There are many things I love about being a jeweler, but one of my very favorite things is going to a gem show. I feel the need to handpick the gems that I use in my jewelry work- they need to speak to me, and I must see and touch them to get inspired with ideas for new creations. The infinite variety and beauty of nature’s mineral world never ceases to amaze me- I can get lost for hours looking at gems, minerals and fossils. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, a new material comes on the market and rocks my world (excuse the pun!).
Before I started working with gems, I was under the misconception that opals were always white, semi-transparent stones with some tiny specks of color, nothing dramatic, and nothing to get all that excited about. How wrong I was! Opals, I’ve found, come in an amazing variety of colors and forms and from many parts of the world. I’d like to share with you some of these beautiful stones, all from my own collection. I’ll show some examples of my finished work utilizing a few different kinds of opals as well.
Australia produces most of the world’s supply of precious opal, and it is the country’s national gemstone. Every variety of opal is found in Australia, some of which are detailed below.
White opal, which is the one most Americans are familiar with, probably because it is one of the most common types of opal, is only one type of opal mined in Australia. The white opal is generally milky-white or yellow-tinged. Because it is so light, any flash of color contained in it appears less bright than in other types of opals, which are darker (except crystal opals, which are more translucent), and therefore allow the bright colors to stand out. Black opals are the rarest of all opals and are the only type of opal with trace elements of carbon and iron oxide that give them their dark body color against which the other colors, such as greens, blues, pinks, purples, and gold flash with such dramatic intensity. Mintabie in South Australia is where some of the finest black opals are found.
Boulder opals are only found in Queensland, especially in Quilpie, but other gorgeous varieties of boulder opals such as Yowah opals and Koroit opals, named for the areas where they’re mined, are also from Queensland. Boulder opals are more stable than other varieties, as they are formed in cracks of ironstone and are usually cut with the ironstone matrix present. If the cutter has a good eye, he or she will cut the rough stone to take advantage of the best areas of opal vein contrasting with the surrounding ironstone, achieving remarkable patterns in the cut gem. Pictured here is a silver and gold ring with a boulder opal and three very fine pair of boulder opals from my collection: a Yowah “nut”, a pair I believe to be from Quilpie, and an amazing pair of Koroit boulder opals which to me has an Art Nouveau feel in the pattern of opal veins against the dark ironstone.
The main body of crystal opals is transparent or semi-transparent. Mintabie produces much of the gem-quality crystal opal available on the market. Lightning Ridge, in New South Wales, is where the opals in the necklace shown here were mined. The stones were cut, drilled, and polished in Hong Kong, in an unusual “fang tooth” shape, and the beads were strung on blue silk and finished with an 18K gold clasp I made to echo the shape of the stones. Also pictured here is a very fine loose crystal opal.
Some incredible fossil opals are to be found in Australia. I once worked for Australian opal dealers at the Tucson, AZ gem show- they had found an extremely rare fossilized dinosaur rib bone replaced with opal and I got to see it before it was sold to a collector. At the same show I’ve seen gorgeous pieces of fossilized wood with opalized sections- one day I hope to have such a thing for my “museum”! And I’m still kicking myself for not buying the beautiful fossil opalized clam from Australia I saw again in Tucson- I’ve seen other opalized clams since, but none as nice, and at $100 USD, it was a steal. Oh well, I hope it went to a good home!
Opals from Other Areas
Transparent or translucent opals in orange, red, yellow, and yellow-orange colors from Mexico are known as fire opals. They don’t usually show any play of color, although some of the best ones will exhibit bright colored flashes. Pictured here is a bright orange, faceted Mexican fire opal of 2 carats. Transparent opals from Mexico, usually in a matrix of rhyolite, come in a variety of colors including oranges, greens, green-blues, and yellows- these are known as Mexican jelly opals.
Jelly opals are also found in Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon. They are transparent with overtones of lavender, yellow, orange, browns, and blues. The teardrop shaped yellow-orange jelly opal and the large jelly opal egg (weighing 1,483 carats!!) are both from Opal Butte, Oregon. The commercial mines there have been closed for over 100 years as the opal is mined out, but until recently, rock hounds were able to find some nice material. Now the area is closed to rock hunters as well.
Peruvian opal, which is known as blue opal, though it also comes in pale pink, is a semi-opaque to opaque stone. This type of opal does not display pleochroism, which is the property of a crystal to absorb different frequencies of light from different angles, giving the change of color, or flash, seen in many opals when they are turned. Pictured here is a ring in 22K and 18K gold with a rare Peruvian blue opal; rare because the stone includes no black veins and displays a uniformity of color. Also shown is a pair of earrings in 22K with bright blue Peruvian opals with the more common black veining.
Opals were discovered in Ethiopia in the early 1990s. Much of the early finds were dark opals with chocolate brown or reddish body colors, including the lovely “cola color” opals, an example of which is shown here, still in its matrix, and exhibiting amazing pinpoints of red and green flashes. In 2008, new opal sources were discovered in the Welo province in northern Ethiopia rivaling some of the finest Australian crystal opals. An example of an Ethiopian crystal opal is this one with bright orange, red, and green flashes.
Opals and Folklore
Opals today are often associated with misfortune and superstition has it that unless opal is your birthstone (if you were born in October), then it is unlucky for you to wear it. Where this superstition comes from is open to debate; it seems to have arisen in the 19th century, as opals prior to then were viewed as auspicious, and one of the opal’s properties was to preserve the wearer from disease- as such, it was used as an amulet since antiquity. Perhaps the nature of the stone itself, which is inherently brittle and prone to crazing and cracking, contributed to the negative association- for opals have a high water content, and can crack over time if exposed to dry conditions, even if not worn. A good treatment for opals is to periodically coat them with a little bit of pure mineral oil on a soft cloth and keep them away from strong sunlight. Some opals are less resistant to fracture than others- the boulder opals for instance are much more durable because of the strong ironstone matrix.
Mother: Come, let me place a charm upon thy brow,
And may good spirits grant, that never care
Approach, to trace a single furrow there!
Daughter: Thy love, my mother, better far than charm,
Shall shield thy child- and yet this wondrous gem
Looks as though some strange influence it had won
From the bright skies- for every rainbow hue
Shouts quivering through its depths in changeful gleams,
Like the mild lightening of a summer eve.
Mother: Even so doth love pervade a mother’s heart;
Thus, ever active, looks through her fond eyes.
– From Gems of Beauty by the Countess of Blessington, London, 1836
Note to the reader about the stones and jewelry pictured here:
All of the loose opals pictured here are available for purchase, and with the exception of the larger mineral specimens, are available to be set in a custom piece of jewelry. Please contact me for specifics including prices. The items of finished jewelry shown here have been sold, with the exception of the Australian opal necklace and the Peruvian opal earrings, which are still available. Those (and more of my handmade jewelry and unique gemstones) may be seen on my website at http://www.sarafinjewelry.com. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or if you are interested in a particular stone or a custom designed piece of jewelry. Dimensions for stones are given length x width at widest point x depth, plus total carat weight.