Opals are one of the most beautiful gemstones–each one unique in color, pattern, and brilliance. They are one of the most popular and fashionable stones to wear, and because of this, buying opals is often challenging. From where you can find the gems to grading their quality, let's look at the history of this uniquely gorgeous stone and review some tips on what you should know before buying opal jewelry.
What is an Opal Gemstone?
If you ask the Bedouins, who were nomadic desert dwellers in the Middle East around 290 B.C., opals rained from the sky during thunderstorms. And their dazzling colors? Well, opals contained lightning (of course).
The actual story is that an opal gemstone is a mineral – a mineral comprising dried silica, and it's those dried lumps of silica that create the unique spectrum of colors you see. How is opal formed? There isn't one agreed-upon theory. One idea is that silicone-laden water once seeped down through sandstone and filled the cavities and cracks. After the water eventually evaporated, the opal gel solidified.
Where Are Opals Found?
The first opals were mined in Ethiopia around 4000 B.C. But since the late 1800s, more than 90% of the world's precious opals come from Australia.
The unique geological formations in Australia were beneficial in forming precious opals. The story starts back 140 million years or so when an inland sea covered much of central Australia –a sea rich with silica sands. Over time, the sea receded and created the Great Artesian Basin. More time passed–about 30 to 40 million years–and more of the water evaporated, leaving solid deposits of silica trapped in the cracks and between the rock layers. The result? The trapped silica formed opals.
Opal Gemstone Fine Jewelry
The opal's iridescent luster has fascinated since ancient times. Swirling shades of the rainbow can all appear in one stone, like a kaleidoscope display. The gemstone's luminous color display takes center stage in statement rings and pendants that showcase single, larger stones. Lighter colored opals add a soft elegant glow set in gold and silver jewelry designs, while darker opal shades add drama to opal necklaces.
Happy Birthday to everyone with October birthdays! You will be celebrating with Kelly Ripa, Kate Winslet, Katy Perry, Julia Roberts and Gwen Stefani. Your birthstone, the opulent opal, represents purity, innocence and hope. Discover a rainbow of colors with amazing bracelets and dramatic earrings.
How Can You Tell a Good Quality Opal?
Below is a handy checklist to help when choosing the best high-value opal.
What type of opal are you looking to buy? Solid opal is worth more than a constructed doublet or triplet opal, which consists of layers of sliced opal adhered to a dark backing, increasing the tone and vibrancy of the stone.
An opal's body tone, which is the background of the stone, is one of the most critical factors when evaluating opals. Body tones can range in color from dark to light – and those stones with a black or dark body tone are considered highly valuable.
The first thing you notice about opals is how the colors seem to dance and interact with each other hypnotically. This phenomenon is an opal's "play-of-color." The iridescent color movement is the diffraction of white light across silica spheres inside the gemstone.
Brilliance is how bright the stone is when you look at it face-up, and it can range from dazzling and vivid to muted and dull.
The segments that form an opal's play-of-color are known as its pattern – and the quality of the stone's pattern is determined by how unique it looks. Opal patterns include:
- Pinfire or pinpoint: Tiny patches of color set close together.
- Harlequin or mosaic: Color patches are placed close together and are broad and angular (a proper harlequin pattern is rare and hard to find).
- Ribbon – Narrow lines of color flow and ripple like a ribbon.
This term refers to the way the color forms in the opal. Often, intense colors form in thin, continuous layers through the stone, forming the color bar. The thicker the bar, the more the opal is worth.
Precious, genuine opals are smooth and of perfect quality. Any type of fault can decrease the value of the stone. Opal faults include:
- Tiny cracks (often called "crazing").
- Sand and other small particles in or under the color bar.
- Potch lines (black or grey lines) and windows (sections on opal that lack color).
Types of Opals
There are many different types of this gemstone, but the three main categories are precious opals, common opals, and fire opals.
Precious opals show an array of spectral colors throughout the stone – this phenomenon is called "play-of-colors." The kaleidoscopic colors you see in an opal happens when light reflects on the stone's surface.
There are many different varieties of precious opal, each with its unique color combinations and character traits. You can find opals in orange, yellow, red, green, blue, or purple. Dark and black opals are found in mines around Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, a state on the east coast of Australia. (They're the most sought-after precious opals.)
This type of opal doesn't have a play-of-color because the tiny silica pieces inside the stone are too close together to allow light refraction. Common opals are usually white or lighter in color. They're popular in vintage or antique jewelry. While you'll still see colors in these types of gems, they don't compare to the spectrum in precious opals.
Found in Mexico, these opals appear in colors that range from red-yellow to bright or deep orange. The colors can look like flickering flames.
How to Tell if Your Opal is Real
No one likes buying what they think is a genuine gemstone to find out the piece is fake. Synthetic opals do exist, as well as partially human-made stones such as triplets and doublets. We provided some helpful tips below when shopping for opals.
- Look at the stone as a whole. Is it white and almost transparent? If it is, then it's probably a genuine solid gemstone. This type of opal is called a white or crystal opal. If the body looks dark, it's not an authentic opal (most likely a doublet or triplet).
- Look at the side of the opal. It may be a doublet or triplet if it has distinctly visible layers–and not a solid opal. If it's a doublet, one of the layers is a thin slice of opal attached to a dark backing. A triplet has a third layer – a transparent, domed layer on top of the opal.
- How does the top of your opal look? If it gives off a glassy appearance, it's probably a double or a triplet opal – these types are topped with quartz, so the gem reflects differently and gives off a glassy appearance.
- Research before you shop. Learn what's considered genuine opal, so when you go to buy, you're able to compare what you know to be accurate and what you see in stores. .
Note: Unless you're a gem expert, it's often quite challenging to tell a synthetic solid opal from a genuine opal, so it's always wise to buy from reputable dealers who have gemological qualifications.
How to Care For Your Opal
Taking care of your opals requires a little more work than with most stones: they scratch easily, sunlight and heat are big no-nos, and they don't like to be around soaps or perfumes. Does this make opals high-maintenance? Maybe, but opals are worth it. Below are some handy tips so you can give your gemstones the love and care that they deserve.
Find a mild, unscented dish soap to use. Fill a bowl with 1/2-cup of lukewarm water–not hot or cold. (Either extreme can crack opals.) Add two or three drops of the dish soap and work up a thick lather. Have three microfiber jewelry cloths (or other very soft cloths) on hand.
Cleaning and drying your opal depends on what type you have.
- Place your stones in the bowl and wash them lightly with warm, soapy water. Remove any excess dirt or grime you may see.
- Carefully rinse opal with clean, warm water and be sure to remove any trace of soap (this can cause unnecessary drying).
Double and Triplet Opals
- Put just a dab of warm, soapy water on a microfiber jewelry cloth and use it to remove any dirt or grime. A gentle touch is good!.
- Run the microfiber cloth under clean, warm water, and rinse the opal using a gentle wiping motion.
Take a clean, dry microfiber jewelry cloth and dry your opal as thoroughly as possible. Excess water will often damage opals.
IMPORTANT: If you genuinely value your opals, never place jewelry in a home ultrasonic cleaner–the vibrations may crack your stones.
Interesting Facts and Myths About Opal
- The Greeks and Romans gave us the word "opal" – opallios which means "color change," and opalus, which means "precious stone.".
- Opal is one-of-kind – no other gemstone exhibits the same kaleidoscopic colors.
- Most stable opals contain about 5 to 10% water, but some can range as high as 20%.
- Opal is the birthstone for October – and some say those born in October are guaranteed the best of luck when wearing opal.
- Shakespeare called opal the 'Queen of Gems' in his play Twelfth Night.
- If only love was this easy: there's a myth if you wear opal, you'll meet your one-and-only.
- At one time, not everyone thought ovals were beautiful. Medieval Europeans thought opals looked like the eyes of evil animals – and then "evil eye" became synonymous with bad luck and harm.
- Who needs to color their hair? An urban legend once claimed that opals had the magical powers to preserve the natural color of blonde locks.