Opal: October's Color Fest Birthstone
by Jerry Sisk, GG; Co-Founder, Jewelry Television®
Make a splash and dive into the rainbow of colors that opal has to offer! It is truly one of nature's most colorful gemstone treasures with hues in white, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and a variety of shades in between.
October's Birthstone: Opal
If you were born in the month of October, then you are one of a select few who have opal for their birthstone. While those born in other months may be limited to only one or possibly two colors for their birthstones, you are blessed with nature's entire rainbow in one magical stone. Alternative birthstones for October are pink tourmaline and pink zircon.
Highly prized for its spectacular play-of-color and many varieties, makes a stunning centerpiece in any piece of jewelry.
Ethiopian Opal: The Reigning Queen of Gems
The discovery of precious opal in Ethiopia at the turn of the century has made a major impact in the gemstone industry. Opal with play of color has always been considered one of the most desired gems in the marketplace, earning it the undisputed title as "Queen of Gemstones." During the heyday of Australian opal mining from the 1950s through the 1980s, opal was always in the top 3 selling colored gemstones in the US, only falling from reign as the Australian productions slowed down.
With the discovery of opal in Ethiopia's northern Welo District, and its prolific bounty, this remarkable gem has reclaimed its throne and rules again as one of the highest demanded gemstones in the American marketplace. It's been decades since we have seen a production quite like this, and after the recent "drought" of opal production, the world is lapping it up!
While Australian opal mines are producing maybe a third of what they once did, Ethiopia has been mining at a rate equal to Australian production during its best years. The "easy digging" experienced during the early years of Ethiopian opal production is something that historically has occurred about twice a century with opal and accounts for the very low price. Now digging must stretch deeper requiring safety measures and equipment not readily available to the region at this time.
Variety in Quality of Opal Mined in Ethiopia
Not only has Ethiopian opal been able to satisfy a very demanding market, it is able to do so in ways beyond what we could dream. Not only do we have access to good quality gems, but the varieties among different deposits are able to replicate precious opal found almost anywhere else in the world! Our buyers have seen stones rivaling gems found in famous locales like Australia's Coober Pedy, Lightning Ridge and Andamooka mines, Brazil or Mexico. These older mines have slowed production, but all of Ethiopia's best opal fields are less than a decade old!
Just like many other large mining areas, specific mine areas become known for their own quality of production. There are various mines located in the same region, each with its own characteristics. Most of our Ethiopian opal is from the Delanta (pronounced Duh lawn tuh) area, where some of the best quality is taken. We look for Delanta's telltale crystalline-bodied opal with distinctive play of color and extra brilliance.
Our buyers recognize the superb quality of opal mined in Ethiopia and, frankly, are convinced that it is sold WAY too inexpensively! According to their judgment, fine quality Ethiopian opal in the current marketplace should be sold for about DOUBLE what it is currently going for; and even if it doubled, it would still be considerably less expensive than a similar quality Australian opal. These amazing gems are retailing at extremely low prices and cannot be guaranteed to last.
Future of Mining Ethiopian Opal
Based on the sheer amount of potential opal-bearing ground, there is a huge opportunity to discover more precious opal perhaps varieties never before encountered. As opal mining and export figures have risen exponentially, the Ethiopian government is becoming involved, announcing that they intend to create new legislation banning the export of rough opal. This is in order to attain "added value" by increasing opportunities for other sectors surrounding the gem like cutting or jewelry making to take place.
This is the trend in all developing nations as their residents demand that a larger share of their country's depleting mineral resources be spread more evenly within the population. Unfortunately, the infrastructure required in Ethiopia to meet the existing cut-and-ready finished gem supply chain is less than 5% of where it needs to be. Our hope is that the plan will be delayed or partially implemented until enough expertise and machinery can be put in place.
This change will most definitely put a strain on the market as cutting facilities must be created and an army of lapidaries must be trained. If the ban happens too soon, the supply of processed Ethiopian opal to the world market will trickle down to an estimated less than 15% of the current flow once stockpiles overseas are consumed. Governing bodies are negotiating this ban, so the when and how is still unknown, but our sources predict that it will come to be in some fashion before year end.
Although this will mean price increases and a shortage of supply, the rough export ban is not entirely unwelcome. At JTV, we strive to back positive changes in all of our gem sourcing. The intent of this legislation is aimed at the betterment of the miners and handling our opal and, if handled correctly, it will keep a fairer share of profit in Ethiopia, helping the country create safer mining and growing industry for processing. This is why JTV has joined hands with organizations like CIBJO who push for and monitor these changes.
Faceted opal is something that simply did not exist before the low cost of Ethiopian opal allowed for it. They are now our biggest seller as the market keeps absorbing this unusual fashioning of opal. For everyday wear, the traditional opal is fashioned en cabochon, which truly is the perfect way to showcase the dimension of the play-of-color. The higher cabs that Ethiopia is renowned for best display the unique patterns and colors unique to each stone. You can "roll" the gem in the light and see a show of color gracefully dancing not only across the surface but throughout the body, a sight unique only to opal.
Not only does cabochon fashioning display a different visual effect, but it actually helps protect your stone. Should you choose to set it in jewelry, the arched form of a dome offers strong support during wear, making your gem less susceptible to dings and nicks. The dome shape adds stunning depth to your opal, maximizing its visual appeal. The stability of cabochon opals makes them perfect for everyday wear and gorgeous display of the gem's inherent beauty.
Ethiopian Hydrophane Opal
The exciting arrival of gem quality solid opal from the Welo district of Ethiopia is taking the gem world by storm. Some are confusing the Welo opal, discovered circa 2008, with the original Ethiopian opal discovery in 1994 at Yita Ridge in the Shewa province, which is prone to cracking. Contrarily, once cut, the Welo opals have proven to be as stable as Australian opal or Brazilian opal where only a small percentage may craze or crack.
Australian opals are sedimentary in nature, forming in ancient sea beds, whereas Ethiopian opals originate from volcanic activity. All volcanic opal is called hydrophane opal. The term hydrophane comes from the Greek words meaning water-loving and describes their ability to absorb water and change from opaque or semi-translucent to translucent or transparent. Sometimes this highlights the color play others will just become transparent or opaque, with no color when hydrated. Hydrophane opals vary widely from source to source, so it is important to learn the characteristics of gems from a particular mine rather than consider all hydrophane opals to be alike in both looks and properties. The good news is that tests by GIA and others have shown that opal from the Welo province in Ethiopia will revert back to its original state, once dried, with no adverse reaction such as cracking.
Special Care and Handling of Hydrophane Opals
Stone Group Laboratories of Missouri had similar positive reports on the stability of the current Welo area productions. When many stones were immersed and then left to dry repeatedly (12 times), there was no cracking or change from their original appearance. The laboratory subjected smaller stones to high heat in order to rapidly dehydrate water-soaked stones and found them to be stable even under these conditions. They did further studies on care and handling and strongly recommend that you do not experiment by immersing these opals in water or other liquids or oils, since contamination can occur, leaving residues within the opal. This can eventually change the original body color or the way light is transmitted by the stone, which in turn may affect the color play or brilliance. Immersing hydrophane opal underwater may, in rare cases, cause stress from uneven expansion, which can create a crack similar to those caused by sudden shock. Chances increase if the water temperature is at odds with the stone temperature, if the stone had any previous trauma or if it is set into jewelry. The time period for dehydrating can be minutes to more than a week and will vary depending on stone body type, size and environmental conditions. Do not try and speed up the natural drying process by placing in an oven, under a hot light or hair dryer!
Do not fear accidental situations such as dropping your opal into a wash basin or getting caught in the rain; the absorption is not immediate and requires more time than a quick dip. Like most gems, opal should be handled and cleaned with care. Never use a steamer or ultrasonic, keep away from harsh cleaning agents, perfume, hand soap, high temperatures or sudden temperature changes; simply wipe with a clean soft cloth.
Stress tests are done under laboratory-controlled conditions with distilled water and temperature monitoring. Other tests were made with the knowledge that losses may occur like soaking in hot tea or immersing after exposing a stone to stress. We commission these types of studies so that we can advise you of all the necessary precautions and possibilities and so you will not take risks with your purchases. These opals are natural - not manufactured - and as such, will vary in their individual properties.
I have bought and sold opals from all sources for a long time and am thrilled with the variety of body colors, patterns, and especially the brilliance of colors that Welo opal displays. Many exhibit brilliance on a scale not seen since the early Andamooka, South Australian productions. Further, beautiful, high-dome cabs are available that best show the beautiful play of color in opal. Welo is as important to the opal business today as the Australian mines were in the previous century. The cornucopia of opal varieties that can imitate Lightning Ridge, Coober Pedy, Andamooka, Mexico or Brazilian opal from this new discovery alone will continue to bring excitement back to this Queen of Gems for many years to come.
Black Opal and Crystal Opal
Black and crystal opals will dazzle your eyes with a kaleidoscopic array of colors and patterns, and each one is unique. Like snowflakes in winter, no two black opals are identical. If you like more subtle colors, look for a stone that exhibits pinfire. Opals that show this smaller pattern of color are amazing. As the stone moves to and fro, small points of color "blink" in and out to remind you of a starlit tropical night, but in this sky, every star is a color of the rainbow.
Honduran Black Opal
Discover the kaleidoscopic array of colors and patterns in the Honduran black opal. The black opal is an intriguing and unique treasure for any gemstone collector. Learn more about the current state of the opal market here.
Where can Black Opal Be Found?
From the colorful Caribbean island of Honduras comes an intriguing black gemstone, the black opal. While you may not think of Honduras as a source for opal, the country has some of the oldest recorded opal mines in the world. Honduras is situated between North and South America, in the very heart of Central America. Surrounded by the tropical Caribbean and the enormous Pacific, Honduras is steeped in rich cultural traditions. Famous for its archaeology, it has one of the Mayan world's most beautiful and best-preserved sites, Copán.
What are the characteristics of Honduran Black Opal?
This unspoiled setting for natural beauty is also home to one of the most beautiful of gems, Honduran black opal. The Honduran black opal is a unique variety of matrix opal. Stones are beautifully speckled and appear almost galactic in nature. They are of volcanic origin forming in basalt belts which gives them their dark body color. As with every opal, the colors and patterns of each stone are never exactly alike and Honduran black opal is no exception. Black opal is a unique and highly collectible gem to add to any collection. Black opal also makes outstanding jewelry because the gem can easily stand alone or be combined with any color.
What are the Black Opal Mining Conditions as of August 2010?
JTV's Honduran black opal is found on a hillside surrounded by large blocks of volcanic black basalt. Workers hand chisel the boulders to extract small veins of thin, colorful precious opal. The material is found as horizontal bands within the vesicular black basalt and great care is exercised during the extraction process. The opal, having no cracks or holes to fill, merely solidified within the rock itself. As a result, the entire opal-filled rock is fashioned into gems. There are many grades of this material ranging from that of little value (and often sold in bulk sacks) to the premium, intensely fiery material usually sold by the gram. When the rough is mined, it must be brought down the hillside by donkeys. Once the rough reaches the cutter, it is cut into striking cabochon gems or beads since smooth, rounded surfaces show the colors best. Since black matrix opal isn't like regular opal, its blended formation can frustrate opal cutters who are only familiar with the glassy types of opal.
Due to the porous structure of the matrix, finished gemstones are often given a quick, hot resin bath and then scrubbed and cleaned. The resin acts as a barrier and helps to prevent the gems from absorbing other substances. This procedure is like the one used with emeralds. The resin does not coat the stone or harden it. Honduras black matrix opals vary from black to grey to brownish, they are often smoked to become more consistently black, but they are NOT dyed by way of sugar/acid treatments. These treatments are permanent – the stones will not fade or change over time. Honduran black opal is much less expensive than sugar treated matrix opal at about 1/10 of its price. As with leopard opal from Mexico, Honduran black opals need LOTS of light to best observe their fine play of color! Prepare to be mesmerized when you take your gem out into the sun where the play of color quickly comes to life. Honduran black opal doesn't have the problems of heat sensitivity and brittleness that other opals have. While crazing is possible in other varieties, these gems never crack.
Chalama Black Opal
There is no doubt that Ethiopian Opal from the country's Welo District has taken the world gem market by storm. Just a few years have passed since this momentous find, and Ethiopia continues to astound the world with its infinite variety of precious opal. The variety of body colors, patterns, and especially the brilliance of colors that Ethiopian opals display are simply amazing! Australia was once the world's most prolific opal source, but Ethiopian opal's intoxicating display of color has surpassed the popularity (and supply) of gems from that region. The Land down under has traditionally been known for an exciting opal variety known as black opal. Some of the finest gems have been mined in the lightning ridge area. In case you aren't familiar with black opal, it is precious opal that displays its play-of-color against a dark body color.
Jewelry Television® offers a variety of opal, including cabochon as well as faceted opals, a milestone not often seen in opal. As we continue to lead the world in the latest gem offerings, JTV is pleased to introduce Chalama black opal from Ethiopia. Chalama (pronounced Chah Lah Muh) is the Amharic (Ethiopia's native language) word meaning to darken which perfectly describes the gems change in appearance after treatment.
A new process has been developed which causes Ethiopian opal to exhibit vivid colors in contrast to a semi-transparent black body color. The process allows carbon to be deposited throughout the entire opal body making it appear as a replica of the famous Lightning Ridge black opal from Australia. The process begins with fine quality natural solid opal from the Welo district. The strength, vibrancy, and intensity of color this process produces is directly related to the quality of the natural opal used to begin the process. Unlike sugar treated matrix opal, a lesser quality stone will not improve with treatment. It is a tricky process that involves both heat and smoke; any unstable material will not survive during treatment. This brings the overall cost of this treated gemstone higher than its untreated counterpart.
Most of the members of JTV's gemstone buying team haven't seen smoke treated opals in the market since the 1970s. In the smoke treatment process, the opals are wrapped in silver foil paper and heated. The smoke penetrates the opal and darkens the background color. This process results in a brighter play-of-colors in contrast to the darkened background color. JTV is the first to bring this newly treated opal to the market.
Out of a 100,000 carat production of crystal and white Welo opal you will find that roughly 20% will have a medium to darker base color ranging from yellow/orange to tea-colored. This new treatment, however, leaves the opal decidedly black and very stable known because we placed them under stringent testing procedures. The black potch (colorless opal) sometimes found on the back of many Lightning Ridge stones is different than that of the Chalama black opal. This gem is mostly semi-transparent with little opaque potch and the color usually runs through the back of the stone.
The other joy of Chalama black opal is its variety of unique patterns.The harlequin pattern on the left if very rare. The ribbon pattern on the right is remarkable and is only possible to capture by video. If this is any indication of what else might come out of Ethiopia's cornucopia of opal wealth, then we should have years of collecting ahead. With Chalama black opal, you get great value and variety that JTV has become known for in the world of beautiful colored gemstones. Be the first to own one of these new and exotic gems!
If you prefer little or no play-of-color and warm, sunny hues, consider fire opals. Unlike the majority of opals that are opaque, fire opals can be as clear as crystal. With fire opals, you may enjoy a wide array of warm colors ranging from light yellow to cherry red. Because they are often faceted, you can marvel at the individual facets that capture the surrounding light and bring a fire opal stone to life.
While many associate opals name only with those types that always display magnificent play-of-color, there is another beautiful opal variety that is often overlooked Fire Opal. Fire opal gemstones glow with the fire of the volcanoes that spewed lava where they are produced so long ago: yellows, oranges and reds that are so bright you might think they would glow in the dark! While some fire opals can have the famous play-of-color so closely associated with the gem, they don’t need this phenomenon to captivate you. The most valuable fire opals are transparent and red, often called cherry opal because of their bright, bold colors. Ranging from transparent to translucent in appearance, fire opals have their own following in the world of gemstone collectors and aficionados.
Unlike most opals, fire opal is usually faceted so that you get sparkle in addition to vibrant color. Fire opal was born in fire in the ancient volcanoes of Mexico. It forms when water seeps into silica-rich lava, filling seams and hollows. Under heat and pressure, the silica forms a solid gel that traps the remaining water within its structure. Small pebbles of fire opal are found embedded in lava flows. Fire opal that displays play-of-color is rare because volcanic opal forms relatively quickly and the spheres of silica rarely have time to settle into the diffraction grids that create play-of-color.
Mining Fire Opal
Fire opal is mined in the Mexican states of Quéretaro, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Michoacan, Julisio, Chihuahua and San Luis Potosi. The most important mines are located in Quéretaro. Fire opal was discovered there in 1835 and some of the mines are still producing today. The state of Querétaro (pronounced ké re tar oh) is located in the central part of this vast country. From 1965 until 1975, there was a virtual opal rush at the Querétaro mines. It's told by miners from that period that opals were so plentiful that they were sold by the sackfuls by thousands of miners in the area. As with everything, this prosperous time ended a short decade later and today opals of the same gem quality are much harder to find.
Caring for Fire Opal
Like all opals, fire opal has a high water content. As a result, it should be protected from heat and prolonged exposure to strong light, which could dry it out. If set into jewelry, fire opals are best worn in protective mounting designs. Gems can be cleaned with a mild soapy solution and water.
Do you enjoy more subdued colors? Then consider one of the blue to green Peruvian opals. Their soft, soothing colors make a great contrast to the intensely warm and vibrant colors of fire opal.
Precious White Opal
If you prefer a creamy to white gemstone, then consider one of the Australian precious white opals. They are usually quite affordable and can round out your opal collection.
Opal Doublets and Triplets
If you prefer the eye-catching and intensely colored black or crystal opals, but price is an issue, then consider the great alternative of an opal doublets or triplets. While substantially less expensive, these gems offer the rich array of vibrant colors that are so highly desired. Doublets consist of a slice of opal backed with a matching slice of the stone's matrix or another material, which gives the opal slice strength. The opal is still real opal, just with extra enforcement to protect it. Doublets allow you to have the beautiful play-of-color that opals are known for at a fraction of the cost. Triplets are similar to doublets but with an added layer of protection on top of the stone as well.
Caramel Spice Opal™
Caramel Spice Opal™ is a unique opal variety hailing from a remote mining area in central Mexico. Distinguished by its multi-colored palette of delicious browns and creamy whites, this gemstone will doubtless remind you of your favorite caramel-drenched desserts. Easily distinguished by its rare, unique swirling patterns of brown, tan and white hues, Caramel Spice Opal™ is very alien in appearance in its natural formation. Skilled cutters must carefully study each piece of rough before cutting to determine how to best display its swirl patterns. Discovered accidentally while mining for Morado Opal®, Caramel Spice Opal™ is also a single source opal only found in this region. Both gems have all natural, untreated beauty, which is a rarity in the world of colored gemstones. Rarity definitely comes into play with this special opal. It has taken more than a year of mining to unearth enough material to bring this exciting new gem to market, meaning that its availability is indeed limited.
Due to its composition, Caramel Spice Opal™ has a hardness of 6, giving it a bit more resistance to scratching than most other opals. If you are an opal collector, this gem is a must-have for your collection. Or, if you like to wear your natural works of art from Mother Nature, this gem makes an exceptional choice as the focal stone when worn in earrings or a pendant. A word of caution: if you opt to set your Caramel Spice Opal™ into a ring mounting, we recommend a protective mounting such as a bezel setting.
The exciting news is that all of these opals have found their way into jewelry manufacturing and are available at Jewelry Television®. Indulge yourself with opals, or find that special piece of opal jewelry for a loved one. Enjoy nature's special gift to man as we celebrate the beauty and majesty of opal.