Gemstone Primer - Opals, Part I

Have you ever noticed how some gems just seem to have a kind of mystique about them?   For me, one of those gemstones is the opal.  It has it's own lore; a number of varieties and just like its wearer, no two are ever alike!

And, apparently I'm not the only one who loves this amazing gemstone because a number of designers have been coming out with new lines featuring the chameleon-like stone.  But, one of my personal favorites is Laurie Kaiser (to read my Feature Friday Q&A with Laurie, click here). 

So what draws artists to the opal?  Well, according to Kaiser, "Their one-of-a-kindness definitely!  Each opal is unique and that's very important to me, and to those who collect opal jewelry.  It makes the hunt for the perfect opal so personal and so much fun!  I also love that they can be found in a glorious range of blues and greens, my favorite gem colors. Reds are highly prized in opals, and they're extremely beautiful, but I lean toward the seafoams, cobalts, azures and aquas."

"Nautilopalus" featuring the Boulder Opal by Laurie Kaiser.

Speaking of highly-prized opals, according to Jim Pisani, editor of the American Opal Society, "If you go by cost, the most expensive opal (and usually the rarest) is the red-on-black black opal with a harlequin or some other unusual pattern.   These opals can cost thousands of dollars per carat.  Other rare opals are those that are unique fossils."

Like sapphires and garnets, opals come in a variety of colors and can be found in a many different parts of the world from Mexico to Australia.  But what are the varieties that are most commonly used in jewelry?

Genuine 9.06ct. black opal cocktail ring in 14k white & yellow gold from WIlson Brothers.

Well, according to Pisani, those main categories of opals that are commonly seen in jewelry are:
  • Precious Opal – general type of opal that has a play-of-color (aka iridescent). 
  • Fire Opal – Type of opal that does not have play of color but is valuable and used for jewelry.  In the trade this is almost always Mexican opal (other sources exist) and is an orange or red transparent stone that can be faceted or cabochoned.
  • Manufactured Opal – These are primarily called "doublets" or "triplets."
  • Lab-created Opal – Man-made opal.   This type of opal is quite prevalent in cheaper jewelry and is seen everywhere.  It is typically inlayed in silver.
Opal & 18kt yellow gold earrings by Laurie Kaiser.

For now, let's focus on 'precious opal' which has several sub-types: 
  • Crystal Opal – precious opal that is clear.
  • White Opal – precious opal hat is translucent or opaque opal that has a white background – e.g. Australian Coober Pedy opal – probably the most common opal in the trade.
  • Black Opal -– precious opal hat is translucent or opaque opal that has a black background – e.g. Australian Lightning Ridge opal – probably the most common opal in the trade.
  • Boulder Opal – this type of opal comes from Queensland Australia and is a “natural doublet” opal, where a very thin layer of precious opal coats a hard brown rock called ironstone.  The opal is cut with an ironstone substrate and is considered as valuable as a solid opal and is accepted as such.
  • Ethiopian Opal – This is a new strike of opal in the past 5 years that has flooded the market and is quite prevalent now.  The early opal was a chocolate brown opal in geodes – this opal is beautiful but not jewelry grade because it crazes and should be avoided.  The opal coming out lately is called “Welo” or "Wello."  It is very beautiful and most of the opal is crystal, but there are some black substrates.  It has tremendous flash and has a variety of colors and has some unique patterns.
14k Art Deco Filigree natural blue opal pinfire opal ring found on eBay.

For Kaiser's newest design line, called "Diamonds in the Stream," she almost exclusively uses the Boulder Opal as the centerpiece of her designs.  Why the Boulder Opal?  Well, according to Kaiser because "there are some wonderful patterns that really appeal to me in the boulder opals of Queensland, Australia. It's amazing what you can see in them...tidal pools, ocean waves, rainbows, storms over water, blue skies. Nature is very well represented in the boulder opal." 

"A River Runs Through It" Boulder Opal & diamonds wrapped in 18k yellow gold on an
oxidized sterling silver chain by Laurie Kaiser.

Pisani agrees, there are "quite a number of things [about the opal that capture the imagination]:  It’s beautiful play of color.  A lot of gemstones look alike  (e.g. diamonds) but no two opals are alike.  That fact is that it changes its look as a function of the angle looking it.  Remember, the best opal has the brightest color flash."

A vintage 18kt white gold filigree engagement ring found on eBay.

Kaiser said that when she's looking at an opal, she is "sometimes struck by an opal's fire, depth and brightness. Sometimes [she] can't resist its bold color. And sometimes [she's] won over by an opal's soft, calm pastel hues paired with just a subtle gleam. You're always seeing something you haven't seen before in opals. That's the beauty of natural gems."

"Opal Color Story Cuff" by Laurie Kaiser featuring a boulder opal wrapped
in 18kt yellow gold, set with diamonds on an oxidized band.

Flash isn't the only thing that makes every opal unique.  But you'll have to wait until Wednesday's Part II post to find out even more specifics about working, collecting and caring for these amazing stones! 

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  1. It's Wonderful.. Thank you for spreading such a special and different information about Opal Gemstone Beads.. Great Job!!


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