Opal is one of my favorite gems. Each one has its own unique personality. The spectral colors can be predominantly warm colors like reds and oranges in some and predominantly cool colors like blues and greens in others. Some opals will display the full range of spectral colors. On this trip, I was fortunate enough to buy about a dozen opals that have just blue. It is a very bright and intense blue like the colors seen in those little tropical fish called neon’s. The mines where they come from in the Mintabie area of Australia are now closed. The spectral flashes can be small or relatively large. They can occur on one plane of depth or sometimes on several planes of depth. Sometimes the flashes of color will even appear to roll across the gem and even change color as they roll. Regardless of the character of the colors, I like to use fine opals which are packed full of intense color. Most of the opals we see available in America tend to have rather muted color flashes and sometimes large areas of the gem exhibit no color at all. I only select the best opals from the parcels offered, which are generally the best 5% or less. You will notice the smaller piles in the images which have been deemed eligible for use in the Trade Winds collection and the larger piles which I considered unfit.
Another factor which must be considered with opal is stability. Most of the opal in the Trade Winds collection is mined in Australia. Australian opal referred to as “old field”, (which is what I use for the Trade Wind collection) is mined near the surface of the earth in arid climates where it has been subject to severe weather and temperature changes over the years. This opal tends to be very stable. Opal referred to as “new field” has been mined from greater depths and has never been subject to changing weather conditions. When these are brought to the surface and become subject to changing temperatures and weather conditions, they can start to develop spontaneous cracks after a period of months or years.
For over thirty years, I have been buying my Australian opals from the same business in Hong Kong. The proprietor, Peter, and I have been doing business together since we were in our twenties. For some reason, he never seems to age! Peter personally travels to the Australian opal fields and inspects the depth from which they are being mined to assure that the rough opal he is buying will be stable. As a further assurance, he ages the rough for at least one more year prior to cutting to be positive that it’s stable before cutting it.
He is concerned about the future of the opal business as the number of opal miners in Australia has dwindled from thousands to a few hundred over the years. He also says that it’s very difficult to find employees for his cutting shop in China. He says Chinese and Australian societies are placing ever more emphasis on higher education, leaving fewer and fewer young people available to enter manual labor or skilled craftsman jobs. With this in mind, I bought twice as many fine opals than usual as a hedge against finding it difficult to get more in the future. USA is facing the same sort of issue. There are almost no young people entering the jewelry business anymore, especially the goldsmith and artisan aspects of the jewelry business.
It is such a pleasure to do business with Peter because he genuinely loves what he does. I spent most of the day with him and he kept showing me special pieces he had recently cut and pictures of extra fine opals he had recently sold. His enthusiasm for opals is infectious!
Harlequin Pattern Pinfire
Opal & Diamond Ring