THE GREAT OPAL HUNT! What I discovered while looking for and buying an opal on the Internet
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When I told my wife I wanted to purchase a really nice piece of jewelry for her, she surprised me by saying she wanted an opal. All the opals I'd ever seen where uninteresting white milky things with little or no color in them. She said she'd seen some that had a lot of color but that they were few and far between. I scented a challenge.
We decided to spend a couple of months researching opals and hunting down the one she wanted, making the search a hobby. Here's how it went:
The first step was to find out what good opals look like. As I said, all the opals I'd seen were dull, white stones with barely-discernable hints of color. I opened an opal book from the library and almost fell out of my chair. The opals in it burned with the brightest iridescent colors imaginable. I couldn't believe it. Next I did an Internet search for opals and discovered that brightly-colored opals really were available... and something else quite surprising.
Good opals are rare. I mean extremely rare. Diamonds aren't rare. Go into any mall and on average there will be a dozen jewelry stores and each of these will have hundreds of diamonds on display and hundreds more in storage. Millions of diamonds are sold every year. This is not a rare stone. The inflated prices we pay for them is artificial, the result of effective advertising. Look in those same jewelry stores and you'll be lucky to turn up a handful of opals, and those will all be the boring milk opals or cheap doublets or triplets. (Thin slices of real opal sandwiched onto or between other materials)
I started the great opal hunt in my own mall I didn't see a single solid opal with good color. Even more interesting was that when I showed the sales people pictures of the type of opal I wanted, many of them didn't even know opals came in such brilliant colors. Below is a picture of what most stores carry:
This is a common white or milk opal. It's about all that's available in jewelry stores. This, and the following pictures, are larger than the actual stones. Good opals are clear and filled with brilliant, multicolored fire, such as the following images of Lightning Ridge black opals borrowed from various sources:
(These images are 2 to 3 times larger than actual size.)
So, my first attempt to find and buy a good opal from local jewelry stores failed; no one had them. On to phase II of the great opal hunt.
I asked each store if they had other sources they could contact to get opals like I was interested in and have them shipped. Eight of the twelve stores said, "yes," and promised to call me back within three days. After two weeks only one called back to say they had found some stones. One other called to say they couldn't get anything and the rest dropped me cold. Not getting courtesy return calls from those who couldn't find anything surprised me. You'd think in the retail jewelry business, like car sales, follow-up calls would be made simply to keep on the customer's good side. Then something occurred to me.
As I said, good opals are scarce. If jewelers displayed the good opals, interest would quickly drop for white or milk opals. Since there are so many more white opals than good opals, it makes sense that jewelers want to keep the public ignorant of the good stones to preserve the demand, and market price, of the poorer stones. In a way, we're being conned.
However, one dealer did get in a stone for me. Here's what they had:
Again, this picture is an enlargement. The actual opal was half this diameter, about 5.6 carats. It was nice, very clear and bright, but had too much green in it (My wife wanted a blue stone.), wasn't oval enough, flat, and a little small. Still, it was pretty and by far the best we'd seen. But, the store was asking $4,000 for it and at that time we erroneously thought that was over-inflated. We declined.
Next we went to a large jewelry and gem show on the Orange county (Southern California) fairgrounds. Although there were close to 100 stalls, we only saw four solid opals and none of them was the size, color or quality we wanted.
Our options for sources were running out. Time to give the Internet a try.
My first stop was that great font of everything money can buy: Ebay. Most of the opals available were doublets,triplets, of a color that didn't interest us. Next I searched the Internet for opal sources and hit paydirt. I found twenty sites that offered a wide range of what appeared to be good opals at reasonable prices. After looking through them we found what we thought was the perfect opal. It was bright and filled with brilliant blue fire.
We decided to order it after making sure the company had a money-back guarantee. It was a good thing they did because here's what the opal looked like:
Actually, this is slightly better than the real thing. At arm's length in normal room lighting it was virtually featureless with a dull brown-blue color. Under no conditions of bright sun, incandescent, or fluorescent lighting could we get it to look anything like its photo. Needless to say we we dumbfounded.
Was the seller purposely misleading us by posting a fraudulent picture of a different opal? No. We were able to determine that the color patterns matched those in the picture. Then I took a picture of it and couldn't believe what I saw:
This is very close to the image on the seller's website. If I'd had a little more light on it they would be identical. What is going on?
What's "going on" has to do with the fact that when a picture is displayed on a CRT, or LCD if you're using a laptop computer, the picture tube shows it as a source of light, like a stained glass window, instead of a reflection of light as from a painting. The difference is that this stained-glass effect can greatly enhance the brightness and intensity of colors. The lesson I learned from this is that through no fault of the sellers, opal pictures on the Internet sometimes may not accurately indicate what the opal really looks like, as my purchase proves.
Fortunately, the company cheerfully honored their her return policy. I take this as an indication that the opal selling industry is a responsible one.
(By the way, if you ever purchase an opal, here's a trick that might be useful.
I shined a bright light sideways through the stone and discovered three cracks. The one on the upper right wasn't serious but the two on the bottom appeared to connect and surround a wedge of stone. It's possible this wedge might pop out over time.)
After the Internet experience, my wife and I paid a visit to the three most expensive jewelry stores in Southern California. All together, they only had three opals that showed the clarity and brilliance we were looking for... and price tags that would bankrupt most third-world countries. Needless to say, we left empty-handed.
So, what did we learn from this quest? First, that good, clear, bright opals are rarer than we ever imagined. So much so that it's not a question of how much they cost but whether you can find one regardless of the cost. Second, expect to pay at least $2000 per carat retail for a good opal. (One possible exception to this would be opals available on such forums as Ebay, where many bargains can be found. However, always make sure the seller has a no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee.) Third, pictures on the Internet probably will not accurately represent what an opal actually looks like.
Opal Hunt 2.0
Dissatisfied with the uncertainty of the quality of Internet opals, we decided to take a second try and purchasing one local. In this we were fortunate to discover a jeweler who liked opals. He agreed to contact several wholesale sellers to obtain the stone we wanted: a blue-green oval suitable for a pendant with a brilliant electric glow that captured the eye.
Over the following 7 months he got in half a dozen opals, none of which was close to what we wanted. Finally, a small, 2.5 carat opal came in that while more red than blue-green, my wife liked enough to want. The stone cost $5,200. (The opal's dimensions were 1/4-inch wide by 1/2-inch long by 1/4-inch thick. It was a crystal opal, not a Lightning Ridge black opal like we wanted, but it seemed this was the best we were likely to find so we took it.
We checked it out in the store's lighting and as you'd expect, it looked great with rolling color at all depths. In subdued lighting, such as a shaded northern exposure or normal inside incandescent lighting, the stone dims quite a bit, but still exhibits flashes of light. We had it mounted in a very delicate ring of white gold and tiny diamonds. Here are two views of what it looks like under two different yet ideal lighting conditions:
These images show the pendant slightly over four times its actual size. I did this because showing it actual size makes it impossible to see any details in the internal fire. I have processed these images so they show the opal as it really appears. The colors have not been intensified. Note how a shift in the source of the light changes the facets shimmering in its depths. Seen in person, the hint of red-to-green-to-red bands diagonally crossing the lower half of the stone is more obvious than these images show.
Unlike other gem stones, opals become more interesting when examined under higher power. Consider the following close-up:
A camera's limited depth of field makes it impossible to capture the sharpness of the facets running through the depth of the opal. The limitations of two-dimensional monitors also prevents anyone looking at this image from appreciating the 3-D effect as the various shimmering facets draw the eye into the depths of the opal. Looking at an opal with a 10X loope opens up a strange and fascinating universe. Do the same with a diamond and all you'll see are the flaws within a boringly clear crystal.
Looking at it from the side shows that the fire inhabits all depths of the stone.
Looking at the opal in person as it's turned or rotated enables the viewer to see the inner facets change and flash throughout the depth of the stone. As it's moved, there are no areas that don't light up.
Turning the pendant over so the back can be seen shows that the rear of this opal shows as much fire as the front.
As I said, these images show what the stone looks like under the best conditions: dim interior lights with a bright light shinning on it. In direct sunlight the colors are even brighter, but their fire is washed out because sunlight is so bright it illuminates the clear matrix of the opal making it look cloudy. Very bright lighting like this reduces the contrast between the bright and dark areas of the stone.
emphasizes the colors. In
person most of the orange is actually red.
Under average house lighting the colors are much dimmer and look like this:
Even under these conditions the pendant regularly gets comments from people asking what it is. Most people are so used to bland milk opals that they are surprised at how colorful a better quality opal can be.
Note: I said, "better quality." This is not a great opal. It's just okay. To be a truly gem-quality stone the clarity of the stone would have to be much better so that in direct sunlight it doesn't diffuse light back toward the viewer, thereby washing out the fire within the stone.
This opal exhibits mostly red. Why did we accept it when we were looking for a blue-green gem? The reason is that because blues and greens are considered second-grade colors, even a perfect opal with brilliant, rolling color and great clarity are unlikely to be classed as gem quality and therefore will never be able to demand the prices of the rarer orange or red opals. Consequently, they are more likely to be shaved into several doubles and sold at discounts. This is a shame because although more common, the greens and blues are beautiful in their own right to demand respect and appreciation. Also, although "common" compared to red opals, a gem quality green or blue opal is still such a great rarity that deserves to be respected.
Why not doublets?
Doublets are thin slices of opal glued to a dark backing and sometimes, as triplets, overlayed with a layer of quartz. What's wrong with them?
These are beautiful stones that can have brilliant fire even in dim light. As far as their iridescence is concerned, they have several optical advantages over solid opals. First, the black background necessary to provide the contrast to make the bright areas appear at their best is provided by a layer glued to the rear of the opalescent material. This means the dark background doesn't have to be created by the opal matrix itself. It's almost impossible for the opal matrix to be both clear, to let colors through, and appear black, to provide contrast, at the same time. Second, the opalescent layer is very thin so that if it's clarity isn't the greatest, the amount of intervening material is so thin that it doesn't dim the light. Third, because only a thin layer of opalescent material is needed, an irregular layer of opal material can be cut at various angles to harvest the maximum amount of iridescent material.
The result can be an inexpensive stone that produces a lot of brilliance, like the following:
What this image fails to capture is a deep blue glow filling the dark margin on the left.
The biggest drawback to doublets is prejudice. People rank them with artificial gems and therefore look down on them. I would personally like to see them treated with more respect so that rather than being knock-offs, more effort is invested in making them as good as possible.
They do have one real problem. Because the iridescence comes from a thin, flat slice of opal, the brilliance is also flat. There is no depth to the color within the stone. A solid opal will have color coming from throughout its depths.
GREAT NEW LINK!!!
Besides looking for opals, I also review websites about opals. The absolute best I've found is Black Opal Direct run by Mr. Justin Thomas. This great website has it all: over two dozen interesting and entertaining videos about all aspects of opals, easy navigation and some of the most beautiful opals available online. Each opal is featured on its own page with both still images and a video with commentary. Best of all, Black Opal Direct offers a no-questions-asked, 30-day, money-back guarantee on any opal they sell. I highly encourage everyone to visit this site for an outstanding opal experience.
My wife and I were so impressed with this site that we decided to purchase one of its opals. It arrived one day ahead of schedule and was so well packaged that FedEx could have driven a fork lift over it without damaging the opal. The opal itself was everything we'd hoped it would be. Here's a short video of it:
I surveyed a dozen on-line opal sources and discovered that on average they offered 9 black opals. Black Opal Direct had 252. This site also has the best format for presenting its opals, higher quality opals than anyone else and the lowest prices. Just as every opal is unique, so is every opal buying experience so I can't guarantee everyone will come away as satisfied as we are. However, what I can say is that based on our personal experience we decided that from now on we will deal only with blackopaldirect.com.
If you're interested in what opal mines look like or the history of opal mining, I recommend you log onto http://www.opalmine.com/opal-mines/opal-mines-1.html.
you are interested in purchasing an opal, you might try
http://www.queen-of-gems.com. I haven't tried purchasing from them myself so I can't comment on their services. However, because they deal directly with the miners they can offer the opportunity of letting purchasers know who discovered the opal, where, when, and who polished in. Having such a provenance would add considerable interest to owning a good opal.
Another interesting source for opals is Murray Donovan's site Opal Below Wholesale at http://www.opalrough.ca/home.htm
Again, before purchasing an opal get a written promise that it comes with a no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee. If you do buy,then return an opal, always send it insured, registered, and with a signed and returned receipt so you have proof the seller received it.
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