The Opal

“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.


Necklace enameled set with opals
Marcus and Co.


Brooch, gold, opal
Marcus & Co


Pendant with silver, opals, glass, tourmalines

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.

Art Deco Necklace of Floating Opals

Art Deco Necklace of Floating Opals
Sold by Georgian Jewelry
(click on picture to go to site)

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.

Brooch/pendant, carved opal, demantoid garnet, diamonds, 18k yg, platinum, c. 1890, a circ carved opal depicting a sea nymph, rising/setting sun with circ-cut diamond center, and ocean waves, with grad oe diamond border above and demantoid-set yg foliate wreath border surmounted by two stylized fish below, three hidden pendant loops, sgd

Brooch/pendant with carved opal, demantoid garnet, diamonds, 18k yellow gold, and platinum, c. 1890. A carved opal depicting a sea nymph with ocean waves by Marcus & Co.


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.

Sources / resources:


Most people associate the name ‘garnet’ with the dark red varieties, (pyrope, almandine or, possibly, rhodolite.) Garnets, however, actually come in many colors and have a wide variety of names, which I have listed at the bottom of this post.  Often garnets will even be a combination of these colors and not always fall clearly into one variety. (The classification of garnets is actually quite complicated  and the term covers over ten different gemstones so I will be revisiting this post when I’ve gotten further with my gemology studies to go more indepth).

During the Victorian era, particularly during the mid and late Victorian era, (1856-1900), dark red garnets were extremely popular, particularly pyrope  garnets with their deep, blood like color.  The Victorians of that era of course loved all things dark colored and garnets were considered appropriate for mourning attire. Garnets were very often rose cut and could be set in gold or silver, but very often they were set in a low carat gold alloy (ie tombak). Garnets were thought to cure blood disorders and to prevent bad tempers.

A group of 19th century Bohemian garnet jewellery

A group of 19th century garnet jewellery, circa 1890
Christie’s sale 4824 27 March 2012, London South Kensington


London, England c. 1870
Necklace with gold, almandine garnet carbuncles
V&A Museum

The word ‘garnet’ comes from the Latin word ‘granatas’ meaning pomegranate.  It is easy to see, when you look at pomegranate seeds, how the association could have been made.  The word ‘pyrope’ comes from the Greek word for ‘fire like’. Pyrope garnets are also often referred to as ‘Bohemian Garnets’ because they were so often mined in Bohemia.  (However, the name ‘Bohemian Garnets’, although extremely widespread, is considered a misnomer according to the Gemological Institute of America.  Other misnomers include Colorado ruby, Arizona ruby, California ruby, Rocky Mountain ruby, Elie Ruby, Bohemian carbuncle, and Cape ruby.)

Pyrope garnets and almandine garnets are very difficult to tell apart by eye and are frequently mistaken for each other. Pyrope garnets under a microscope will display fewer inclusions so are generally considered to be slightly more valuable but not greatly so.  Often, red garnets are actually a mixture of both pyrope and almandine and this is another one of the reasons for the confusion.  I have also noticed that even the major auction houses and museums don’t always try and name the exact variety of the garnet if it is red and will simply just refer to it as ‘garnet’.


Europe c. 1850
Ring with cluster of almandine garnets in gold mount
V&A Museum


Dutch garnet necklace c. 1850
Christie’s Sale 3002,
Amsterdam Jewels and Watches, 18 April 2012

Victorian garnet bracelet with rose gold and seed pearls.

Other kinds of garnets, such as this hessonite garnet (more of a brown-orange color) were used less frequently.


Europe c.1800-1869
Faceted hessonite garnet ring, set in gold
V&A Museum

Demontoid garnets, with their amazing bright green color, are considered to be the most desirable and valuable kind of garnets used. (Tsavorite and Uvarovite are also bright green and valuable but are extremely rare and generally not found in antique jewelry).

It is easy to mistake demontoid for the less valuable stone peridot so please check carefully.  Misnomers for demontoid garnets are olivine and Uralian emerald.  Demontoid garnets were not discovered until 1868 in the Ural mountains of Russia so you will not find a piece older than that. (They were discovered by the same person who discovered Alexandrite).

The name ‘demontoid’ comes from the French ‘diamant’ meaning ‘diamond’.  Demontoid garnets have astonishing luminosity that rival diamonds.  It is very rare to find a demontoid garnet in a large carat so be very wary if you come across one. They have not yet been synthesized. Famed Russian jeweler Carl Fabergé was an enormous fan of demontoid garnets and really brought them to the fashion forefront. They are also associated with Tiffanys of the late 19th century. Demontoids very much appealed to the naturalistic aesthetic of the era and are found in many higher end late Victorian and Art Nouveau pieces, often, in the case of Art Nouveau pieces, to represent foliage.


Demantoid, pearl and gold brooch.
USA. c.1900
V&A Museum  (American buyers were known to prefer a more toned down version of Art Nouveau style).

Antique Demantoid and Diamond Spray, opal bug

Detail of Fabrege Antique Demantoid Garnet and Diamond Spray Brooch, opal bug
English, 1870

Namibian demantoids, discovered more recently, are not considered as desirable as Russian demontoids and lack a signature ‘horsetail’ inclusion.  It is interesting that in the case of demantoids, the inclusion is considered as something desirable. Namibian demontoids will not be found in antique pieces. There are also a lot of imitation glass garnets on the market, in all colors.  Also, garnet jewelry is still produced and is very popular to this day, often with antique styled settings, so it is important not to be mislead if you believe you are buying an antique piece. Synthetic garnets are not commonly used in jewelry.

If you are purchasing a piece of antique garnet jewelry check carefully to see if any of the stones are missing.  Also, check to see if they are set properly (with a prong or claw set) or glued in as this will affect the value.

Garnet names and colors:

  • Almandine   Red with Violet Tint
  • Andradite    Yellow, Green, Brown & Black
  • Demantoid   Bright Green
  • Melanite       Opaque Black
  • Topazolite     Lemon-Yellow
  • Grossular   Green, Yellow, Copper-Brown
  • Hessonite   Brown-Orange
  • Tsavorite    Intense Green
  • Leuco Garnet  Colorless
  • Mali  Yellow-Green to Yellow-Brown
  • Hydrogrossular  Translucent to Opaque Green, Pink, White
  • Malaya  Pinkish, Reddish, Yellowish Orange
  • Pyrope  Dark Red to Reddish Orange (blood red)
  • Rhodolite  Purplish Red to Reddish Purple
  • Spessartine  Yellowish Orange to Red-Brown
  • Mandarin  Orange-Yellow
  • Uvarovite  Emerald Green

Sources/ Further reading: (please be sure to also look at my sources in the drop down menu at the top of this page).


An Art Deco turquoise and diamond brooch

Art Deco Turquoise and Diamond Brooch
Christies Sale 7804
10 December 2012
London, South Kensington

Turquoise was mistakenly named as such (‘Turquoise’ means Turkey) because the Europeans of the 16th century thought that Turkey was where this lovely blue-green stone came from.  However, it only passed through Turkey on its way from Iran.

Turquoise was particularly prized during the Victorian era.  The sky blue variety was especially valued and it was considered a perfect stone for women of all ages, but especially younger women.  Turquoise was valued more highly than we value it today and therefore it was usually set with gold and often other precious materials, including diamonds.  The Georgians also loved it and tended to mix it with other gems, such as pearls. However, the use of turquoise was really at its height from the mid 1800s through to the early part of the 1900s, particularly in connection with Egyptian revival. It was nearly always cabochon cut; occasionally it was carved, faceted or worn as nuggets.


Enamelled gold brooch, set with a ruby, cabochon garnets, turquoises and pearls, England,1848
V&A Museum

The bright blue colour reminded Victorians of forget-me-nots, which signified true love in the language of flowers. Turquoise was a particularly popular gift for bridesmaids, often in the form of doves. In 1840, Queen Victoria gave her twelve bridesmaids turquoise brooches in the shape of eagles (This is according to the V&A Museum, although I have also seen reports that she in fact gave them portraits of herself framed in turquoise). Turquoise was traditionally believed to ward off danger.


Christie’s Sale 5388
Important Jewels
13 June 2012
London, King Street

Nowadays, turquoise is nearly always set in silver rather than gold. The kind of turquoise we see today that is webbed with matrix and that we associate with the American South-West was never used in previous eras in Europe; rather you only see pieces used with completely flawless, smooth color.  Turquoise is highly porous and today is treated to avoid the absorption of oils and other materials.  However, in the Victorian era it was never treated and therefore it is not unusual to see pieces which have changed color throughout the same piece, some stones remaining a sky blue, whilst others have turned a deeper green.  To me, this natural variation that comes with time adds character and depth to a piece and is superior to today’s more sterile and bland interpretation of the stone.

There are also nowadays a number of synthetic and imitation turquoises around which further give turquoise the reputation for being less than the beautiful and precious material it truly is.  It is important to note that many antique pieces appear to contain turquoise, but on closer inspection turn out to actually have turquoise colored glass.  Amazonite can also be a stone mistaken for turquoise (on close inspection Amazonite shows a mottling of the surface not seen in turquoise).  A gemologist can tell if it is synthetic turquoise or not using magnification; this is not generally a concern in antique pieces, however, as the first truly synthetic turquoise was not created until the 1970s, although there have always been turquoise imitations.

Turquoise and gold earrings, circa 1900

Gold and turquoise ring, circa 1900


Gold and turqoise earrings, England circa 1830.
V&A Museum


Necklace, England, circa 1835-1840
Silver and gold, pavé-set with turquoises, with rubies, pearls and brilliant-cut diamonds
Serpent motifs were often set with turquoise

Sources / further reading:


” Look, here it is, the prophetic Russian stone! O crafty Siberian. It was always green as hope and only toward evening was it suffused with blood. It was that way from the beginning of the world, but it concealed itself for a long time, lay hidden in the earth, and permitted itself to be found only on the day when Tsar Alexander was declared of age, when a great sorcerer had come to Siberia to find the stone, a magician.”    Leskov, Nikolai Semyonovich (1884), “Alexandrite”

Today, I’d like to share just a little about one of my favorite stones of all time, “Alexandrite.”  This amazing color-changing gem has a most fascinating history.  It was discovered in Russia around the time that Tsar Alexander II was celebrating his 16th birthday in 1834 and it was named after him.  This gem came to be intrinsically tied in with Russia’s dramatic history and fascinated the Russian aristocracy and future generations.  It was also said to be the favorite gem of  Tsarina Alexandra. Her wistful beauty and the story of her tragic life cannot fail to move anyone.


Tsarina Alexandra

In 1891, The Ladies’ Home Journal wrote: “… Alexandrite appears to be in the ascendancy jewel comes from Siberia, and is of a beautiful dark green transparent color, which under any artificial light changes to that of pigeon blood ruby.  The Alexandrite is cut like a diamond and is being used by the leading jewelers for lace pins, bracelets, and other ornaments.”

To this day, Alexandrite is associated with duality, hope and sadness, pain and pleasure, loss and life, tears and laughter.  This is truly a mystical and fascinating stone and it definitely appeals to those with a literary or artistic sensibility.  Looking at genuine Alexandrite can evoke strong emotion in a sensitive person.


Christie’s sale number 1350, 15 November 2007
Set with a square-shaped alexandrite to the lavender enamel tapered gold band, circa 1890, ring size 8, with St Petersburg assay mark for 22 carat gold (1908-1917)

For more info see here.

In daylight, Alexandrite is green or blueish green (symbolizing ‘hope’) changing to red or purple or lavender (symbolizing ‘blood’).  Natural Alexandrite does not come in any other colors than this (if it is yellow or brown it is probably color change crysoberyl which is often sold as Alexandrite). The closer the green is to emerald and the closer the red is to ruby, the more valuable the stone. It is extremely rare to find a stone which changes to red however, normally the color is purple or lavender. Naturally mined Alexandrite is rare and valuable and very seldom comes in large carats.  Nearly all of the Alexandrite you see today in contemporary jewelry is lab created.  I personally would only look for something in a vintage setting with small stones as a big stone is almost certainly lab created (if it is natural it should command a very high price!)  But only a trained and trusted gemologist can tell you for certain.


Here is a natural Alexandrite specimen from the Ural mountains. This one is a spectacular true green and lavender.


A naturally mined Alexandrite and 9 ct English ring from my personal collection. Judging by the Art Deco setting, I would place this ring from 1920 to 1940. It was hard to capture the colors with my camera, but the stones change subtly from dark green to dark purple in daylight.

 Further reading / sources: