On Opals

Iridescent Shades of Water

If a single recent phenomenon could attest to the growing buying power of Chinese collectors in the world of high jewellery, it might be the emergence of opal pieces in the high jewellery collections of international maisons from Boucheron to Tiffany in its 2014 Blue Book Collection, and high-end independent designers like Irene Neuwirth and Paula Crevoshay whose opal designs could cost up to six figures.

Though maisons will not disclose sales figures, there are other clear signs that opal is hot in China. According to Damien Cody, a leading opal authority from Australia and the National Opal Collection, Chinese demand for the gem has grown from single digits to make up 25 per cent of total current opal exports from Australia in five years. Australia is currently the country with the largest supply of black opals. “Demand has outstripped supply so much that its price has risen by 25 to 30 per cent,” adds Cody.

But what is an opal? It is not actually a gemstone, but a hydrated amorphous form of silica – that is to say, it is a gel formed when a solution of silicon dioxide and water dries up, leaving behind little silica ‘balls’ in rocky cracks and pockets. As the process repeats over millions of years – waters flooding arid and semi-arid areas – the silica deposits compact and harden, creating opals. They can occur in any kind of rock and can take on many colours, ranging from green to blue, red to orange and white to the rarest of all, black.

There are two main varieties of opal – precious and common. The latter represents almost 95% of all opals mined, being dull in colour. The former is far more rare, able to diffract light in the distinctive play-of-colour that defines precious opals. If an opal has characteristics both common and precious, it is known as potch. Of the 5% of mined opals that aren’t common, only 5% are precious, ie. only 0.25% of mined opals have any real value at all. The unique play-of-colour made opals the stone of good luck in the European Middle Ages, as it possessed the entire colour spectrum of other gems, and therefore, all their virtues. The Bedouins of Arabia thought that opals contained lightning that fell from the sky during thunderstorms, while the Romans valued it above all else – opal comes from the Roman word opalus, meaning precious stone.

Because precious opal is so rare, whole examples are rarely found. Instead, the most common decorative opals are either doublets or triplets; a doublet is where is a thin slice of precious opal is glued to a backing, usually a dark surface like onyx to bring out the play-of-colour, while a triplet is a doublet with a clear cap of crystal or glass glued on top. Both are meant to emphasise the play-of-colour, the shimmering opalescence caused by light ping-ponging through the grid-like microscopic structure of the mineraloid. Varying structures cause varying play-of-colour, leading to wonderfully imaginative descriptions like ‘harlequin’, ‘needle fire’, ‘flame’, ‘nebula’ and ‘peacock’.

Almost all of the world’s opals are found in Australia, where it is the national stone, accounting for more than 90% of world supply, with South Australia alone making up 80%. Opals are also found in Ethiopia, Mexico and the USA, with smaller deposits in Brazil, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 2008, NASA announced that opal deposits had been discovered on Mars.

Although the Chinese seem to be driving the opal market, Claudia Florian, co-consulting director of the Bonhams Natural History Department in Los Angeles, believes that there’s also renewed interest across cultures. Florian, who founded Bonhams’ annual The World of Opals auction – which is exclusively devoted to the gem – claims that she now receives email and call enquiries from dealers on a daily basis as compared to very few five years ago. She adds that buyers are mainly from the US, Germany, Italy and the Japan. The latter was incidentally, one of opal’s biggest markets in the 1980s when its economy was stronger. Chinese buyers now form 15 per cent of her clientele.

The Galaxy Opal (left) and the Halley’s Comet Opal, two of the finest mined examples of opals known

At Christies’ Magnificent Jewels auction on 25 November 2014, a 10-carat black opal and diamond ring sold for three times its estimate to an Asian buyer. Auction houses observe that a lot of the opal jewellery sold in auctions in Asia is to Asians, although they can’t disclose specific nationalities. The fact that the opal was chosen to be the feature stone in the state-approved China Mineral and Gem Show (CMGS) in May 2014 is further proof of its popularity in the country. For this show, The National Opal Collection was invited to display more than 100 extremely rare opal specimens including opalised fossils of dinosaurs.

One of the most important Australian opals is the Halley’s Comet, a massive 2000-carat black opal nodule found in Lightning Ridge, the continent’s famed opal-mining town. It currently holds the record in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s biggest black opal. After several failed attempts to sell it, including at a Los Angeles auctions by Bonhams, Florian believes that it finally found a home with a Chinese buyer, via a private sale with a dealer from Beijing.

The coloured specks in opal come in a myriad of patterns. One particular pattern is called Chinese writing where the specks resemble the strokes in Chinese calligraphy – a point that resonates deeply with Chinese buyers. At a time of emerging affluence, there is also resurgence in Chinese pride towards elements of their civilisation, especially those that were wiped out of Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese are now playing catch up.

Opal, as a gem that represents water, is also significant in fengshui. Water is one of the five elements that govern the ancient concepts of fengshui and Chinese astrological charts. Renowned Singapore fengshui practitioner Adelina Pang feels that some people who lack this element in their birth charts might feel drawn to wearing the stone in order enhance their personal energy, though she qualifies that it does nothing for the physical environment, which is what fengshui is about.

Charles Leung, Chaumet’s vice president of international sales and distribution, believes it’s the uniqueness of opal that is particularly attractive to the Chinese market, where rare pieces are prized above all else. No two opals are alike – the play-of-colour (the multicoloured pattern that can be seen within the gem) is unique to each opal, much like the human fingerprint.

Usually best showcased with the cabochon cut, the fathomless depth of the beautiful rainbow colours change in intensity and brightness, depending on the angle from which it is seen. The opal’s dazzling beauty is well presented in key pieces from Louis Vuitton’s Acte V collection with the Genesis Earrings, which feature black Australian opals, the Indian Palace ring available in either white or black opal in Boucheron’s Fleur des Indes collection and the Cartier’s Panthere de Cartier Bracelet. The stone has captured the fancy of private jewellers, too. The US-based Paula Crevoshay, who has worked with opals for more than 33 years, attests to having a soft spot for the stone as the colours remind her of Monet’s impressionist paintings and inspires her to treat each piece she creates as an art.

The world’s most famous opals:

  • The Andamooka Opal, presented to Queen Elizabeth II during her first visit to South Australia
  • The Addyman Plesiosaur, an opalised fossil of a plesiosaur on display at the South Australian Museum
  • The Burning of Troy, a now-lost opal presented to Josephine de Beauharnais by Napoleon I of France, and the first named opal
  • The Halley’s Comet Opal, the world’s largest uncut black opal
  • The Galaxy Opal, the world’s largest polished Opal


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