Close your eyes and visualize a precious gemstone ring. Chances are, you thought of one with a sparkling diamond, a show-stopping ruby or a gorgeous emerald – but not a spectacular opal ring. Unfortunately, many people don’t hold opals in the high esteem they deserve, even though opal rings can make an unparalleled statement by exhibiting a sparkle approaching that of a diamond, plus a veritable rainbow of colors.
It’s becoming more common for brides-to-be to choose engagement rings which feature stones other than diamonds. If you’ve done any window shopping online, you may have come across opal engagement rings while browsing; they have grown greatly in popularity over the last decade because they make a stunning appearance. However, the gemstone is perfect for all types of rings, whether they’re opal wedding rings, eternity or anniversary rings, or simply ones which look perfect on your hand.
It’s possible that the word “opal” brings to mind a clear, blue or green stone. In reality, opals naturally occur in almost every color you can imagine, making them one of the most versatile precious stones in the world. And the color play exhibited by a fine opal can be mesmerizing.
Opals are a complicated subject. Here’s your complete guide to opal rings – first we’ll look at what makes this stone so fascinating, and then we’ll discuss the types of opal and opal rings in more detail.
The History and Background of Opals
The earliest-known use of opal dates back about six millennia, as anthropologist Louis Leakey has discovered opal artifacts in the African nation of Kenya. The best guess is that the stone came from the nearby country now known as Ethiopia.
The creation of those ancient gemstones, though, took millions of years and only occurred because some of the huge seas which covered parts of the Earth receded. The geological process involved the painfully slow transformation of two substances contained in the rocks left behind by the receding waters, silica and water; that substance eventually became the gel blocks which contain opal. This process only occurred in a few parts of the world and primarily in Australia, the source of more than 95 percent of the world’s finest opals. Other less productive but still important opal mines are (or have been) in Mexico and Brazil, Africa countries including Mali and Ethiopia, Hungary, and a small portion of the American Rockies.
Several Central American cultures revered the opal, notably the Mayans and the Aztecs who had ample supplies of the eye-catching and now-rare fire opal found in Mexico (with lesser stones also found in Brazil). The stone, with its radiant orange-red color and natural fire, was called “the stone of the bird of paradise” by these cultures. The early Romans also considered opals to be more valuable than any other gemstone; as an old story goes, Marc Antony wanted to give Cleopatra an opal ring owned by a Roman senator, but the senator fled Rome rather than surrender his ring. Opals were also considered precious during the Middle Ages and beyond with the stone featured in the Emperor’s crown during the days of the Holy Roman Empire, and Queen Victoria known for wearing opals as well as gifting them to members of the Royal Family. Shakespeare described opals as both “a miracle” and the “Queen of Gems”.
However, many cultures either shunned or feared the gemstone. Some simply believed that opals brought bad luck or resembled the “evil eye”, while others felt they were responsible for the power of witches and sorcerers. Some even blamed opals for the notorious Black Plague since many of the victims were wearing jewelry made from the stone. These beliefs, combined with a shortage of the gems, led to a drastic decline in the popularity of opals from around the 17th century through the middle of the 19th century.
Everything changed in 1849, when a large opal discovery was made in Australia. More deposits of the stone were quickly found throughout the section of that nation now called the Australian opal fields, followed by the rebirth of the world’s interest in – and love of – opals. Each of the fields contained, and was largely responsible for supplying, a different type of the gemstone: high-priced black opals from New South Wales, colored and boulder opals from Queensland, white and crystal opals from South Australia. The gemstone was enormously popular throughout the last half of the 19th century and into the Art Deco era, and is still in demand among those who appreciate the unique color play which can be seen in a fine opal.
The Amazing Varieties of Opal
Now that you know the storied history of opals, you can understand the intrigue surrounding them. It’s time to learn about all of the different varieties of opal rings which can be created using this gemstone.
- Black Opal Rings: The first thing to know about a black opal ring is that it usually isn’t actually black. There are a few truly black opals on the market but they’re not worth much because they won’t reflect any light. The “black” in “black opal” is used to refer to the overall body color of the stone; most are really dark gray, dark blue or dark green. These gemstones are the most expensive opals you can find because they present with an astounding display of nearly all the colors in the rainbow. Black opals which have more of a bluish or greenish tint still show terrific color play, just not to the same extent. The characteristics of these stones are due to the presence of iron oxide and carbon in the stone, and the highest-qualities ones can set you back $10,000 per carat.
- Fire Opal Rings: It’s important to distinguish between precious and common fire opals before you lay out a lot of money for some of the fire opal rings sold today. Many fire opals come from Brazil, and they’re known for often being cloudy with brown or yellow tints and poor color display. What are truly desirable are fire opal rings with exquisite stones from Mexico, which are radiant red or orange and show simply the breathtaking fire and color play caused by iron oxide within the stone. It’s much harder to find Mexican fire opals but they’re worth the search, even though they can cost as much as $2000-$4000 per carat (the Brazilian variety, by contrast, sells for as little as a few hundred dollars per carat).
- Crystal Opal Rings: Just like the term “black opal”, “crystal opal” doesn’t really refer to the stone’s color. The term is used to describe a mostly-transparent opal which isn’t as high-quality as a black stone but still shows a terrific play of colors. Expect to pay between $1000-$3000 per carat for high-quality crystal opals.
- Blue Opal Rings: There are a number of rings which can be made from naturally-colored opals, including brown, light green, slate, yellow and blue opal rings. While they don’t show the great color play of their more expensive cousins, they can usually be purchased relatively inexpensively and still make for striking rings because of their interesting colors.
- White Opal Rings: Once again, these usually aren’t white. They can be in any shade of pale gray or off-white (they’re also known as milky opal or light opal for that reason), and the highest-quality ones can still display a nice range of color. A white opal ring has an elegant appearance and you can often find these stones for a few hundred dollars per carat or even less.
Choosing the Stone for Your Ring
It’s not just the color of the stone which should be considered when looking at opal rings. Just as important is the amount and type of color play (known as opalizing), which is caused by the optical quality called pleochroism. Three factors come into play:
- Range of Color: Stones which show colors across the entire spectrum are of better quality and more valuable than those which only display a few colors, or whose colors are only visible from a few angles.
- Pattern of Opalizing: An opal ring whose stone has large patterns which are close together is more desirable than one which only displays dots of color spread out throughout the stone. You’ll often see terms like “needle fire”, “church windows” and “harlequin” used by the experts who evaluate and grade opals; ask your jeweler to see those different light displays and how they affect the worth of a stone.
- Dead Spots: Some opals simply won’t display color in some areas of the stone. These gems are worth substantially less than ones which show color play throughout.
You’re probably familiar with the terms clarity and cut, which are universally used to grade diamonds. Both are important for opals as well but for different reasons, because the key question is how the stone’s clarity and cut will affect its opalizing. Black opals, for example, should be relatively opaque and may be cut into irregular shapes (requiring custom settings) in order to maximize color play. Crystal or pale white opals, on the other hand, should be relatively transparent and cut into round or oval cabochons, because the transparency and soft dome will enhance the show of color.
While we have discussed several ideal cuts for particular types of opals, the stones can be cut into most of the shapes which are popular today. Oval is the most common standard shape for an opal stone, but others often seen are square, rectangular and even triangular. No matter the shape, you will normally see opals cut with a convex dome and polished, not only because that’s the strongest cut for this somewhat-fragile stone, but also because it allows for the greatest opalizing. Irregular shapes are often used in black opal engagement rings because free form cuts make for the most spectacular light shows from black opals. From time to time you will see faceted opals, but only on lesser-quality stones without much color play.
We’ve alluded to the issue of custom settings which often come into play when creating a black opal engagement ring. However, most settings will work well with common cuts of the stone. In fact, because opal is relatively soft, many cutters will ensure that the stones are fashioned into specific sizes as well as shapes so that they fit standard settings, particularly for everyday rings. That versatility also makes opal a favorite for side stones in engagement rings, with a black or fire opal and diamond ring one of the most stunning combinations you’ll ever see. Opal wedding rings are also gaining in popularity, whether they’re used as a colorful and flashy counterpoint to a shining diamond, or combined to create a matching opal and diamond ring as a matching band for an engagement ring pairing the two stones.
We’ve twice mentioned the softness of the opal (particularly when compared to stones like diamonds); they’re also more sensitive to cold temperatures because they contain a lot of water. That makes it important to highlight the care which must be taken with an opal ring. It should not be worn if it might come in contact with another object (because it can easily be broken or cracked) and should not be worn in very cold or dry weather (because sudden changes in temperature or the drying out of the water in the ring can also cause cracks). It should also not be exposed to any chemicals or other types of abrasives so it’s best to take off the ring when working around the house.
The popularity of opals for much of the last century-and-a-half means there are many antique and vintage opal rings on the market today. It may take a bit of work to find the exact piece which captures your heart, but pieces from the Art Deco era and even Victorian opals can be found at auction, at antique jewelry stores and online. Vintage opal rings are an outstanding way to add flair and romance to a wedding – or to everyday life.
The growing popularity of the opal ring among brides-to-be who want a standout and unique engagement ring is completely understandable, whether the stone is set in a solitaire or an eye-catching opal and diamond ring. But the entrancing rainbow displays of black opals or the unparalleled radiant flash of fire opals are the perfect choice for anyone who wants a ring featuring this unique and gorgeous stone.