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Opal Guide:  Opal Information and Shopping for Jewelry Quality Opals

14K Genuine Opal Ring

There is a ton of research and a ton of reading already out there with respect to opals - their chemical composition, physical structure and more.  Since this page is devoted specifically to shopping for opal jewelry, we will stick primarily to the facts you need to know to buy good quality opal jewelry.

Types of Opals

There are six primary varieties of opals used for jewelry manufacturing purposes:

Light Opal - White/milky white in appearance.  Very common, very affordable and not much fire.  This is the type of opal that generally appears to have scattered pastel-color iridescent patches against a white or milky white background.

Crystal Opal - Has a translucent, bluish/greenish quality and a deeper, more intense fire than Light Opal.

Boulder Opal - A thin layer of opal naturally adhered to brown ironstone rock.

Andamooka Matrix Opal - Black or dark-bodied opal with bright specks of iridescent color.

Dark Opal - Opal that has a greyish or darkish appearance when viewed from the front.

Black Opal - Opal that has a blackish appearance when viewed from the front.  Black opals are rarer than light or dark opals and, therefore, more expensive.

How to Judge Opal Color

One of the foremost qualities to look at when buying opal jewelry is the opal's 'play of color.'  Is there a wide spectrum of color present?  Do the opal's colors have good depth and fire?  Look at the opal jewelry from all angles.  Is there good color from all angles or are there dead zones?  In general, the intensity of an opal's color - its brightness and fire - and the variety of colors present will determine the value and price of opal jewelry.

For example, a 3 carat opal with intense fire and good play of color with iridescent yellows pinks, greens and blues present is rarer and generally pricier than a 3 carat opal with intense fire and good play of color that exhibits only green and blue iridescence. 

It would be wise to remember at this point that 'rarer' doesn't mean 'better' and it doesn't mean 'prettier.'  The primary concern is that the opal jewelry you purchase shows brightness and fire.

Solid Natural Opals v. Opal Composites

JeGem Sterling Silver Rainbow Fire Black Opal Doublet (Boulder Opal) Omega Clip EarringsOpal composites are thin pieces of natural opal glued to a black base of a different material.  This practice is  quite common and makes for an affordable alternative to a solid natural opal and the black backing oftentimes brings out the fire in an otherwise lukewarm  opal.  The resultant composite has the general appearance of a black opal.

An opal doublet is an opal composite that consists of thin slice of opal glued directly on top of a black backing.  An opal doublet will have a flat top surface.

An opal triplet is an opal composite that consists of a thin slice of opal sandwiched between a black backing and a crystal (clear) cap. 

For the most part, genuine opals are used in opal doublets and triplets.

Opal Hardness  

Opals rate a 5.5-6.5 on the Mohs scale of gemstone hardness, making opals a rather delicate gemstone, probably best suited for earrings, pendants and brooches.  If, however, you opt for an opal ring - and there are some gorgeous ones out there - be sure you or the recipient of the ring understand that special care should be taken to avoid smacking that beautiful opal ring against hard surfaces where it will surely come out on the losing end of things.

Opals are sensitive to extreme and sudden temperature changes and, because of their high water content (between 6-10% in gem-quality opals), will crack and craze if allowed to dry out.  That makes opal jewelry sound rather high strung, but unless you live in a very dry climate or in very dry conditions, no special care is required when storing opal jewelry.  If you do happen to live in a dry climate, storing your opal jewelry in a air-tight container with a damp piece of cotton will protect the opal from drying out.

Great care should be taken, however, with the cleaning of your opal jewelry. A washing with a very soft cloth, mild soap and room temperature water is best.   Be sure not to let opal doublets or triplets soak because the moisture can erode the adhesion between the opal and its backing.  And harsh or abrasive cleaners are out - your opal is a pretty soft gemstone and an abrasive cleaning will scratch its surface and dull its shine.  Ultrasonic cleaning machines  are also out because the minute vibrations can cause your opal to crack and can loosen the adhesive on an opal doublet or triplet.

What are Lab-Created Opals? 

925 Sterling Silver and 18k Gold Two Tone Lab Created Heart Shape Opal RingLab-created opals/synthetic opals are different than other lab-created and synthetic gemstones.  While lab-created diamonds, sapphires and rubies have the same chemical composition and physical properties as their natural counterparts (they are, in fact, real gemstones - just not natural gemstones), lab-created gem quality opals have similar properties as that of natural opals.  Lab-created opals tend to be brighter and have larger patches of color than natural gemstones, with a more orderly pattern to their iridescence.  Lab-created opals do not have water content like natural opals do and they are also much harder than natural opals, perhaps making a high quality, lab-created opal ring a better choice than a natural opal ring.

As with natural opals, lab-created opals should be scrutinized for their depth, fire and play of color.

Opal Jewelry Shopping Tips

  • Look for the opal's fire and play of color.  View the opal jewelry from all angles to check for any 'dead zones' in its iridescence.
  • Make sure you know whether you're buying a solid opal, an opal doublet or an opal triplet.  Does the opal have a flat top surface?  If so, then it's an opal doublet, a perfectly fine jewelry acquisition provided that it's fully disclosed and appropriately priced.  Does the opal have a clear top when viewed from the side?  If so, then it's an opal triplet, again, a perfectly fine buy provided that it's fully disclosed and appropriately priced.
  • Be sure you find out whether your opal is natural or lab-created.  There are so many opinions out there as to whether a lab-created opal replicates the beauty and appeal of a natural opal.  A connoisseur of gemstone quality opals can probably tell within seconds whether an opal is lab-created or natural.  Stay away from lab-created opals that strike you as 'wrong ' - too orderly an appearance in its iridescence, too bright, too garish in color.  If a lab-created opal (heck, if any jewelry, lab-created or otherwise) leaves you feeling lukewarm, you're not going to feel any better about it  years from now.
  • If you're shopping online, be sure to shop established, reputable online jewelry dealers.  Nearly all reputable online jewelry dealers clearly state whether their gemstones are natural or lab-created, untreated or enhanced, a doublet or a triplet, etc.  Be sure to read about the gemstone you're buying before you buy it so that you know exactly what you're paying for.  Email the dealer with any questions you have and check out return policies as well.  Most online jewelrydealers have a 30 day return policy which makes it very easy to return your jewelry purchase if it isn't what you expected.

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