Kaleidoscopic Opal: Australia’s Official National Gemstone

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Opal, one of the two birthstones for the month of October and is associated with the 14th wedding anniversary, is a galaxy trapped in an amorphous solid. With its kaleidoscopic colors, Opal can flash all the colors of the rainbow in different iridescent moving patterns, also known as the play-of-color. This display of flashing colors makes it a magnificent experience for both gemstone connoisseurs and non-connoisseurs.

But what’s really in a name?

What’s in a Name?

A piece of opal encompassed the beauty of many gemstones, and because of its variety, this delicate beauty has been given so many names by people enchanted by its mystery. You might have heard names like Lightning, Fireworks, and Galaxies among many others but none could aptly describe it than its Sanskrit derivation from the word “Upala” which means “precious stone” and later from the Greek’s “Opallios” which means “to see a change of color.”

But how does nature create such beauty or do we have to credit the lightning for opal’s existence? 

Formation: Did Opals Really Fall from the Heavens?

There are many myths, folklores, and legends surrounding the origin of opal. For example, in the Arabic legend, opals are formed by falling from the heavens in flashes of lightning. Meanwhile, in the Australian Aboriginal folklore, opals’ existence started one day when the creator of the universe came down to earth from a rainbow, and when the creator’s foot touched the ground, the ground became colorful opals. There are many Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime stories that talk about opal. In fact, the Australian Opal Centre recognizes the Aboriginal people as the first finders of this gemstone. 

But nature has a different story to tell.

Opal photography
Captured using the GemLightbox and the GemLightbox turntable, this green opal reminds us of forest moss.

Opal is formed when liquefied silica is carried into rock fissures. Stuck between sandstones and rocks, the silica gets trapped and solidified into a gel that then becomes opal. It is delicate. Opal contains 20% water that dries out through time; thereby, making it brittle and scratches easily. 

The Exploration of Colors

Confusion arises in terms of categorizing opals because its type varies according to color, patterns, value, location, formation, cuts, and clarity among many others. However, the only two genuine classes of opals are the precious and common opals, which are then divided into different subcategories.

Further, you can differentiate between these two through its display of colors. The former contains sub-microscopic spheres that are stacked in layers. These spheres, as shown in the image below, diffract white light by breaking it into a spectrum of colors causing the display of colors. On the other hand, the latter is incapable of causing such light show because its silica spheres are too small to produce one.

molecular structure of opal
The molecular structure of opal, source: Wikimedia Commons 

Opal by Colors

Setting aside other categorizations and focusing only on colors, your opal gemstone may fall under any of these five most common types. 

  • Black – Dark bodycolor (black, gray, dark blue, dark green), which makes its fire more evident.
  • Boulder – Seams and patches of opal attached to its host rock
  • Fire – A fiery background-color of bright red (cherry opal), orange (tangerine opal) or yellow (lemon opal)
  • White/Light/Milky – Pale white with flashes of bright colors and can display a mix of spectral colors
  • Water – Clear to translucent with flashes of colors

History, Cultural Associations, and Lore

Most of the opals have been emplaced million years ago in the Cretaceous Period when dinosaurs roamed and the first snakes and the first flowering plants evolved. In fact, a mine in Wee Warra, a town in Lightning Ridge, Australia, unearthed a jaw-dropping opal only to discover that it is an opalized fossil of a previously unknown dinosaur, now aptly named Weewarrasaurus (from Wee Warra, the place of discovery) pobeni (to honor Mike Poben, the opal buyer who donated the discovered specimen for research).

It displays at once the piercing fire of carbunculas (ruby/sapphire), the purple brilliance of amethystos (amethyst), and the sea-green of smaragdus (emerald), and all these glittering colors mixed together in an incredible way. Some opali carry such a play within them that they equal the burning sulphur, yet, and even the bright blaze of burning oil.

– Pliny the Elder

Louis Leakey, the founding father of palaeoanthropology, discovered one of the earliest, if not the earliest known, opal artifacts in Kenya’s Njoro River Cave. Among the discovery of neolithic assemblages offered to the dead, Louis Key found hundreds of stones, beads, and pendants – more than half of which were opals – in the excavation of the cremated burials.  

History says the Ancient Romans provided the first recorded market for opal.

Symbolism

Ancient Romans loved opal for its healing properties and believed it to be a symbol of purity and hope. They also held it admirably for its power for precognition, prophecy, and invisibility. Plato once wrote that in 539 B.C., there was a shepherd under Gyges of Lydia who found a magical ring, and by twisting its bezel, he had made himself invisible. Such a story was contestable though, as the legend had no mention of the precious opal gemstone other than the assumption that the seat of the bezel was a precious stone and was then believed to be opal.

Nonetheless, Mark Anthony loved it because its bright lights were reminiscent of the nights he spent with Cleopatra. In fact, he coveted Roman Senator Nonius’s opal that he attempted to buy it from the latter for 2,000,000 sesterces. The Senator refused and Mark Anthony banished him.

Further, while the Aztec people believed opal was a charm to ward off evil eye and curses, the Middle Ages called it the Eye Stone for its healing powers. These powers, they thought, were the ability to strengthen one’s eyesight and protect maidens’ blonde hair from darkening.

Soon, the popularity of opal in Europe eroded when it was wrongly branded as the bad luck stone. Following this, opal was associated with the fall of monarchs and other unlucky situations. Sir Walter Scott’s novel, ‘Anne of Geierstein,’ could have a lot to do with this negative reputation. In his novel, Lady Hermione wore an opal in her hair. The opal changed its colors as she changed her moods. When Lady Hermione was falsely accused of being possessed by a demon, a drop of holy water touched her opal and destroyed its color. She became ill and fainted and was then brought to her chamber. The next day, heaps of ashes were found on the bed whereon she laid.

While the novel reportedly caused the fall of opal’s popularity in Europe, this superstition would not hold water as precious stones, especially opal’s display of color, are known to be sensitive to moisture. The good thing was that the superstition did not last long. Queen Victoria, a lover of opal, continue to wear opals and gave them as gifts to her daughters. As they were known to be fashion icons, opal rose to fame again. Meanwhile, Australia started to discover more fine quality opals.

The History of Australian Opal

Opal is known to be Australia’s Official National Gemstone, and why not? With the country supplying 95% of the world’s precious opal, it is only apt to recognize it as such. But do you know that when Australian opal began to emerge in the 1890s, the Hungarian mines thought it was a fake because it had such brilliant fire that no one had ever seen prior?

Opal photography
This mesmerizing blue, captured using the GemLightbox and a smartphone, reminds you of the ocean or almost that of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night, without his favorite warm, radiant, golden yellow.

History said that the ‘opal rush’ started in Australia when a group of people in the early 1900s were searching for gold at the Great Victoria Desert. After making a camp, a teenage boy accidentally found a surface opal while looking for water. This discovery heralded the establishment of the Stuart Range Opal Field settlement, now popularly known as the Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is the largest opal field in the world. Its 70 opal fields are the source of Australia’s largest opal production.

Australia’s opal fields are also unique in certain ways. Aside from the opalized Weewarrasaurus pobeni found at Lightning Ridge, you could also find here opalized plants and other animal fossils – something you would never find in other parts of the world. 

After the discovery of the Coober Pedy, the Mintabie field followed and it differs in a way that it is the only minefield that produces opals from Palaeozoic rocks. Then came the Andamooka field that mainly produces some black opals, white opals, crystal opals, and matrix and opal sandstone. Several smaller fields were discovered after these larger ones, and soon, Australia overtook Europe in terms of opal production.

See other Australian sites for opal occurrences below.

World’s Famous and Historic Opals

  • The Aurora Australis

In 1938, a miner Charlie Dunstan unearthed the Aurora Australis in Lightning Ridge, Australia. It has a dominant blue, green, and red color against a black background and popular for its harlequin pattern. Harlequin-patterned opals display square patches and a mosaic-like play-of-color.

The Aurora Australis weighs 180 carats with a value of AU$1 million in 1995.

  • The Black Prince Opal

Also known as the Harlequin Prince, this world’s famous opal was discovered in 1915 and acquired by a wealthy American. The stone was passed on quite numerously, first to the New York Museum of Natural History and then to the Forest Law Memorial Cemetery where it was stolen.

The Black Prince Opal weighed 181 carats. It was known for its flag pattern of colors.

  • The Fire Queen

Just like the Aurora Australis, Charlie Dunstan also unearthed the Fire Queen in Lightning Ridge 1in 1906. The stone was initially called the Dunstan Stone obviously derived from the name of its discoverer.

Sadly, as beautiful as the stone was, Dunstan only received £100 for it from an unknown buyer. Further stories say that Dunstan lost more stones after getting drunk before he was found dead in his place. His death was ruled a suicide.

After selling the stone, it was passed on through many hands due to the fact that at that time, there was almost no demand for black opals until J.D Rockefeller bought it for £75,000 in the 1940s. It weighed 900 carats.

  • The Olympic Australis

Said to be the most valuable opal ever discovered, the Olympic Australis was unearthed in Coober Pedy, South Australia in 1956. The miner who unearthed the stone named it “Olympic” as the Olympic Games were being held in Melbourne in the same year.

The Olympic Australis weighs 17,000 carats and is valued at AU$2.5million.

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Quality Components and the Future of Opal

The price of an opal depends on its perceived quality and appearance, but basically many factors affect its value. These factors may include the color and color bar thickness, the type of opal, the body tone (is it black, dark, or light?) brilliance, clarity, and the pattern and play-of-color. Some of the known patterns of play-of-color are outlined below.

  • Harlequin/mosaic-like – angular patches of color.
  • Flame – reddish streaks of color.
  • Pinfire – small, closely set patches of color.
  • Peacock – mostly blue and green colors.

Like other goods, the law of supply and demand applies. When the supply is scarce, the price increases, but if new mines are found, the price can decrease. So, how did the Mintabie closure impact the international trade of opal?

In 2017, the state Labor government commissioned an independent review into the Mintabie town amidst concerns that the place was being used as a hub for violence, drugs, and other lawlessness. The review reached a decision to close the town, evict the community, and assess the impact of revoking the proclamation of the Mintabie Precious Stones Field in pursuant to section 4(2) of the Opal Mining Act 1995. y of the opal fields in the area

Reports have surfaced that the uncertainty of the opal fields in the town has already badly impacted the international trade, with the price of rough opal increasing as much as 50% depending on other factors. With opals becoming the darling of the fashion world, expect the price to go up further.

Opal 360-Videos and Images

Now that we know the basics of the Queen of Gems, it’s time to discover the ways of photographing opal images and 360-videos.

With all its colors, it’s a no-brainer to say that capturing the true beauty of opals in photos and videos could be your most difficult task, especially if you’re not a professional photographer. But what if you can’t afford a photographer?

Opal photography

In this section, we’ll show you that you don’t need a photographer to capture the mystifying colors and appeal of opals if you have the GemLightbox.

Lighting plays a critical role in the quality of your jewelry and gems images. And this is what the GemLightbox has addressed to simplify the process for you. Equipped with lighting features made for jewelry, gems, and diamonds, the GemLightbox can capture the colors of opals accurately. You don’t even have to religiously practice it to get the results you want.

See below!

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How to Photograph Opals

To capture amazing results, we used the following:

And then we proceeded to the steps below.

  • Remove the reflector cover and place your opal inside. Make sure it is centered.
  • Put back the reflector cover.
  • Open the GemLightbox App and connect via Bluetooth. You can also use your native phone camera or DSLR if you so desire.
  • Zoom in if necessary, tap to focus, and adjust the brightness as desired.
  • Click to capture.

Watch the opal photography tutorial below and see how we did it.

Photographing loose opals at the 2019 AGTA Tucson Show

Opal photography couldn’t get any simpler than that. Check out more images below captured using the GemLightbox and a smartphone. There were no retouching or post-production processes done to any of these images.

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How to Capture 360-Videos of Opal

Showing a 360-degree view of opals could influence the way your potential buyers perceive your gems. Every turn would give them a clear vision of its colors captured accurately.

Capturing videos should not be difficult at all. With GemLightbox, you can have premium-quality videos with just one click.

In this demonstration, we used the following:

The steps are simple.

  • Remove the reflector cover and place your gemstone inside and atop the turntable. Make sure it is centered.
  • Put the reflector back and open your GemLightbox app. Ensure that your Bluetooth and your turntable are on to allow smooth detection and connection.
  • Once connected, get ready to record the video. You can zoom in as desired, tap to focus, and adjust the brightness if necessary.
  • Click to record.

Here are three of the 360 opal videos we captured. You can also watch a complete and detailed GemLightbox setup here if you’re still unsure how the GemLightbox turntable works.

Opal photography
Opal ring photography
Opal photography
A lustrous play-of-color perfectly captured inside the GemLightbox. Its iridescent effect reminds you of that gorgeous parasite, the cuckoo wasp!

They say capturing high-quality photos of opals requires a lot of practice, but who needs practice if GemLightbox simplified the process and reduced it to just a click of a button?

We’d like to see how you photograph your opals. Share your photos in the comment section below!

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