What Makes Opal Jewelry Unique?

Opals are one of the six most valuable gemstones in the world alongside the likes of rubies, jade, pearls, diamonds, and sapphires, and we might be biased but we truly think that any jeweler will tell you that the opal is the most fascinating!

It is certainly one that has more variations than those others mentioned because opals are not just one color. Precious opals are prized for their pleochroism, which is the scientific term for how the stone has different colors when looked at from different angles (some liken it to a holographic effect). The rare beauty of this precious stone is so celebrated across the world, that throughout history, opal gemstones have earned the nickname of the ‘Queen of Gems’.

To help you see just how amazing the world’s opals can be, here is a guide to the fantastic October birthstone gem, from its interesting history, more of the reasons why it is considered to be so unique, and why it can be and is used for many different types of jewelry from engagement rings to sterling silver bangles.

What is Opal?

Opals are a mineraloid gel rather than a crystal as most other gemstones. They are formed over very long periods from a mixture of silicon dioxide and water. This mixture gets trapped in cracks and crevices in rocks and as the moisture evaporates, so the opal stone is formed.

Formations of silica spheres are many different sizes and shapes with an incredible range of colors from pale, milky whites and delicate pastel shades to vivid blues, greens, and reds that flash with fire.

While diamonds are valued by the 4Cs, the price of opal is based on size, color, body tone, brilliance, and quality. Cut also plays a part and like diamonds, opal value is quoted as a price per carat. Body tone is probably the most important factor with darker tones the most desirable so black opals are the most valuable followed by boulder opals and the least expensive are pale, milky stones.

The History Of The Opal

All of the best archeological evidence suggests that the opal was first mined in the Virgin Valley region of North America more than ten thousand years ago. There is also evidence that shows that opal was also used in precious artifacts found in Kenya about six thousand years ago. However, archaeologists believed the stones came from Ethiopia.

Another line of research suggests that opal mining was also done by the Aztec civilizations across South and Central America/Mexico and Brazil around the same time as it was being used in Kenya. Later, in the early sixteenth century, conquistadors returned to Spain from the New World with opals.

Archives also tell us that opals were being mined in small numbers in Hungary and were distributed in Europe and the Middle East.

In a modern sense, opal is indelibly linked with Australia where it was first discovered at a place called Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, in the late 1800s. The very first opal mining shaft was dug in early 1901.

Opal did not appear on the world market until at least the 1880s, but the Australian opal is regarded as the national stone of the country to this day. More than 90 percent of the world’s opals are supplied by Australia - mostly from the famous Coober Pedy area), but more than 20 other countries participate in the market including Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Poland.

Opal Symbolism

The name opal has ancient sources. It is derived from the Sanskrit word Upala which means precious stone, the Greek word opallios, and the Latin word opalus, both of which mean ‘to see a change of color’.

Most gemstones have a meaning in the world of crystals. Many cultures have credited opals with supernatural powers. Europeans considered them to be a symbol of truth, purity, and hope. Ancient Greeks believed they bestowed the gift of prophecy on their owners and Arabic legends go so far as to say that opals are not formed on the earth but fall as flashes of lightning from Heaven.

But there’s some added frisson with the folklore and symbolism of opals.

There is a widely-held view that opals bring bad luck however, the more knowledgeable about such things say they are only unlucky if you were not born in October because opals are the October birthstone.

Until the perception changed, opals were highly prized precious gemstones associated with many desirable qualities and beliefs. They were revered by the Ancient Romans right through the Middle Ages to Napoleonic times. The crown jewels of France were set with opals and Napoleon presented Empress Josephine with “The Burning of Troy”, a magnificent red opal with flashes of brilliant red.

By the late 18th/early 18th century, the opal began to fall out of favor. There isn’t a singular reason but it is thought that diamond merchants had a hand in a marketing campaign to discredit their value in favor of diamonds. Opals are at number six on the Mohs scale of hardness compared to diamond ten and are more susceptible to chipping or cracking. Also, a novel by Sir Walter Scott (Anne of Geierstein) introduced the idea of superstition around the stone.

Thanks to Queen Victoria, however, opals regained global popularity (the British Empire was a barometer of style!) Queen Victoria wore opals throughout her reign and this was made easier with the discovery of opals in Australia.

Aboriginal Beliefs

The aboriginal peoples of Australia have held strong beliefs connected to the natural opal stone that represents the energy and beauty of the Dreaming times. They gave the stone the nickname of the ‘Rainbow Serpent’ which refers to the unbelievable range and play of color that you get when you stare into the center of the stone. All of the colors of the rainbow are present, and many more!

What Makes Opal Jewelry So Unique?

So, now that you know where they came from and what they mean to so many people around the world, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why opal jewelry is considered to be so unique and so popular as a choice for all different kinds of pieces.

From opal rings to opal pendants and opal earrings to opal necklaces and beyond, there is nothing better than a high-quality item that can make a statement when placed on any part of the wearer’s body. Whether you have a common opal or are lucky enough to get your hands on the rarest jewel, the sheer durability and strength of body color and body tone of an opal are always going to make it a brilliant purchase.

Here are just a few of the reasons why opal jewelry is considered to be so beautiful and unique.

  • Unlike other stones that may come in different colors, there are different types of opals:

Black Opal - the most expensive type and they come mainly from Lightning Ridge in Australia.

Light opal - anything from colorless to medium gray is described as light opal. Sometimes they are called white opals but the definition of white opal is more specific.

White opal - these are light opals that have a ‘milky’ appearance. They are quite common but do not show their color as much as other types.

Boulder opal - is found as veins of opal formed within cracks and fissures of large ironstone boulders. Easily cleaved, boulder opals can be black or light.

Fire opal - most commonly the fire opal comes from the state of Querétaro in Mexico, not Australia. It gets its name from its fiery body colors of yellow, orange, and red, sometimes with bright green flashes. Subclasses of fire opal are the Mexican water opal (also known as hyalite or Muller’s glass) which is a colorless opal with a golden or bluish sheen, the jelly opal, a fire opal that does not exhibit a play of colors and the Cantera opal which is any Mexican opal cut in its rhyolitic (extrusive igneous rock) host material.

Blue opal - also known as the Peruvian opal, this type is one of the few non-pleochromatic opals. They are semi-opaque to opaque blue-green stones found mainly in Peru but also in Oregon and Nevada.

Sometimes opals are referred to simply by their country of origin, Australian opals being the obvious ones. A more recent addition to the opal family is the Ethiopian opal, from a source discovered in 1994.

You might also hear of opal doublets and opal triplets. These are opals that are not all natural gemstones. They are set upon black backing material (plastic, ironstone, or industrial glass) to make them resemble a black opal. An opal doublet is one with just the backing, while an opal triplet has the backing and also has a layer of plastic, clear glass, or quartz forming a dome over the opal to make it more durable. Opal doublets are more valuable than opal triplets and both are less valuable than regular opals.

  • No stone is the same

Opals are the very definition of unique. Because the color is laid down during the natural formation process, the array of minerals creating the opal means that no stone is ever going to be the same. This means that opal jewelry of the same design will still be unique because the gemstones will always be different.

Though unique, there are certain types of patterns of colors. The most common patterns are harlequin, straw, ribbon, flagstone, picture stone, and Chinese writing.

  • Opals have an unpretentious personality

Compared to more traditional ostentatious gemstones like diamonds, sapphires, and rubies, there is something about opals that makes them something of an unpretentious choice for all occasions.

Perhaps it has something to do with the lack of pure ‘sparkle’ that something like a diamond creates and that those types of stone are much more associated with luxury and grandeur. The opal has much more of an earthy and distinguished image whilst still being effortlessly beautiful with its range of rainbow colors.

  • Opals can be worn with casual and formal fashion

One of the best magic tricks that opal jewelry has in its locker is the fact that it can be worn just as beautifully with a casual outfit as with a formal outfit. Whether you are heading out for date night or getting dressed to the nines to attend something like a gala event, opal jewels are safe bets that will complement any style or level of sophistication.

  • The beauty is in the difference

Carrying on from the previous point, it is worth reiterating that the true beauty of things like opal engagement rings, etc. is in the striking difference when comparing them to other stones.

When you think about stones such as diamonds, sapphires, and rubies, the thing that is treasured most in those pieces of jewelry is the uniformity of shape and cut, and complete clarity and singularity of color. The more identical a set of diamonds looks in a ring, the more valuable and cherished it will be.

With opal jewelry, however, the rules are a little bit more flexible and ‘modern’ in the sense that what makes an opal the most desirable is the complexity of its structure and color instead of the uniformity.

If you are the kind of person who likes to think of yourself as unique and quirky, then we can’t imagine any other kind of gemstone to suit your personality better than a classic opal. For you, an opal is surely nothing but good luck.

Are There Cheaper Opal Alternatives?

As with all kinds of precious gemstones, there are indeed cheap alternatives, in this case in the form of synthetic opals.

Synthetic opals are stones that are made in a laboratory rather than being mined from natural resources around the world. It is important to note that they have the same chemical and physical properties as naturally mined opals, which technically makes them real opals in everything but the manner of creation!

While synthetic opals are not as expensive as natural opals, the best quality examples in large carat sizes are certainly not what you could describe as ‘cheap’. Ultimately, as a customer, you get what you pay for in the world of jewelry, and it is sensible to keep this in mind when setting your budget for your next trip to the jeweler.