What Is So Special About Opal?

By | April 6, 2024

Have you ever found yourself captivated by the whimsical allure of opal? In the world of precious stones, opal occupies a truly remarkable place. “What is so special about opal?” offers a refreshing walk through the intrinsic value of this remarkable gemstone. Entrancing with its vibrant kaleidoscope of colours, opal holds much more than just its aesthetic appeal. From its symbolic significance, unique formation process, to its coveted place in history and fashion, this article unravels the many aspects that make opal a gem of exceptional charm.

What Is So Special About Opal?

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Definition of Opal

Opal is a precious gemstone loved for its unique display of rainbow-like colors, an optical phenomenon termed ‘play of color’. This striking characteristic has caught the attention of gemstone collectors and enthusiasts, rendering opal a gemstone of extraordinary beauty and charm.

Origins of the term

The term “opal” is derived from the Latin word ‘Opalus’, which means “precious stone”. Greeks called it ‘Opallios’, translating to a change of color – a fitting description considering opal’s stellar play of colors.

Classifications of opal

Opals are classified into broad categories based on color, transparency, and pattern. The two primary categories are common opal, which exhibits a single color, and precious opal, that showcases the characteristic play of color. Other classifications like black opal, white opal, fire opal, and boulder opal are derived based on their specific attributes.

The Unique Formation of Opal

What makes opal remarkable hinges mainly on the unique and intricate process of its formation. Unlike other gemstones that crystallize from a molten rock or mineral-rich liquid solution, opal forms as a result of a unique set of geological conditions which occur over millions of years.

Origins and locations of opals

Opals are found in several corners of the world, with Australia being the primary source accounting for around 95 percent of the world’s precious opal. They’re also found in Ethiopia, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, each location producing opals of varying characteristics.

The geological process of opal formation

Opal formation begins when silica-rich water seeps into the cracks and cavities of a host rock. As the water evaporates over a long period of time, it leaves behind tiny silica spheres that stack up to form opal. The unique stacking of these silica spheres results in the captivating display of colors characteristic of precious opals.

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Physical Properties of Opal

Opals are unique not just in appearance but also in their physical properties that distinguish them from most other gemstones.

Mineral composition

Opal is composed primarily of silicon and oxygen, taking the chemical formula SiO₂·nH₂O. The ‘n’ represents the varying amount of water contained in the opal which can range from about 3 to 21 percent.

Hardness and durability

The hardness of opal varies between 5.5 and 6.5 on the Mohs scale, making it relatively softer than many other gemstones. Its durability doesn’t compete with the likes of diamond or sapphire, therefore, extra care is needed when handling opal jewelry.

Range of color and appearance

Opal is famed for its wide range of body colors, from clear to white, black, gray, red, orange, green, and more. The varying colors are the result of the interference and diffraction of light which pass through the tiny silica spheres in its internal structure.

Types of opal displays

Each opal is unique in terms of color display. While some opals might show only one color, others can showcase a wide spectrum of the rainbow. The patterns of color play can also vary greatly, which adds to its appeal.

Opal’s Play of Color

The feature that sets opal apart from other gemstones is its unique display of shifting colors, a phenomenon known as opal’s ‘play of color’.

Explanation of ‘play of color’

‘Play of color’ occurs when white light hits the tiny silica spheres within the opal, breaking the light into a spectral of colors. As the angle of observation changes, different colors become visible, producing the fascinating play of color.

Factors affecting the ‘play of color’

The size and alignment of the silica spheres largely determine the colors that an opal displays. Smaller spheres produce blue colors while larger ones produce red. In ideal opals, spheres are uniformly sized and regularly arranged, amplifying the play of colors.

Differences in color display among opals

Each opal shows a unique pattern of color which varies depending on the internal structure and size of the silica spheres. Some opals may show a broad flash of colors, some a pinfire (tiny spots) display, while others present a harlequin pattern (large, well-defined patches of color).

What Is So Special About Opal?

Varieties of Opal

There are numerous types of opals, each having distinct characteristics. Here’s a glimpse into some of the popular varieties:

Precious opal

Precious opal is the most common type, displaying a multi-colored play of color against a white or light body color.

Fire opal

Named because of its fiery orange or red color, the fire opal can either be transparent, translucent or opaque. Some of these may exhibit play of color, but many do not.

Boulder opal

This variety of opal forms on ironstone boulders in Queensland, Australia. It’s characterized by thin veins of opal surrounded by the host rock.

Black opal

Highly prized because of their dark body color which enhances the play of color, black opals are indeed a tantalizing sight.

Matrix opal

Matrix opal contains small specks or veins of opal surrounded by the host rock, often bringing to mind images of ethereal starry skies.

Other lesser known varieties

Other less common varieties include crystal opal, which is transparent or semi-transparent, and hydrophane opal, which becomes transparent when soaked in water and translucent upon drying.

Historical Significance of Opal

Opal has held a position of significance and fascination across cultures and historical epochs.

Opal in ancient cultures

In ancient cultures, opal was treasured and believed to possess various powers. The Romans used opal as a symbol of hope and purity, while the Greeks believed it bestowed the gift of prophecy and protected from diseases.

Symbolism and mythology related to opal

In Aboriginal Australian mythology, the creator came down to earth on a rainbow and where he touched the ground, opals were formed. In Europe during the Middle Ages, opal symbolized good luck contradicting later superstitions.

Use of opal in royal jewels

Opal has long been used in royal jewelry. Queen Victoria was particularly fond of opal and wore it often, which helped to heighten its popularity in the 19th century.

Opal in Modern Jewelry

In contemporary times, opal continues to be a favorite gemstone for jewelry, treasured for its multicolored brilliance and one-of-a-kind beauty.

Opal as a gemstone for fine jewelry

Opal is a popular choice for all types of jewelry, from rings and earrings to pendants and bracelets. Its broad color range means it can complement virtually any outfit.

Use of opal in contemporary designs

Today’s designers use opals in both traditional and modern styles due to their inherent beauty and versatility. Whether set into simple sterling silver or paired with diamonds in intricate designs, opals lend a unique charm to any piece.

Care and maintenance of opal jewelry

Due to their relatively low hardness and high-water content, opals are sensitive to sudden temperature changes, harsh chemicals, and impacts. They should be carefully stored and cleaned only with mild soap and water to keep them in the best shape.

Opal as a Birthstone

Opal serves as a meaningful and gorgeous birthstone, linked to the month of October.

Opal as the birthstone of October

Those born in October have opal as their birthstone. Associated with purity, hope, and faith, it’s believed to bring good luck to anyone who wears it.

Symbolism and significance of birthstones

Birthstones have long been believed to bring good luck, health, and prosperity. They connect people to their birth month, making them feel special and unique.

Why opal is chosen as a birthstone

Opal is chosen for October due to its multi-hued nature reminiscent of the colorful autumn leaves, making it an apt symbol for the transformative and colorful month.

The Value and Pricing of Opal

Like other precious gemstones, the value of opal depends on multiple factors, including color, pattern, size, and rarity.

Factors affecting opal’s value

The colors displayed by an opal are one of the primary factors influencing its value – with the presence of red being most desirable. Also, the larger and clearer the color patches and the greater the play of color, the higher the value. Opals with rare patterns like the harlequin pattern are also highly prized.

Pricing variations among different types of opals

The pricing of opals varies widely, with black opals being the most valuable owing to their unique dark body color enhancing the play of color, while common opals being the least expensive.

The opal industry and market today

The market for opal remains robust, with high-quality black opals often selling for prices comparable to those fetched by fine diamonds. The beauty and uniqueness of each opal ensure a steady demand for this bewitching gemstone.

Cultural and Artistic References of Opal

Opal has found its way into several cultural and artistic corners, influencing names, designs, and storytelling.

Opal in literature and poetry

The captivating opal has been mentioned in many works of literature and poetry, often symbolic of beauty, mystery, or change.

Opal in visual arts

From painting to photography, the unique beauty of opal has inspired many visual artists. Its myriad of colors and mesmerizing play of color serve as the perfect muse for creative expressions.

Opal inspired names and terms

Finally, the term ‘opal’ has found its way into everyday use, inspiring names and phrases. From the ‘opal skyline’ describing a particular hue of the sunset, to ‘opal’ being used as a personal name, the appeal of this gem stretches across varying realms.

Indeed, the allure of opal lies in its captivating play of color, diverse varieties, and the unique formation process. Gifted by nature with such splendor and charm, it’s no wonder that the opal is deemed as precious as it’s so special.

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Author: marklsmithms1

Hi, I'm Mark, the author of Maura Gems and Jewellery. As a team of qualified gemmologists and goldsmiths, we bring you world-class jewellery at Bangkok prices. With offices in both Bangkok and the UK, we ethically source the finest gemstones directly, eliminating any middlemen. We offer a wide range of stunning ready-made jewellery items in our new online store, available for retail or wholesale. Additionally, we specialize in custom-made jewellery where we can bring any design to life. Whether you're a trade professional or an individual customer, we cater to all. Feel free to email me at mark@mauragemsandjewellery.com or call/WhatsApp me at 07470547636 or +66949355718. Discover our incredible collection by visiting our online store. I guarantee you'll love what you find there!

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