The fiery play of colours, in black, blue or red backdrop, has a hypnotic effect enough to mesmerise even the most disinterested spectator. It is one of the very few gemstones which is coveted both in its faceted and cabochon form. The gemstone derived its name from Sanskrit word upala which means a precious stone. Like many other gemstones, it was first mined in India before being transported by seafarers and merchants worldwide. I am talking of opals and its many coloured spellbinding beauty, to describe which it is better to borrow George Eliot’s words,
These gems have life in them: their colours speak, say what words fail of.
Though known for ages for its radiant form, opals only received recognition as a gemstone of worth since 19th century. Its relatively wider availability (opal deposits have even been discovered even on mars) may have an impediment in appreciating its exquisiteness.
Availability of Opals
Australia mines world’s 95% gem quality opals. Opal is also the country’s national gemstone. Since its establishment in 1915, some of the biggest and most gorgeous opals were mined in Coober Pedy. The 17,000 carat sized Olympic Australis is one of the many famous opals that originated from here. It is indeed ironic to consider the amount wealth that lay hidden under Outback’s arid surface. Though not as glamorous as Coober Pedy, but Andamoka, Yowah and Koroit too are well known for mining quality opals, particularly the highly treasured black ones.
Miners and fossickers join hands to organise many opal exhibitions every year in this part of the world. One of most notable such exhibition is the Lightning Ridge Opal Festival. Besides rough gemstones and a variety of opals mined in the region, the show also displays stunning pieces of opals jewellery. This year it is going to be organised in late July – August. Yowah Opal Festival is scheduled to be held mid – July. Coober Pedy’s centenary celebration has already begun over the weekend. So if you happen to be in the region do drop in. And, don’t forget visiting The Underground Art Gallery and Umoona Opal Mine & Museum.
While Outback has proved to be a rich bed for opals, Andes harnessed very few yet unique variety of this beautiful gemstone. Such is the charm of Peruvian opals, that early inhabitants of the area believed, and not unjustifiably, these to be gifts from Mother Earth, Pachamama. Peruvian opals come in rich blue, turquoise or rubicund hues – pastel shades characteristic to the region. Due to their softness, these opals are cut into cabochons.
Peruvian opals are also highly valued by alternative healers. These stones are often used to address restlessness, sleep depravity and other mental and physical ailments.
Mexican fire opals are highly valued by gemstone connoisseurs and jewellers alike. The bright red flash that gives Mexican fire opals such fine lustre is the primary reason behind its popularity. Being a rare variety, these fire opals are sold at a higher price than usual. However, fire opals are not the only variety that is mined in Mexico. Cantera opal, nestled into the matrix itself, is another one of the Mexican specialties.
Rest of the World
Opal deposits in Ethiopia have only been discovered in early 1990s. Within this short period of time, Ethiopian opals earned considerable repute. Opal mines along Yita Ridge in Mezezo are renowned for producing opals of significant amount and sometimes of most brilliant quality. When it comes to opals, every region seems to be having its own peculiarities and Ethiopia is no exception. The famous prase opal, otherwise known as African Jade, is Ethiopia’s gift to the world’s treasure chest. The dark red to brown variety is also highly adored by the jewellery and gemstone industry.
Tanzania is another African nation known for producing opals. Besides, opals are mined in Brazil, Honduras, USA, Czech Republic and Slovakia in varying quantities.
Play of Colour
This hydrated amorphous silica is often valued due to its unusual play of colours. Depending on this characteristic, opals can be divided in the following four categories:
- Rolling Flash – In this type, the play of colour seems to shift along the axis if the gemstone is turned.
- Pinfire – This indicates small of patches of set pattern.
- Flame – As the name suggests, this signifies the presence of sweeping dazzling red tone across the gemstone.
- Harlequin – Often the most expensive variety, harlequins showcase a checkerboard of gleaming patches of many hues.
Opals for Gemstone Aficionados & General Buyers
Gemstone and jewellery lovers collect opal attracted by its splendour and quality. But like purchasing any other precious or semi–precious gemstones, buying opals require a considerable amount of research and care from the buyer’s side. For the beginners here are my suggestions,
- Do decide on a budget and stick with it. But do not fall for gemstones that are extra cheap.
- Always insist on a certificate of authenticity provided by reputed international gemmological research units like GIA, AGI, EGL or AGS. For more detailed information on this please refer to my article here.
- Never opt for synthetic opals, available aplenty in Japanese and Chinese markets, unless you have specifically decided to own those.
Whether you are buying a cabochon or faceted stone, don’t opt for lustreless ones. Avoid opals with ugly black patches or other kinds of marks that obstruct its beauty.
- It is preferable to buy loose opals and have them set in a piece of jewellery. It gives you a greater chance of evaluating the gemstone.
- It is highly recommended that you shop for your gemstones using traditional methods, instead of buying online. It helps in having a greater clarity of the quality of your gemstone. Besides, colours seen on screen sometimes differ from the actual tone due to limitation of screen resolution, availability of light while capturing the photograph etc. But I must admit, I have bought gemstones from reputed dealers online and never found myself dissatisfied with my purchases.
If handled with care, opals are reasonably tough to withstand general wear and tear. A piece of precious opal can be an asset for your family for generations and it won’t lose its lustre along the way.
Opals for Collectors & Investors
It is not surprising that what buyers find so attractive, investors would find lucrative too. Investment in Australian opal mines have slowed down due to stringent government regulations. This was also fuelled by some misleading information possibly spread by competing miners of the same area. But at the same time newer markets like Ethiopia opened up. Collectors collect rough opalites and investment quality opals to exhibit for sometime before selling off at a higher price, often succumbing to a newer fancy.
Opal in Art
Even artists find themselves deeply influenced by the charm of opals. Beautiful sculptures are made using rough opalites. Small gemstones are set together into intricately designed mosaics. Few years ago, artisans of Kashmir created a carpet studding painstakingly detailed floral motifs with 400 black opals. Though not for sale, this stunning piece of craftsmanship was valued at USD 100,000.
Opal has been a centre of much devotion and superstition for ages. Earliest civilisations worshipped its beauty as well as its talismanic quality. In recent times, superstitions stemmed from misleading information spread by competitors willing to have commercial gain based on this. While opal’s metaphysical benefits are still hotly debated and will continue to be so for some time to come, don’t become a victim of such advertising gimmicks as opals are only fit for people born in a certain month or zodiac sign. As we have seen, opals are available in many colours. So select the one that suits you most aesthetically, astrologically or metaphysically and adorn yourself. Alternatively, you may consider gifting this beautiful gemstone to someone you love. Remember, Romans considered this gemstone fit for offering to God.
Opals-On-Black.com, James St. John, John Hritz, Duremi, Gery Parent, Tim Evanson