Opals: Some Thoughts on Their Special Allure and their Challenges for the Jeweler
If you’ve been following my shop for a few years, you will notice that I have never carried a lot of opals – not until recently! You may know of my dislike for Ethiopian opals but if not, here's why I don't really like them: I bought some Welo opals shortly after they initially came out and there was a bit of a craze – prices actually went up from a few bucks a carat to $50-70 per carat wholesale within a year or two. Shortly after purchase, the opals started cracking and turning opaque. Following common advice, I soaked them in water: Welo opals actually absorb water, unlike other opals, and I believe that they have an even higher water content as well. Anyway, the experiment backfired; the opals dried up and cracked even more. I threw them out.
Anecdote: an opal dealer friend of mine from Germany was offered the first rights to the mines in Ethiopia. Juergen is his name, and he’s been working with opals for the past 40 years if not more. Juergen claims to have been the first white person on the ground to see them. I’m not challenging this belief but Africa is a vast place and these things are hard to confirm. He went ahead and had the rough tested, but found it too unstable to get into the business. He passed.
Juergen is also my source for most of the opals that I now carry. He specializes in Australian material but also carries Mexican fire opals. He has a great eye for the material.
Mexican Fire Opal Pendant
In terms of pricing, the boulder opals I carry are a little cheaper than black opals. Boulder opals still have the host rock in which they are found, which makes a sort of natural doublet. An 'artificial' doublet is created by gluing plastic onto the back of a very thin slice of opal to increase its color and strength but I don't carry these as they have little to no value. Matrix opals, like Koroit opals, are a sub group of Boulder opals with the opal distributed as “veins” within the material, looking like a matrix. I don’t like them as much because they have too much brown but some of them can be very pretty.
Boulder Opals from my Shop
Apart from boulder opals, my favorites are black opals. Black opals are the rarest of all, they do not have any host rock, ideally they are thick, and their body tone is, as the name says, black. They are Australian as well. White opal is technically the same as black opal, the only difference is explained in its name. The body tone is a milky white color, which brings out less of the play of color in the opal.
Black Opal Pairs
The most valued opals have the largest variation of colors. Blue and green tones are the youngest in terms of geological age, red the oldest, making red the rarest of all colors displayed in an opal.
Opal pricing can be very confusing, even to the professional. Other than the few pointers I just gave, it is very subjective. The ones most people like the most, however, tend to be the highest priced as well.
So, why do I not carry a lot of opal? The short answer is that it is hard to work with. Here are some reasons:
- Opal is very soft so it can break easily during setting, especially a hard metal like white gold. Back setting is easiest for that reason.
- Most opals have irregular shape, so I need to make the setting for each stone. That’s expensive of course. And it makes a bit of a mismatch in terms of pricing as well: boulder opals are often larger and you can get more opal for your money, but then you face the problem of having to set a big stone into a lot of gold and that makes your cheaper purchase a rather expensive one in the end. Long story short, I don’t sell a lot of opals as a result. I end up having to disappoint customers when they ask about setting.
- Opals are harder to care for than other stones as they shouldn’t be left to dry out, and, although we're talking in terms of decades, even a top quality opal will not last as long as most other faceted stones. So I kind of feel bad selling something that’s pricey, expensive to set, and not as long lasting.
Still, when I went to Vegas I just couldn’t resist the beauty of some of the pieces that Juergen showed me. I’ve listed most of these but I held back my favorites (why I don’t know, I can’t keep it all!). Here are photos and videos. Listings are coming up, and I am taking requests. Both of these are pairs, but I am willing to break them up if I get two interested parties.