Oh, the power of the pen!
In 1829, Sir Walter Scott published a novel called "Anne of Geierstein" that single-handedly destroyed the world opal market. In this book, a character dies shortly after her fiery opal is touched by a drop of holy water and loses all its vibrancy and color. A superstitious world thought that Scott was describing a curse that afflicted all opals and largely stopped buying the gem. Prices crashed.
Sad though this was, it was not as great a loss as you may think. Most of the opal of Scott’s time came from Hungary and it was, pardon the pun, from hunger - pale with slight iridescence. Maybe the world had been seeking an excuse to abandon opal.
In 1877, it found an excuse to start buying it again when black opal was found at Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, Australia. Over the next few decades, other finds of this spectacular opal were to be made in other parts of this sprawling country.
To this day, however, black opal and Lightning Ridge are synonymous with the absolute best there is of this gem. Why is black opal the most highly prized of its species? Do a mental exercise. Think of looking at fireworks in an evening versus a nighttime sky. The black field of the night sky makes the colors of the fireworks seems so much brighter, vivid and distinct. So it goes with black versus white opal.
This isn't to say white opal isn't beautiful. It is. But black opal is what connoisseurs prefer and pay the highest prices for. When shopping for black opal, look for the following:
- Base color. The darker the base, or "potch," of an opal, the more pronounced its play of spectrum colors.
- Overlay colors. There’s a lot of opinion here as to what are the best predominant colors in opal. Although most experts will tell you they want red and then orange to predominate, some stones marbled with blue and green that resemble Mother Earth seen from outer space fetch top money, too.
- Color play. Fine opal boasts distinct color patters with hues appearing as broad flashes and swirls rather than tiny points. Experts describe these broad flashes as "rolling fire." In exceptional stones, the colors will appear like a grouping of flagstones.
- A word of caution: Opal is gelled silica, containing as much as 20% water. After mining, some opals will dry out and crack. This is called "crazing." If you buy a black opal, ask the seller if the stone has been subjected to a suitable waiting period to make sure it is not one of those stones prone to cracking.
For more specific questions ask our experts