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Buying Opals, Pro’s and Cons

Posted by Yvonne Raley on

I do not carry a lot of opal jewelry in my shop, but with the month of opal coming up, I can share with you my experience with this gem.  As you know, opal is a very soft stone and that makes it hard to work with – one reason I don’t carry it much.  Bezel settings look nicest, yet prongs are safest if you don’t want to crack the gem or expand an inclusion to the surface.  You need an experienced setter, especially if you work with harder metals like white gold.  Silver is far easier.  One trick that I have used is to backset the gem, where prongs are gently folded down behind it.  I have also used glue to hold down the stone, but the problem with glue is that the gem can come loose over time and fall out.  Or the glue dissolves in jewelry cleaner (especially if acetone is involved).
Currently, opals are mainly mined in two locations: Australia and Ethiopia.  But opals are also found elsewhere, i.e. Mexico and Tanzania.  Most of those do not have play of color though, whereas Australian and Ethiopian opals exhibit what we think of as typical in terms of color: blue, green, yellow, and if you are lucky, some red (that’s the rarest color).
Boulder Opal Pair
I personally prefer Australian opal.  There are several reasons for this.  One is simply that I think they are prettier, especially the boulder opals which already come with their natural sandstone backing that brings out the color.  The deeper reason is durability.  Many Ethiopian opals tend to crack over time as the moisture goes out (opals are 5% water).  And soaking them doesn’t help, in fact, it can make it worse because as the stone dries, it cracks even more.  Over time, some Ethiopian opals also seem to lose their play of color and turn white.  That may be because they dry out, I don’t know.  Lastly, prices of Ethiopian opals have increased drastically, and I frankly don’t see the point of paying that much money for something that doesn’t last.
Ethiopian Opal Beads
Australian opals also have problems.  There are a lot of set doublets on the market (not always identified as such), and many opals are smoked to make their body color darker and bring out the color.  This can affect durability as well.  Opal prices have gone up but at least the Aussie prices have stabilized in the last couple of years.  I love any type of Boulder Opal (I like Koroit but I love the ones from Queensland).  It has the most color, a strong sandstone back comes in nice sizes for good prices.  You can look on Etsy but also at Opalauctions.com, and get pretty pieces shipped directly from Australia.
When you care for you opal, definitely stay away from any kind of harsh jewelry cleaners.  Use soap and water, a baby toothbrush (gently), and leave it at that.  Don’t expect your opal to become a family heirloom – most don’t last that long – and make sure that you don’t expose it to too many chances to crack it.  No gardening, no cooking, with opals rings! 
Boulder Opals

Boulder Opals

Huge Boulder Opal


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