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August 4, 2012updated Dec 20, 2023

The Truth About Opals

By Pardhasaradhi Gonuguntla

Katherine Jetter's Great Barrier Reef Pendant (L) and Seasons - Springtime Earrings (R)Katherine Jetter's Great Barrier Reef Ring (L) and Queen Ruby II Ring (R)Katherine Jetter's Seasons - Spring Breeze Earrings (L) and Poison Ivy Ring (R)

Santa Fe, New Mexico – Reported by Katherine Jetter for Elite Traveler, the private jet lifestyle magazine

As an Aussie, I have made it my goal to restore Australian opal to a place of prominence and importance in the world of fine jewelry. This beautiful and rare gem is not just Australia’s national gemstone, it is an essential part of the collective culture, history and identity of my country, yet has been largely unappreciated by recent generations. Bringing it to life in fresh and contemporary designs in combination with other precious gemstones, I want to show that opals are no longer about old fashioned designs and trinket tourist jewelry. I have recently been approached to be the ambassador of Australian opal in the US, and I hope to make my country proud by showing to the world what an amazing gem we have to offer.

Like most precious gemstones, opals take millions of years to form. 95 percent of the world’s opals are formed in the barren earth of the Australian outback, while the remaining 5 percent are from Mexico, Ethiopia and Peru. Seasonal rains soak the dry, cracked soil and fill the fractures and cavities of the desert. The running rain water carries with it stones of unusually high mineral composition. Over millions of years, these silica layers accumulate, forming beautiful polychromatic opal deposits for lucky miners to discover.

Opals were a celebrated stone throughout the eclectic Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements in the early 20th century. In recent years, however, their popularity has waned as stones like diamonds, emeralds and sapphires have risen in prominence – thanks in part to the large mining cartels and advertising budgets supporting them. Today, our opal miners are suffering. Opals have become more and more scarce. Once booming towns like Coober Pedy and Lightning Ridge are now ghost towns, as miners have been left with no choice but to abandon their mines. The quest to find new opal deposits, however, takes time, as there is no real science to discovering opals in the vast outback.

Until recently, there has been little unity amongst opal miners. This lack of cohesiveness has become a huge roadblock to the salability and prestige of the opal. Opals have traditionally been mined by individuals or small groups of miners, who upon finding gem-quality stones, sell them directly to the market which includes private collectors, salespeople and jewelers. There is no collective strategy on how these precious stones should be distributed to maximize the power of the miners. Instead, sales are sporadic. The finest stones are snapped up by private gem collectors, mostly from Japan, and followed by the US, for personal collections. Independent jewelers seek out individual pieces of the gemstone for their highly unusual and particular designs. While the lower grade material remains in Australia where it is set in inexpensive tourist jewelry. This probably explains why Australians don’t think so highly of their national gemstone! They seldom get to see a high quality opal.

Opal Producers Australia Limited (OPAL) was formed in 2004, with the goal of forming an association of miners who pool together their opal resources to sell as a unified team. They have also developed the first Gemological Digital Analyzer (GDA) system, which offers a scientific grading system of color, clarity, color and cut of opal. With a similar grading system to diamonds, OPAL has the opportunity to become the licensor of the first leading international gemstone grading system, as well as the leading opal grading and trading company in the Australian industry. This will be beneficial to miners and consumers, both of whom will have a stronger understanding of the value and quality of their stones.

Why are opals considered unlucky?

In Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein, the beguiling princess Lady Hermione wears a dazzling opal in her hair. The beautiful iridescent stone sparkles spectacularly when she is in fine humor, but flares red when she is not. For this reason the gem is sprinkled with Holy Water, causing it to lose its luster. Hermione becomes ill and faints, as enchanted princesses are wont to do, and is carried to her chamber. The next day nothing but a small heap of grey ashes is found on her bed. Who knows if Scott meant to portray the opal as unlucky to its wearer, but his novel sure did bring bad luck to the opal industry in the early 1800s. Scott more than likely chose the opal over other precious stones for its magical play of color, but the damage was done.

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Nothing revives a trend like a famous patron, however, and in the 1850s Queen Victoria did just that for opals. The Queen kept an impressive personal collection and donned opals throughout her reign. Like Princess Kate Middleton today, the fashion world closely watched the Royal British Court and opals soon became sought after around the world. Around this time, a fine quality opal was discovered in far-off Australia. Determined to bring a stop to the rising popularity of opals were the envious diamond merchants of Hatton Garden in London, who started a smear campaign intent on once again damaging the opal’s reputation by portraying it as an unlucky gemstone.

About the author: Daughter to a Greek-Australian mother and German father, Katherine Jetter was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1983. Whilst always remaining Australian at heart, she grew up overseas in England, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Katherine has a BSc in Clinical Psychology and is a GIA Graduate Gemologist and Accredited Jewelry Designer.

Contact: Katherine Jetter, (646) 651-3233;;

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