I’ve never been the slightest bit interested in working with opals. The hue of old milk with bits of anemic color feebly attempting to glimmer through? Petrified yak snot would probably be more interesting.
But recently a client asked me to design a pendant with opal, and so I went researching, hoping to come up with something, anything, I could use to create a beautiful piece for her. I wasn’t optimistic, but boy, was I wrong about opals. I’m in love.
At first glance, the gem world breaks down roughly into diamonds and colored gems. Dealers of one rarely specialize in the other, too. Colored gem dealers might carry a few opals, and those are usually of the underwhelming milky type. Go digging, though, and you’ll come across the world of opal dealers, who cut and carry a range of opals most of us don’t know exist. My client wanted an Australian opal, a distinct subtype of the gem, and within this category? Even more subtypes.
Opals, unlike most other precious gems, are not colored by mineral coloring, and are not crystalline in structure. Opal is hydrated silica, and when viewed under magnification opal’s structure is that of tightly packed strings of spheres. Opal’s color play is due to how these spheres reflect the light spectrum. Larger spheres reflect the longer wavelengths of oranges and reds, smaller spheres reflect the shorter wavelengths of blues and greens.
The stones I’ve fallen in love with are the black and semi-black Australian opals. These stones are among the rarest of opals, and offer intense, brilliantly flashing color: cherry reds, peacock blue, acid greens and fiery oranges. Black opals have a “body tone” of deep gray to black (a base layer of dark stone) and the color-play of the opal is made more visible because of this dark background. The milky-white opals most of us are most familiar with are on the opposite end of this spectrum.
Alright, so I’ve fallen in love with opals…..what about that old superstition: Opals are bad luck to wear if they aren’t your birthstone? Opals were bad luck. To gem cutters. Historically, gem cutters were required to pay for any stones which broke during cutting. Opals are rat bastards to cut. Remember their structure? Hydrated silica. They don’t cleave (split) along straight lines. Cutting opals could result in a gem cutter owing a lot of money in damages, and that’s bad luck. Most superstitions begin with the tiniest grain of truth, and this truth was probably the grain which got that tale started. That, and stingy people born in October who don’t share well.
In Australia, the Aboriginal folklore says that opals were created when a rainbow fell to earth, and that’s not bad luck at all.
Thanks to http://www.aussietreasurechest.com for the wonderful information on opals they provide on their webstie. These images are stones from their stock, and were available for purchase at the time this article was posted. If you have an hour or five to get lost in the world of opals, this is where I fell in love: www.aussietreasurechest.com