Opals are one of the most unique gemstones in the world, known for their unique iridescent, fire-like appearance. For centuries, people believed opals contained other stones inside of a single gem. Why? Because of the radiating patterns and color combinations. For example, spots of red were assumed to be ruby, green looked like emerald, and thus, each opal was rumored to be a cluster of different stones in one. As a result, opals are one of the most aesthetically pleasing and desirable stones for jewelry and contain a rich history of folklore and holistic use.
However, opals are the softest gem-quality stone in the market, requiring extra care to protect and preserve their luminous fire and sheen long-term.
In this article, we’re going to share all of the pertinent details of opal stones, from their various meanings to holistic properties to gem characteristics and value. Let’s dive right in!
Opal is a gemstone that forms in a variety of different colors, shapes, and sizes. Opal’s composition is a hydrated (wet) amorphous silica mineral with a Mohs hardness scale ranking between 5.0 to 6.5. The silica deposits that opal form in produce when rain and silicon dioxide seep into the ground; the mixture picks up evaporated silica from the sandstone along the way and it all settles into crevices that eventually dry up. What’s left behind is a silica deposit that builds up over time — we’re talking millions of years — and eventually forms large opal boulders and concretions.
Miners discover these deposits and cut away the host rock to procure rough opal stones which are then faceted (cut) into gemstones!
Some opals are speckled with different colors and hues, others are translucent, and many are found in light shades of pink or blue with an iridescent shine. There are two types of opal, determined by whatever color they take on during formation: precious and common. Precious opals display the striking optical effect like a rainbow called play-of-color, which we mentioned above. Common opals, however, do not display this feature, and that’s the primary distinction between the two opal classes.
Since we’re on the subject, let’s look more into the fascinating fire seen in precious opals.
The term play-of-color refers to the fire-like rainbow appearance of precious opals, which diffract light in different ways based on the internal structure of the stone and the angles you view it from. It’s easier to understand the concept as an optical illusion: light enters the stone from one side, interacts with the internal structure, minerals, and shapes, and then leaves the stone in a flash of spectral colors. What you end up seeing is a vibrant mixture of colors and shapes that change as you move the stone!
It’s this remarkable feature that elevates opals into a class all their own.
Of all the different types of precious opals, black opal is the rarest form. The black color is actually a body tone, acting as a backdrop for the rainbow iridescence to dance and dazzle the eyes. Opaque greys, greens, and white are some of the most common body tones of precious opal that exhibit play-of-color. Beyond that, there are a few other ways to identify a gemstone in the opal family.
Color: All colors, with black being the rarest. Precious opals will appear iridescent over whichever primary body tone they have.
Crystal structure: Amorphous solid
Luster: Subvitreous to waxy
Refractive index: 1.450 +0.020/-0.080
Now that you’ve identified an opal, what does it mean? Like all gemstones, history has attributed opal stone with a long list of symbolic meanings. Let’s dig a little deeper into opal meanings and symbolism next.
Opal stone has a rich history of folklore that spans centuries. In Ancient Rome, opal symbolized love and hope. In other cultures, opal has been widely associated with royalty, good luck, and fortune. Because of its long history, opal meaning is sometimes attributed to conflicting symbolism and theories. Though it’s commonly seen as a symbol of good fortune, opal is also widely regarded to mean bad luck – it all depends on who you ask!
However, the truth is that opals don’t harbor bad luck, they’ve simply been associated as such in pop culture and literature. For thousands of years, opals represented good fortune. It wasn’t until the Black Plague in the 14th century that opal’s reputation took a downturn. Amidst this tragic health crisis, people believed that an opal’s colors were most bright when its owner was about to die. Allegedly, when they passed on, the opal lost all brilliance and fire.
Centuries later, Sir Walter Scott published Anne of Geierstein, and in the fiction tale one of the characters employs an opal talisman to obtain mystical powers, but when holy water drops onto the stone, the character dies immediately.
As you can see, opal’s reputation as a bad luck charm is purely myth and legend. There are real-life properties and opal benefits that vindicate this gem as one of the most treasured in the world.
Opal, the original October birthstone, has also been linked to supernatural origins and powers, probably because of its otherworldly appearance. On the zodiac calendar, opal falls under Libra for birthdays between September 23rd to October 22nd.
The stone is widely viewed within cultures as a symbol of hope, purity, and truth, and was even said to have fallen from the heavens.
Holistic healers use opal to intensify emotions and cosmic consciousness. It’s often said that wearing opal enhances creativity and intelligence in the wearer, and heightens a connection to oneself. Some even believe that wearing an opal strengthens recall and memory.
For healing, opal stone may treat infections and fevers, while simultaneously purifying the liver and kidneys. Opal is an excellent stone for women, too, by alleviating menstrual cramps and easing childbirth pain. Opal healing properties are based on holistic health theories that have stood the test of time, with more and more people gravitating to the stone’s properties for physical, mental, and emotional healing.
Opal properties extend beyond just metaphysics. Next, we’ll examine some of the important buying factors to consider regarding opal gemstones.
Once extracted from the earth, opal stones are usually cut and used in fine jewelry. Gemologists have devised a fail-proof method for identifying high-quality opal gems, which involves analyzing their color, clarity, and pattern. Let’s use Mexican fire opal and Peruvian opal as prime examples.
What color opal is most valuable? In precious opal stones, a combination of rare background color and play-of-color is paramount. Black opal stones are the rarest, and as such, they command the highest prices. A more accessible product in the opal market is from Mexico. Mexican Fire Opal should be a bright, reddish-orange at its base. Stones with hints of orange, yellow, and blue iridescence are the most valuable because, well, they look like fire!
The clarity in opal is a measure of its transparency, which ranges from clear to milky. The desired level of clarity varies depending on the type of opal. Some opal stones are valued higher if they are more transparent. Others, like Peruvian opal, are valued for opacity to make them appear more blue or pink.
In addition to clarity, opal patterns will drastically change the value of each opal stone. A stone’s play-of-color generally fits into one of three categories: pinfire, flash, and harlequin. Pinfire patterns are small specks of color, flash patterns appear in larger sections, and harlequin patterns can be identified by large rectangular patches of color with touching edges. Value is primarily in the eye of the beholder, but universally, the more play-of-color, the better.
Just remember that if you look at an opal and feel mesmerized, it likely has a high-quality play-of-color! But it’s always best to refer to this opal guide or consult with a reputable gemologist or jeweler to ensure the gem’s qualities are up to par.
So how do all of these opal properties play into the stone’s history as a precious gemstone?
The earliest known uses of opal stone date all the way back to Kenya in 4000 B.C. The ancient artifact was discovered by archaeologists in a cave in 1939, but as mentioned, opal has spanned centuries, hiding in caves and crevices waiting for explorers to excavate them.
The Romans, Egyptians, Greeks, and other great ancient civilizations have revered and gifted opal to loved ones and great rulers. Opal wasn’t accessible to commoners until much later in the timeline of civilization.
We know that these radiant stones have a vibrant history, but where do opals come from?
Opal surfaced in small patches throughout different parts of the world for centuries, but in the 1890s, Australian opal took the world by storm, and would quickly dominate the global opal supply and gemstone market.
Later, in the late 20th century, a startingly discovery rocked the opal market. Miners unearthed a striking new variety of opal in the Menz Gishe District of the Shewa province. Ethiopian Welo Opal now contributes the second-largest supply of opals in the world next to Australia.
Australia produces about 95% of the world’s precious opal. The land down under is also the only known place to find black opal, the rarest form of opal stone. Like many other gemstones, the landscape and chemical compounds present in the land influence which stones are produced. Australia’s dry climate and mineral-rich sandstone make up a perfect environment for a wide variety of gemstones including diamonds, sapphires, and jade stones.
Peruvian and Mexican fire opal stones are also common since they form in somewhat similar climates to Australia. Still, it’s important to understand the care and maintenance requirements of precious and common opal stones. With proper care, your opals will last a lifetime and more, making them treasured family heirlooms.
Opal, like most other precious gemstones, should be handled with great care. Because the stones are so soft and watery, they can easily scratch, break, and chip, and should be set or wrapped with precision if used in jewelry. This is the best way to ensure that the stone is safe while wearing day-to-day.
Jewelers have creatively devised ways to protect opals to ensure they withstand daily wear and tear. Still, you’ll want to clean opals routinely to best display their vibrance and play-of-color.
To clean your precious opal stones, use a mild detergent and warm water. Scrub the gemstones only with a soft bristle toothbrush. Avoid bleaches and harsh cleaners at all costs, as they can damage your opal. Soaking and immersing them in water may also cause some damage, so don’t submerge your opal stones if possible. Better upkeep will help you maintain your stone’s value so it can stand the test of time.
Additionally, bring your opal stones into the jeweler for cleaning once or twice a year. The jewelers will be able to clean away any buildup or residue in the jewelry settings, as well.
Like all gemstones, opal is priced by carat weight, but due to the variety of stones in the market, the price per carat differs based on your stone. Common opal can cost as low as $10 per carat, but prices get up to $6,000 per carat for more rare, precious forms of opal gemstones — especially those exhibiting the most fire and unique color patterns.
Believe it or not, an opal stone called “The Virgin Rainbow” is valued at a whopping $1 million dollars. This amazing opal is currently the most expensive opal stone ever discovered and sits in the Southern Australia Museum in Adelaide. If the massive size, gorgeous black color, and all-over pattern of this stone weren’t enough, the play-of-color actually glows in the dark!
It’s not unusual for opal to be confused with moonstone and other iridescent stones, so it’s important to check the clarity and color when purchasing an opal stone. Buy from trusted sources and keep a watchful eye out for simulated opals.
Before we conclude this opal guide: what is opal stone good for? Well, a lot of things really. Not only is opal a truly captivating and unique stone with magnetizing qualities, but precious opal is also exceptionally rare and almost exclusively Australian. If you’re ready to get your hands on an opal gemstone, you will also benefit from the mental, spiritual, and metaphysical benefits of wearing the stone regularly.
If you’re interested in purchasing opal, Opal Auctions is your trusted source with competitive pricing on high-quality opal stones.
For all of your opal needs and desires, visit Opal Auctions today!
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