Ethiopian Opal and diamond dress ring

Everything You Need to Know About Opals

Opal Stone Guide: Unveiling the Meaning and Beauty of Opals

If you're looking into buying an opal or are just doing some research about opals, then this article is perfect for you! The more educated consumers become about opals then the better their experience with purchasing opal gems will be. That's why it's important to understand opals to make opal jewellery shopping a more positive experience. Learn about opals to find opals that will last a lifetime!

History of Opals

Opals are thought to be the most powerful gemstones in the world and according to legend, opals hold special powers. The opal gemstone with its opalescent qualities has been treasured as an ornamental stone for thousands of years. Opals can be found in a variety of colours and an opal became one of the more expensive gems to trade with throughout history. Opals were used as gifts for royalty or high status individuals rather than worn by everyday people. Queen Victoria loved opals and kept many in her jewel collection. In ancient times, opals were believed to possess magical powers and were therefore used as protection against evil spirits.

The Ancient Greeks believed that opals could cure eye afflictions or help a person charm an object or a lover into submission. In antiquity, opals were mined in ancient Macedonia, where they had special significance as amulets of luck and success. Ancient Greeks also thought opals would bring opulent riches to those who wore them. Romans were also fond of opals: Nero famously gave opals as gifts and betrothal rings, and Caligula had opal cups in his possession. Opal was often worn by travellers as a talisman that would protect its wearer from injury or death on journeys or while performing hazardous tasks. The stone was said to detect evil intent against the bearer, and turn milk sour if it had been poisoned. Opal was an especially popular stone for travellers during the Victorian era due to its strong association with opulence and prosperity; opal jewellery became ubiquitous among wealthy socialites of this period.

Opal was used as a favourite decorative material in Renaissance and Gothic jewels, especially where the opal's play of colour was red. In ancient lore, opals were thought to render their wearer invisible during times of emergency: if an opal was sewn into clothing or hidden in a ring, it could be quickly removed from its hiding place should its owner need to become invisible for any reason. This magical power may have been associated with opals' rarity and ability to develop colourful fiery flashes when they are moved swiftly in the light. In addition, because opals can produce chromatic flashes that vary from vivid reds and oranges to subtle blues and greens, wearing opal jewels could make the wearer seem to change colour as he or she moved. This effect would be particularly useful for those who needed to evade capture or opulent socialites wishing to impress their peers with elusiveness and opulent opal jewels.

The Name Opal

The opal is a mineral gemstone that is one of the most beautiful and fascinating stones on the planet. The word 'opal' comes from the Sanskrit word upala meaning 'valuable stone'. Opal is also known as a 'mineraloid' a naturally occurring mineral-like substance that does not have a crystalline structure. Opals have been prized for their beauty and uniqueness for centuries. Some of the earliest references to opals come from the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations.

Nowadays, opal jewellery is given as gifts for special occasions like opal birthdays, opal engagement rings and opal wedding rings. Opals are the birthstone of October, you lucky October babies! The Opal is associated with love since they are supposed to enhance their owner's beauty and eloquence. Dating back over two thousand years ago there's even a religious connection between the opal gemstone and Christianity where it was believed that angels wore them on important holidays like Christmas! What better gemstone to bring out of your jewellery box than a precious opal ring or beautiful opal necklace to show off! Opal gemstone is associated with love and passion. It's an enchanting gemstone that is said to stimulate the emotions of its wearer. Wearing opal jewellery can also be used to balance the emotions. It is thought by some that wearing an opal jewellery piece will promote loyalty and faithfulness.

Where Do Opals Come From?

Opals are mined around the world, including Australia (opal country), Mexico, Brazil, Ethiopia and The United States. Opals are an official gemstone of Australia and are known as the 'Australian national gemstone' by many jewellers. When opals were first discovered in Australia, opal trading was quite lucrative. Australia is known for its opals: 95% of opals that are mined throughout the world come from Australia. Australia’s opal fields are situated in the three states of Queensland, New South Wales, and South Australia. White (milky) opal can be found in South Australia. Beautiful black opals are found at Lightning Ridge New South Wales and Boulder opal is found in Queensland.

The other common source of exquisite opals is Ethiopia: opals were mined there as early as 700 AD. Opal has been used widely throughout history, dating back at least 58,000 years ago when Neanderthals mined opal in Israel. In ancient Rome opals were considered a symbol of hope, luck and purity.

How is Opal Formed?

Opals are formed when water seeps into silica-rich sands and fills in the empty spaces within the sandstone. When the water evaporates, a silica deposit is left behind. This process repeats itself over and over again, eventually resulting in the formation of an opal. A precious opal gemstone contains watery silica spheres that give opal its unique and stunning appearance. Opals come in a variety of colours, including white, black, blue, green, pink, and red. The most valuable opals are those that exhibit a bright and colourful play of colour. It is believed to take around five million years for an opal to form. Now you can understand why opals are so incredible!

Opals and their Fascinating Play of Colour

The opal's distinctive play of colour is created when light enters its microcrystalline structure and is reflected from the many thin layers that make up the opal's surface. This phenomenon is called 'fire'. The colours that appear are white, blue, red and violet with light being diffracted by these tiny particles.

Opal is an iridescent gemstone that exhibits a superb and most fascinating play of colour that is one of the main reasons why these gems are so popular. This opal colour-play occurs when light is refracted through the stone in a manner that causes it to change colours. The effect is most noticeable when opal is moved or turned, as the play of colour will change with the angle of light. The iridescent play of colour on an opal's surface is not produced by pigments, as some people believe, but rather by the interference from a thin layer of water embedded within each spherical silica structure. This means that no two stones are the same in terms of appearance and it's thanks to this trait that makes them highly desirable collectors' items for those who wish to have an everlasting piece or keepsake in their possession today.

opal gemstone rings woman's hand

The Different Colours of Opal 

The amazing colours that you see in an opal depend on the size of the gap between the silica spheres. Small gaps create blues and greens and larger spaces bring the yellows, reds and oranges. This is due to the way the light bends through the gaps. Because large gaps are not as common as small gaps, opals that display colour play of orange and red are more rare and therefore more valuable. Black opals with a dominant red colour are highly prized. However, as with all gemstones, it's the overall quality of an opal that determines its value and desirability. It also comes down to personal choice and the opal that speaks to you and the opal you can't take your eyes off will be the one you want!

Opals are exceedingly coveted gems and are adored by collectors and jewellery enthusiasts all over the world. The most valuable opals are those that display a broad spectrum of rainbow colours, although black opals are also highly sought-after.

What is a Precious Opal?

The term 'precious opal' refers to any opal that displays fantastic 'play-of-colour'. Play-of-colour is the brief flash of bright, vibrant light that a person sees when looking at opal. Precious opal comes in a variety of colours, including white opal, crystal opal, boulder opal and matrix opal. The name boulder opal is used for a rough or cut gemstone that exhibits play-of-colour originating from precious opal in seams and patches within the host rock. A rough or cut opal in which the precious play-of-colour is fully blended within the parent rock is referred to as a matrix opal.

Black Opal

Black opal is most highly valued amongst opals and is mined solely in Lightning Ridge, Australia. Black opals have a dark blue or black ground and display intense play of colour, often reds and vivid greens. They are simply mesmerising!

Matrix Opal

The term opal can refer to a variety of opals, including those that are known as matrix opals. The play of colour in these stones is embedded in the matrix. This means that the opal itself is not a separate stone, but rather it is part of the matrix. Matrix opals are not as valuable as other types of opals because the play of colour is not as pronounced. However, matrix opals are still very beautiful and unique gemstones.

Boulder Opal

A boulder opal is a type of opal that exhibits play-of-colour originating from precious opal in seams and patches within the host rock. The name 'boulder opal' is used for a rough or cut gemstone that exhibits play-of-colour. This means that the play-of-colour is fully integrated with the matrix (or parent rock).

Honeycomb Opal

A rare type of opal is the opal known as a honeycomb opal. These amazing opals display a natural pattern that resembles a honeycomb. These opals appear to have pockets of colour spread over the stone, and these colour pockets have a noticeable depth to them. You can really look deep into honeycomb opals and lose yourself in the colour and fire. The pattern is not symmetrical by any means, and does not look exactly like a hexagonal honeycomb but rather rounded splodges or bubbles of colour. Honeycomb opals are most likely to be of the Ethiopian Welo variety of opal. These opals come with different backgrounds such as white, chocolate, black or grey. It is fair to say that honeycomb opals are highly collectible due to their rarity and thus their value. To retain their incredible colour-play and lustre, honeycomb opals are usually cut into smooth cabochons.

opal ring with diamond halo

Ethiopian Opal

Ethiopian Opals, also known as hydrophane opals, are sourced from volcanic lava. The term hydrophane comes from the Greek word meaning 'water-loving', meaning that hydrophane opals have the ability to absorb water and swell in size. It's a common belief that Ethiopian opal comes from a meteorite impact site, yet there's no evidence to support it. The Ethiopian Opal is a relatively new type of opal found in the Wollo province of Ethiopia. Its bright and bold colourful hues, strong colour flashes and intricate designs make it a highly sought after gemstone. It is a fascinating gemstone that looks amazing when placed in jewellery such as an opal ring or opal pendant. This opal will get you noticed! These Ethiopian opals can be beautiful in quality with the added bonus of costing much less per carat than the more costly Australian opals. The Ethiopian opals can display rich rainbow colours over translucent, milky, grey, or even round brown grounds.

How to Buy An Opal

Buying opal gemstones is no different from buying any other semi-precious or indeed precious gemstone. Consumers should buy from reputable jewellers or experienced gemstone dealers for authenticity and not settle on any opal just because it's cheaper. Just like a diamond, there are very poor quality stones and also top quality prized opal gemstones, so it's worth taking extra time when finding your beautiful opal. Consumers should always expect to pay more for an opal that has been mined in Australia.

Doublets, Triplets or Solid Opal?

A solid opal is just that, a piece of opal that is pure, solid opal. These opals are cut and fashioned into gemstone shapes, usually cabochons.

So what is an opal doublet? An opal doublet features a thin slice of opal that has been fixed to a piece of either ironstone or black potch - black potch what opals are formed in. A doublet is a more affordable way to own a piece of opal.

What is an opal triplet then? As the name suggests, an opal triplet is a piece of opal that is secured to a backing such as plastic or quartz. This is then fixed to a third backing such as ironstone or black potch. A triplet opal is a very thin slither of opal but it is still a beautiful.

Pieces of opals that are not suitable or large enough to cut into a solid stone are generally used as doublets or triplets. An opal doublet or triplet is desirable and valuable but obviously is more affordable than a solid opal.

How to Care for your Opal

Opals are porous gemstones. Opals are also quite a delicate gemstone with a hardness of between 5.5 and 6.5 on the Mohs hardness scale. Always remove your opal jewellery when you are carrying out activities that might damage them, such as gardening or doing house-work. When caring for opals and opal jewellery you should not to expose opals to anything that can do harm or cause damage including placing them near substances such as alcohol, perfume, makeup and hairspray. Doublets and triplets should not be immersed in water. Solid opals are fine in water but it's best not to do the washing-up or go swimming whilst wearing opal jewellery. As opals originate from waterborne silica spheres that can contain a range of elements, opal composition varies widely depending upon these conditions during its formation. The durability of an opal depends on its quality and treatment: some opals will crack if exposed to great heat, while others may break after extended exposure to ultraviolet light. If your solid opal gets very wet the colour may fade. By letting the opal dry out naturally, the colour will return, but don't hurry the process, let it occur slowly. Excessive light exposure can also cause damage to opals.

Never use an ultra-sonic cleaner to clean your opal jewellery as the vibrations may cause the opal to crack, plus the chemical cleaning solutions would be too damaging.

When storing your opal jewellery use a padded jewellery box or ring box to stop the opal from fading in the light. Opal jewellery should not be stored in an area where there are extremes of temperature or humidity. If you are storing opals for a long period of time, put your opals in a plastic bag with some damp cotton wool before placing in a suitable storage box. This trick will help to maintain a suitable moisture level for you opals. You can also immerse your opals in tepid water for about 15 minutes once a year. This will stop your solid opal from drying out over time.

Australian blue opal ring

Are Opals Unlucky? 

Opals are one of the birthstones for October, but are they unlucky, especially if you own or wear an opal and you were not born in October? There are many different opinions on whether opals are bad luck or good luck. There isn't any evidence for either belief, so if you believe in opals being unlucky or think that opals bring good luck, it all comes down to personal choice.

One reason for opals being thought of as unlucky is perhaps due to the diamond merchants of the mid 19th and early 20th centuries. These diamond merchants recognised the incredible beauty and glory of the opal gemstone. They feared that opals might become more popular than diamonds and this would be a dangerous threat to their business. In the 1890s, top quality Australian opals began to enter the gemstone market and in panic, the jealous diamond merchants took it upon themselves to start am untrue rumour that opals were unlucky. As a lover of opals I am sad to say that this action caused lasting damage to the beautiful opals' reputation and it became an 'old wives' tale that opals were unlucky and should not be possessed or worn.

In contrast, the Romans believed that the opal was a combination of all precious stones. Emperors gave their wives opals  for good luck and as a symbol of hope and purity. Opal was known as the 'Cupid Stone'. The Romans also carried opal to bring them good luck and used opal as a talisman as they believed that like a rainbow, an opal brought its owner wealth and good fortune. In the Ancient Orient, opals were thought of as anchors of hope.

Despite those old-wives tales, many people clearly do not believe opals are unlucky as they choose opals for jewellery including engagement rings. The opal stone was originally given as a protection against general danger, such as snake bites and it was also supposed to protect from nightmares. In fact opal was even said to have magical powers of prophecy, opal rings could tell the future. In more recent times, opals have been regarded as good luck stones all over the world, opal rings are particularly lucky for couples because opals are said to bless opals rings with love.

The World's Most Expensive Opal

Opals sell at a range of prices depending on their quality. Coloured Stone Magazine reports that 'while most consumers would be surprised to see opals selling for less than $10 per carat, opals up to 15 carats in size have brought prices ranging from $300 to $500 per carat'.
The most fabulous and expensive opal in the world is an opal known as the Virgin Rainbow Opal. This amazing opal was discovered in Coober Pedy, Australia. Opal miner John Dunstan found this magnificent opal and it is now on display at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. The Virgin Rainbow Opal is worth well over a million dollars. It literally glows in the dark and the darker the room the more it glows! How fantastic is that!
Opals are our favourite gemstone here at Hunters Fine Jewellery. They are simply fascinating, beautiful and mesmerising and most of all, each opal is unique! Get in touch with us if you would like a bespoke item of opal jewellery making, we would love to work with you.

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