“When nature had finished painting the flowers, coloring the rainbows, and dyeing the plummage of the birds, she swept the colors from her pallette and molded them into opals.” Du Ble
The precious opal has something mysterious, otherworldly and enchanting about it. Those who fall for the allure of the opal tend to fall in love wholeheartedly and make it their favorite gem. Beloved by the ancients, praised by Shakespeare and treasured by all, there are few who have not been enamored with this astonishing gem.
Unfortunately, however, opals had a very bad beginning in popular 19th century culture. In 1829, a novel called Anne of Geurstein by Scott was published. In it the character, Lady Heromine, wears an iridescent opal in her hair. When she dies tragically, suspicions fall on the mysterious forces of the opal. Consequently, few through out the late Georgian, early and mid Victorian eras would wear opals. Even Princess Eugenie refused a gift of opals from Napoleon.
Queen Victoria, perhaps being more pragmatic, worked hard to change the opal’s image and more or less succeeded, although some of the earlier superstition still remains even today. She even gave opals as wedding gifts. Around 1871, an opal field was found in Australia and it was really only after this date that opals became widely accepted. The late Victorians and Edwardians loved opals and it is more often from these times that we find antique opal pieces.
Kinds of opals
When we talk about opals, there are really three distinct kinds. These are:
1) Precious opals. This is the kind most people know. Precious opals have a fabulous iridescence (an ‘opalescence’) to them which mean they appear multicolored in different lights. They can express every color in the visible spectrum. White is the most common color for opals but they can also be clear, gray, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, magenta, rose, pink, slate, olive and brown. Black with red is the rarest type of opal.
2) Fire opals. These are not opalescent but rather are orange and most valued when they are clear. The Mexican water opal is a type of fire opal and is light brown or colorless.
3) Common opals. These come in a variety of colors which are called wood, agate, honey, milk and moss. Again, they do not have ‘opalescence’.
There are also ‘floating opals’. These are in fact precious opal chips put in a small glass housing containing glycerin. The chips should move when you shake the housing. Floating opal jewelry can be quite sought after and collectible when it is genuinely vintage. It was first produced in 1922. Care must be taken that it is not actually synthetic opal or some other stone. The better pieces are marked by the maker.
Opals are around 10% water and have an amorphous cell structure. Because of this, they can lose their iridescence over a long time if they are not stored in a moist environment. Opals were first synthesized in 1974. There are some processes of producing glass which can appear like opal at first sight.
Opals can be faceted and carved and there are some amazing examples of this from The Art Nouveau era and The Arts and Crafts Movement.
When considering the quality of an opal, the intensity, distribution and number of colors present are all important. The best stones are semi translucent. Ideally, the color play should be visible from arms length. The more colors there are the better. Black opals being rarer are more valuable, as is a red or orange color play.
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