Color Is Everything
Myths and legends have always surrounded opals. Because the opal is the only gemstone that can naturally split light into all colors of the rainbow, people in the Middle Ages believed it brought good luck. It was also believed that if you wrapped an opal in a fresh bay leaf it could make you invisible. Although we now know these are just folktales, it is the beauty of opals that drives jewelry artists to create with them.
Australia mines about 96 percent of the world’s opals. Janice Evert is with Queensland Boulder Opal and has worked with the fiery gemstone for more than 30 years. She says there are three opal types in Australia, “Black opal is from Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, the Boulder opal is from Queensland, and the white opal is from South Australia. Every mine within these areas has an identity of its own. Traditionally, black opal is always the most expensive.”
Microscopically, opals contain silica spheres, which cause the interplay of light that produces the various colors. The sizes of these spheres and the way they’re arranged determine the quality and preciousness of the opal. Janice says most opals are usually cut into a cabochon, “Opals should be cut in such a way that it appeals to someone who would love to wear that stone because it is as unique as a fingerprint. Opal is a piece of natural art, telling a story of the landscape from where it came – the earthy colors and the magic colors of rainbows from sunsets and sunrises through the ages.”
Although opal-bearing rocks are found at all levels of the earth’s layers, making some easier to find that others, Janice says that small companies and families do most of the mining, “All the Queensland Boulder Opal fields are mined by the ‘Open Cut’ method, usually by family groups or small partnerships. Large companies have attempted to become involved over the years, but the unpredictable guarantee of production and profit of opals often see their dream cut short. Most of the small partnerships seem to have more passion and the will to succeed and against all the odds!”
Once the opal is discovered, miners generally use a sledgehammer to excavate the gem. Once the opal is unearthed, then cutters, like Janice, get their turn to bring out the beauty of the stone, “The skill of the cutter is to achieve the best value from the rough rocks. Opals tend to have their own set of rules. There is never a guarantee that the seam of color will do exactly what you imagine; nature will always be in control. I have often seen a person on a saw make or break the beauty of a stone, regardless of value.” After the opal is released from the rock, hand drills and grinding machines are used to bring out the splendor of the stone. Janice says the cutting of shapes will generally depend on the type of opal, “Boulder Opal is cut into freeform shapes to get the best return of color; basically you shape the gem to the color. Black opal is traditionally cut into rounds and ovals, but today there is a lot of freeform and carved black opal. White opal is generally cut in oval, freeform, and carved shapes and then polished.”
Janice says there’s an easy tenet to remember when looking to buy opals, “The standard rule is the more color, the higher the price.” Janice adds that the opal industry will also determine which colors, patterns, and color combinations are more valuable, so what is a good opal to purchase? Janice says it’s up to the individual buyer, “The answer has so many variations. Opal is such an individual gemstone. When considering purchasing an opal, the one that appeals to you may not be the largest, have greatest value, or contain the best color, but that is why choosing a good opal is as individual as the stone itself. You must be careful, though, because opals have a tendency to influence you; you can peruse 100 stones, but only one may draw you in.”
If opals have enticed you, you can find out more about Janice and opals, at her website: