planes.

So, imagine you’re holding a piece of carnelian and a piece of agate, and you drop them both. Chances are, they’re going to chip and break off in curvy, shell-like patterns.

Hardness – Agate and carnelian are both pretty tough

A Lake Superior agate with dominant color of gray and bandings of white, orange, red, and brown
Lake Superior agate photo provided by Alex Sample

If you’ve ever tried scratching your name onto a rock with another rock, you’ve tested hardness without even knowing it. Hardness is all about which rocks can scratch which.

Interestingly, carnelian and agate have the same level of hardness. Both of them are pretty tough. They can scratch glass and even metal, like a steel knife.

That’s because they’re both a 7 on the Mohs hardness scale. To give you an idea, a diamond is a perfect 10, while talc is down at 1.

Carnelian and agate being a 7 means they’re at the higher ranking of hardness. You could have a carnelian and an agate in your pocket, bump into a table, and they’d survive without a scratch.

That’s why they’re both great for making jewelry that lasts a long time, like an heirloom necklace or ring.

Streak – Both carnelian and agate have white streaks

Two pieces of raw carnelians
Carnelians photo provided by Crystal Celestial Jewellery

Have you ever used a marker on paper, and then dragged your finger across it to see the streak it leaves behind? Geologists do something similar with rocks. They rub them on a streak plate to see the color of their streak.

Carnelian and agate, no matter what color they are on the outside, both leave the same streak color behind.

It’s kind of surprising, especially when you think about how bright red or orange carnelian is and how agate can have all sorts of colors in its bands. But if you were to rub them on an unglazed porcelain plate, they would both leave a white streak.

This happens because, despite all their outside differences, at their core, they’re made of the same stuff, which is silica. And when it comes to streaks, silica is going to show its true color, which is white.

It’s a neat trick that shows how two rocks can look so different on the surface but still share something in common when you get down to their basics.

Magnetism – Neither agate nor carnelian is magnetic

A Laguna agate with prominent gray color and bands of black, brown, yellow, orange, and white
Laguna agate photo provided by Jan

If you tried to stick a piece of carnelian or agate to a magnet, you’d find that they won’t cling to it. That’s because they are both not magnetic.

This is because they’re both made mostly of silica, which doesn’t have magnetic properties. So, whether you have a red piece of carnelian or a banded piece of agate, if you put a magnet near them, they just sit there, not moving an inch.

It’s interesting because even if carnelian has iron in it, which is a metal we think of as magnetic, it’s locked up in the silica. It’s not free to move around and react to a magnet.

Meanwhile, agate, with all its different layers and colors, also doesn’t have enough free-floating magnetic material to be attracted to magnets.

The lack of magnetism in carnelian and agate means if you’re using a magnet to find them, it won’t be much help.

Conductivity – Neither carnelian nor agate is a conductor

A beautiful, radiant, waxy orange carnelian
Carnelian photo provided by Chris Sims

Conductivity is all about how well materials can pass along electricity. If you’re looking at how conductive carnelian and agate are, you’ll find that they don’t conduct electricity at all.

Both of these stones are types of quartz, and quartz is made mostly of silicon dioxide. This material is really good at not letting electricity flow through it.

That’s how carnelian and agate react to electricity. They’re like insulators, which are materials that block the flow of electricity.

This is a handy feature in the world of minerals. Since they don’t conduct electricity, carnelian and agate can be used in various jewelry and decorative items without any risk of conducting electricity and shocking someone.

The Easiest Ways To Tell Carnelian and Agate Apart

A condor agate with stunning banding from Argentina
Condor agate photo provided by Ryan Bowlin

Now that we’ve gone though the differences and similarities of carnelian and agate, allow us to give you some tips on how you can tell these two apart in an actual situation.

Here, you’ll see how easy it is to decipher carnelian from agate and vice versa.

Examine its colors

Colors can be a big giveaway when you’re trying to figure out if you’ve got carnelian or agate in your hand.

Carnelian has this kind of one-note tune when it comes to its palette. It sticks to warm colors, from deep reds to soft browns.

Agate is the opposite, a stone with a flair for the dramatic when it comes to colors. It’s got all the different shades of a sunset after a storm: pinks, blues, purples, even grays.

Observe its pattern

If you have a stone with a solid look, no stripes, no layers, just pure, even color, that’s your hint that it might be carnelian. It’s straightforward, with no frills— just smooth sailing from one side to the other.

Carnelian doesn’t do patterns. It’s all about that one strong color, bold and beautiful, without any interruptions.

On the flip side, if you’re looking at a stone and it’s got bands, think of agate. It shows off lines that can be straight, curved, or even a bit wavy. They wrap around the stone, sometimes looking like they’re stacked on top of each other.

Feel its texture

If you touch a stone and it’s as smooth as a bowling ball all over, with no bumps or grooves, that’s a big clue that you might have carnelian. Its texture is consistent and even, just like its color, and it feels the same from one end to the other.

Now, if you’re handling a stone and you can feel ridges or grooves, like the stone has natural layers, that’s a telltale sign of agate. Its bands aren’t just a visual treat; they can often be felt as well.

Each stripe might rise a little above or sink a little below the next, giving you a mini landscape to explore with your fingertips.

About Keith Jackson - Geologist

Keith Jackson is an avid rockhound who is constantly exploring new sites to expand his collection. He is an active Geologist with a wealth of experience and information from across the country that he loves to share with the Rock Chasing crew.

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