Gemstone Primer - Opals, Part II

In Monday's Part I of our Gemstone Primer on opals, Jim Pisani, editor of the American Opal Society and Laurie Kaiser (to read my original Feature Friday Q&A with Laurie, click here.) helped introduce us to some of the varieties of opals that are most commonly seen in jewelry.  But today's topics are going to include even more specifics about working with, collecting and caring for these amazing stones!  Not to mention, I have got even more opal eye candy for you!

When it comes to working with opals, there are a few things that artisans need to keep in mind.  Opals have the same hardness as glass on the Mohs scale - around 5 ½.  That means that they can be easily scratched.  The majority of dirt, rocks, etc. have a hardness of 7 (quartz).   

14k yellow gold & welo opal ring with diamond accents from eBay.

According to Pisani, opals can be "worn in all kinds of jewelry with no problems.   Pendants and bracelets usually have no problems.  Rings, however, can be an issue.  People can whack their ring opals with their hands against hard surfaces and crack and scratch them."  To prevent the opals in rings from getting scratch, cracked and so forth during daily wear, Pisani says that "the secret is in the setting – good opal jewelry for rings will have the highest point as the gold or silver of the setting in order to protect the opal.  Also, in general, bezel settings are more secure and protective than prong settings.  Prongs can apply pressure points that can fracture the setting.  The jeweler must also make sure that the back of the setting is flat and matches the back landscape of the opal so that no uneven pressure is applied."   

THis is one of Laurie Kaiser's personal favorites from her new collection, "Diamonds in the Stream."
She said she is "fascinated by this crescent-shaped boulder opal's ombre' effect. The color changes left to
right from dark forest green to brighter turquoise. I feel like I'm looking into an ocean lined with diamonds."

Even in a pendant setting, it's wise to protect the edges of the opals.  When creating her new line of opal designs, Kaiser wraps them in 18 kt. gold to protect them.  She looks for the opal to inspire her.

"There's always a place for extra special opals in my collection. I'm really enjoying wearing large boulder opals casually as pendants right now. They look wonderful wrapped in my textured 18k yellow gold and hung from a long blackened silver chain. Sometimes I frame them in diamonds or dot the opal itself with a a diamond or two. People will often say the diamonds look like stars in a blue opal sky or bright reflections on an opal lake. How can you not love that! Opals and diamonds together are pretty heady stuff!" Kaiser said.

Diamond & opal inlay bangle bracelet by Wilson Brothers in 14k yellow gold.

What is it about these soft, tender little gemstones that seem to capture the imagination?  Why are they, once again, going through a surge in popularity?  Personally, I think it's because they swirl around in our minds.  When we look at them, they can become anything depending on the light, angle and so forth.  Kaiser has a slightly different theory, "They're a dream come true for lovers of color. They feel fresh and contemporary even though they're older than time. Their one-of-a-kind preciousness gives them lasting value and collectibility. And they're show stealers! I adore that about them!"

So if you plan on collecting a few of these little scene-stealers, what else are some tidbits to keep in mind when evaluating a piece of opal jewelry?  

"Tender Opal" necklace by Laurie Kaiser wrapped in 18kt yellow gold with diamonds.

One of the biggies is to know what you're looking at.  Many times, opal jewelry will feature doublets and triplets.  These are considered “manufactured opals."   And although they are considered a means to improve an opal such as one that is a clear or crystal opal with has some transparency that may be too thin or not colorful enough to stand as a centerpiece, according to Pisani, they are typically worth about 1/10 of an equivalent looking solid opal.  

Pisani explains, "For a doublet, first the opal ground perfectly flat on one side and is cabochoned on the visible side. The flat side is glued with clear epoxy to a dark stone, usually black basalt, to provide a dark or black background. The dark background enhances the color in the opal to make it look like a more expensive stone.  Triplets are similar but the opal is usually too thin to be a doublet and is flattened on its top also.  A rounded polished quartz cap is then glued to the top with transparent epoxy to provide thickness and protection."

These amazing little daily wear bracelets by Laurie Kaiser feature opal doublets wrapped in 18k yellow gold
with diamond accents on a macreme bracelets.

So how do you know if you're looking at a manufactured opal?  The general rule of thumb, according to Pisani, is that if you cannot see the base of a stone in a setting or the back of a stone, where you can’t see the thin glue lines, it may be a doublet or triplet.  Another practice in opal jewelry is to blacken the back of stone with paint to improve its color as opposed to gluing a black stone to it.  It’s the same as a doublet from a price point of view.  This information is especially important when looking at vintage, estate or antique pieces since the maker, or a qualified jeweler, may not be present to examine the stone right away before you make the purchase.

When evaluating an estate opal, don't let a few little scratches turn you off from an otherwise stunning creation.  

"Vintage or antique opals sometimes have their surfaces scratched or faded due to years of use.  A good lapidarist can polish it in place and make it look new," said Pisani.

An estate piece from WIlson Brothers, this kabana opal & green tourmaline Ring is in 14k yellow gold.

Opals have been scene stealers since they were first discovered.  But even scene stealers require some careful handling and storage to be at their best!  Here are some storage tips from Pisani to help keep your opals in top condition:
  • Never store them in a safe deposit box.  The humidity is kept too low (1%) and has been known to dry the water content out of an opal.  
  • Opals should also not be stored in a hot, sun exposed area. 
  • You do not need to keep your opals in water.  An opal that is good quality will not dry out.  As a side note, the new Welo Opal is hydrophane meaning that it absorbs water.  When wet, it will turn clear and loose its color.  The color returns when it dries after a day or two.  
  • Avoid wearing your opals around harsh chemicals, detergents, etc.  They can dull it and/or absorb the chemicals, etc.  
  • Do not use ultrasound to clean opal jewelry.
With the proper care and handling, even an already antique opal can still have a long, dazzling new life as the scene stealer of your collection and a new design can become a beloved family heirloom!

Of course, this is my favorite design by Laurie Kaiser - probably because it's mine!

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  1. Opal is the one of most precious and rare type of stone look like as a white color of milk. To design the jewelry with opal is not so easy task you need a well experienced custom jewelry designer to design it. The pendant, rings and necklace with opal looks very precious and dazzling.


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