Wondering if you should buy an opal or piece of opal jewelry?
You're not the only one. Opal is one of the most popular colored gemstones chosen for jewelry today.
In this opal buying guide, I'll answer the following questions (and more) on everything you need to know about the opal gemstone:
- Can opals be lab-created?
- What is a triplet opal?
- How should you store an opal?
What is an Opal?
Opal is a unique stone part of a select group of gemstones that are called mineraloids. A mineraloid is a natural mineral that looks like a crystalline gemstone, but doesn't actually have a crystal structure.
An opal the result of silica-rich water combining with rock. Silica is a mineral the occurs in the earth that is made up of oxygen and silicon. It's a natural mineral often found with rock.
Opals happen when silica has been carried away by the water and deposited into the crevices in other rock. When it dries, it creates silica spheres. The spheres bond together to create the structure of an opal.
Should You Buy Opal Jewelry?
There's benefits and detractors when wearing any type of jewelry, mainly because it's crafted in natural minerals like gold and gemstones. You might be wondering if it's a good idea to wear an opal engagement ring everyday or maybe you're wanting to know how much effort you'll have to put forth when cleaning it.
Either way, these and other questions are good to ask before buying an opal. To start us off, here are some simple pros and cons of wearing and buying opal jewelry.
- Every opal pattern is unique and beautiful
- Opal comes in many different colors
- No other gemstones have the same look as an opal
- Opals can be difficult to take care of
- It can be hard to tell fake opal from real opal
- Many retailers will overcharge for low quality opal
But are the cons listed here dealbreakers? Only you can determine that, and it's my job to help you do it. So let's dive into the world of buying opals online and in store.
Types of Opals
There are many different types of opals. Some are distinguished by their level of quality like common opals or precious opal. Others come from specific locations, like a fiery orange Mexican opal. Let's break down the different kinds of opal to make it easier.
Common opals are the most abundant variety of opals. In fact, you probably wouldn't know one if you saw it. Common opals look like your average rock and come in a bunch of different colors like:
Some common opal can show slight opalescence, but it's nothing compared to the opalescence of a precious opal. Common opals with medium amounts of opalescence are considered "high quality common opal" and can go a few hundred per carat. They are much more affordable and less desirable than precious opal.
Read also: Opal vs Opalite: What's the Difference?
A precious opal is what most people think of when hear about this October birthstone. These are opals where the body tone is translucent and the play of color is strong. Brilliant flashes of colored light reflects off of the stone. These are considered high quality opals.
Fire opal is the term used to describe vivid opals that range from yellow to orange to brown to red. Unlike most opals, fire opals can be transparent to opaque, but are valued as transparent to translucent. They are often faceted.
Fire opals are often called Mexican opal, but they can be found in other places besides Mexico like Brazil and the United States.
Black opals are my favorite opals. These mystifying opals are characterized by a dark body tone and vivid play of color of greens, reds, blues, and other colors. These are a favorite of those buying opal jewelry because of the contrast between the dark background and the play of colors.
Despite its name, black opal isn't always black. Most times it's a deep charcoal gray or a dark black-blue stone. This type of opal is highly prized and sought after. It only occurs in one place in the world: Lightning Ridge, Australia.
Black opals are the most expensive opals in the opal industry because of their beautiful patterns. Their amazing patterns are said to be more prominent and vivid than any other type of opal.
Read also: Moonstone vs Opal
Doublet or Triplet Opals
Be careful when shopping for opals in a chain jewelry store. What might seem like a beautiful opal ring may actually have little to begin with. If you ever see the words "doublet" or "triplet".
In the industry, most of us considered a doublet opal or a triplet opal a fake opal. They are a composite stone. Ruby composite stones combined a piece of real ruby and fill it with glass. They are called ruby composites and are considered fake rubies.
Read also: Real Ruby vs Fake Ruby
In the same way, a doublet opal involves a thin slice of real opal placed against a dark backing, usually a less expensive black gemstone like onyx or obsidian. A triplet opal involves a third player, usually a clear material like glass or clear quartz. The slice of opal is sandwiched between the clear piece and the dark backing.
Stores should disclose if the opal is a composite opal, as they are much cheaper and less valuable than a solid opal. Unfortunately, at many chain retailers the staff not educated to know the difference, nor do companies reveal exactly how a piece is made.
When online shopping for opal jewelry, make sure to read descriptions of opal jewelry entirely. Watch out for words like doublet, triplet, composite, glass, etc.
Like boulder opals, matrix opals are usually found in sandstone and ironstone host rocks. But instead of forming in nodules, matrix opals form by filling the cracks of the host rock. Because of the long veins of opal in the rock, a matrix opal comes in irregular shapes cause by the rock.
High-Quality Opal Buying Guide
Choosing a high quality gemstone for a piece of jewelry is pretty difficult. Each stone has its own factors that contribute to its rarity or value. It could be certain hues, localities, or the way its cut.
There's a number of different quality factors involved when picking out an opal or piece of opal jewelry. If you really want best quality opals, you're going to be better off picking out your own loose opal to be put into a setting. This option is more expensive, which is why many opt for preset jewelry at places like Kays or Jared.
Whether you're searching for an opal ring or other type of opal jewellery, this section is sure to help you sort out the types of opals you really want.
You already know about the different varieties of opals and their colors. That's not what we're talking about here. This is about the opalescence and play of color optical phenomena that opal gemstones have.
Opalescence is what's often seen in common white opals. This gives it an iridescence or milky sheen. They are usually a milky translucent to opaque color.
Play of color is what's seen in precious opal. The bright flashes of red, green, yellow and other colors is most desirable in opals and is the number one factor in opal quality.
The play of color of an opal can be analyzed into an unusual pattern. However, the style of these patterns are broken down further. There are numerous types of patterns for a precious opal, but here are some of the most common ones:
- Harlequin pattern- A true harlequin pattern involves patches of color that look like a checkerboard.
- Honeycomb- The pattern involves hexagonal shapes set next to each other that resembles honeycomb in a beehive.
- Ribbons- Wisps of color wiggles all around the opal's surface.
- Chinese writing- While they should come up with a better name, this term has been used to describe the play of color that looks like thin lines resembling Chinese language characters.
- Broad flash- Exactly as it sounds. When an opal presenting a "broad flash" play of color, the wearer sees a large flash of rainbow colors when the light hits the stone at an angle.
- Rolling flash- Similar to the broad flash, the rolling flash "rolls" across the opal's surface but flashes throughout.
Out of all the different kinds of opal play of color, an opal with a harlequin pattern is the rarest and most valuable. Large opals with pronounced harlequin patterns are most prized by collectors.
An opal's clarity isn't a huge factor in determining its quality, but it still matters. Like most gems, opals can have a variety of different types of inclusions. Natural inclusions are formed in a gem when other gemstones, impurities, and minerals.
You don't want an opal with any obvious inclusions or dark spots that could detract from the opal brightness. Make sure your opal is smooth and doesn't have any bumps or rough surfaces.
Opal Cut Quality
Top quality opals are going to be cut en cabochon. Most gemstones in an engagement ring are faceted in order to make them sparkle. However, opal isn't like a traditional gemstone and shows its play of color best when cut in a rounded shape instead of sharp angles.
Faceted opals can be sold for more than they worth under the name of an opal. So just make sure you're not paying too much for faceted opal. Sometimes they may be called crystal opals.
There's no standard charts for opal quality as there is diamond cut quality. With many colored gemstones, cut quality doesn't matter as much as colour.
The main thing you want to look at when deciding if an opal engagement ring stone is high quality is its shape. Opal cabochons can be round shaped, oval shaped, and even cushion shaped.
The dome shaped stone is needed in order to best display the color flashes desired in high quality opals, with exceptions for black opal and fire opal. These pieces look stunning faceted.
And if you're buying opals online, it can be difficult selecting one without knowing what the stone looks like. Make sure that wherever you're buying opals from, they have a good and EASY return policy just in case it's not quite what you wanted.
Opal Carat Weight
Diamonds are measured in carats. Gemstones are often listed by their dimensions, but many places use carats because customers are more familiar with the term. The problem with this distinction is that carat weight isn't necessarily the actual size of the stone.
Different shapes allow the carat weight of a stone to be distributed differently in the cutting process. It's why a 1 carat emerald cut diamond appears bigger than a 1 carat round diamond.
Opals have limited cutting styles in order preserve the carat weight of an opal and still make sure the play of color is preserved.
Most people assume the bigger, the better a gemstone is. But you have have low quality opal in a large carat weight. Opals that are bigger but with low or no play of color are worth less than a smaller one with brilliant flashes of color.
Price of Opal Jewelry
Just like the quality of an opal doesn't rely on one factor, so does it price. Take all of those quality factors above and they all equal out to a near perfect opal. However, choosing the top end of every quality factor is definitely going to result in a very high price.
But just as when you choose diamonds for an engagement ring, it's not necessary to choose the top quality available unless you really want it. Like many things in the jewelry industry, it's all about balance.
Though the cost of an opal depends on many factors, here are some ballpark prices you can find yourself paying for different opals and qualities.
Opal Solitaire Pendant from Blue Nile
Here's a very simple opal necklace from our friends at Blue Nile. This opal is considered medium quality. It is a precious opal, but doesn't have the fire and play of color a high quality one would have. That's why you can get it at a more affordable price for a natural opal on a 14K gold chain.
Emerald, Diamond and Opal Pendant Necklace from Helzberg Diamonds
This necklace from Helzberg Diamonds has a gorgeous marquise blue-green emerald at its base and a dangling opal pendant surrounded by a halo of diamonds. The piece is unique and is crafted in 10K gold.
Ethiopian Opal Hoop Earrings from James Allen
While most of James Allen's fine jewelry collection is nothing to write home about, their opal jewellery is on point. You can easily tell by the pictures that these are high quality precious opals. Ethiopia is a huge source of natural opal and is often sought out by those working in the opal industry for its vivid play of color, increased durability, and more affordable costs.
These gorgeous opal hoop earrings contains a row of small Ethiopian opals. The way the light will hit the beautiful stones in this pair of earrings will look ethereal.
Gold Diamond Bar And Opal Drop Earrings from James Allen
These are a personal favorite of mine. Crafted in 18K yellow gold, these stunning tear shaped opal drop earrings have a thin line of diamonds running from the stud down to the dangling opal. They measure at 1.65" and have push-backings. They run on the more expensive side, but are well worth it when you throw in James Allen's lifetime warranty.
Lab Created Opal and White Sapphire Bracelet
You might not have the money to spend on high quality natural opals. And that's okay. You may opt for opal jewellery crafted in lab created opals, sometimes called synthetic opals. They have the same durability as natural opals, but a lot more affordable.
The differences with lab created white opals is that they don't have the same depth and translucency as natural precious opal. There will be play of color, but don't expect too be blown away. To add to its affordability, this bracelet is also crafted in sterling silver.
Care and Maintenance of Opal Jewelry
Most stones can be cleaned with mild soap and water. Opals require extra care in order to keep them looking good for years, especially if you intend to wear them daily.
Instead of using soap and water, it's recommended to use a damp and soapy cloth to wipe dirt off your opal stone. They are porous stones, so they shouldn't be submerged in water. Doublet and triplet opals can be split if submerged for too long.
Opals can be easily scratched because of their low hardness rating (5.5 to 6.5) on the Mohs scale. That's why a lot of people and jewelers recommend not to buy opals for engagement rings.
Keep opals aways from chemicals, perfumes, and lotions. These chemicals can damage your opals permanently. Extreme temperature changes can cause opals to crack. Don't store opals in tight places with no air, like a safety deposit box. They can also crack this way.
An opal is a very special and beautiful gemstone. There are many different kinds of opals and they come in a variety of different colors. High quality opals will have a strong play of color and should be somewhat translucent.
Make sure that you read and ask questions before purchasing your opal jewelry. Jewelers are required to disclose a synthetic opal to their customers. However, you must ask if they carry solid opals, not doublet or triplet.
Generally, opals aren't recommended to be worn everyday. But if you're willing to go the extra mile and take care of your opal over the years, they can look beautiful for years and years.