Opals stand in a class by themselves. More than any other gem, each opal is distinctly an individual. No other stone has as rich and varied folklore. They are believed to be both one of the luckiest and unluckiest gems a person can own. They are so unique that they have their own descriptive vocabulary. Opals are also the most delicate gems commonly worn. They require special care to insure their health and longevity.
The name evolved from the Greek "Opallus" which means to see a change in color. Later, the Latin word "opalus" came to mean precious stone.
There is some doubt that ancient authors were referring to the same stone we call opal today. Some scholars believe that many references are actually to iridescent gems, like iris agate.
Opal's fire was long thought to be the result of iridescence. However, with the advent of scanning electron microscopes, we now know that it is a result of diffraction.
Opal is a sedimentary stone. Under proper conditions, water percolates through the earth, becoming rich in dissolved silicates. When it enters a cavity, the silicates are deposited as tiny spheres. If they are uniform in size and shape, they will diffract light. If they are random in shape and arrangement, we have common opal.
Volcanic ash gives black opal its color, but inclusions have nothing to do with the play of color. That is due entirely to the tiny spheres. They must be smaller than 1500 angstroms for blue and violet colors, but no larger than 3500 angstroms to produce oranges and reds. To put that in perspective, 20,000 spheres are about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
Opal grows by filling in cavities, regardless of their shape. Hence, we have many pseudomorphs, materials with shapes that are unrelated to the chemical content. The most common are opalized wood and seashells.
Opals are delicate, but well worth the care. Their most significant weakness has to do with the water content. If an opal is allowed to dry, it will crack and craze. In most cases, they do not need any special care while stored. However, if you live in a very dry climate, or keep them in a dehumidified room, some precautions are necessary. Keeping them in a tight plastic bag, with a damp piece of cotton or fabric will prevent dehydration.
Storing an opal in oil or glycerin is not recommended. It is unlikely to damage the opal, but it is unnecessary and requires tedious cleaning.
Because of their water content, opals are also highly sensitive to sudden changes in temperature. I know of a woman in Pennsylvania who wore a brooch on the outside of her coat. As she passed from the warmth of her house to the winter cold, there was an audible "crack" as her opal self-destructed.
Opals do not mind being hot or cold, it is the rate of change that damages them. You need to avoid situation like the one above, going from a warm house to the winter's cold. Simply wearing an opal under clothing will protect them. Also, do not store opals near a heat source, an open window, etc., where they can be exposed to sudden temperature changes.
Being somewhat soft, they scratch easily. Realize that a large component of dust is quartz at 7 in hardness. At 5.5 to 6 in hardness, simply wiping the dust off an opal will gradually reduce its polish. The solution is to clean your opals using a soft cloth or brush, a mild detergent, and room temperature water. Then rinse the jewels to remove any residue. Clean doublets and triplets with the same method, but do not soak them. Soaking can dissolve the glue holding the layers together.
Prevention is the best solution to scratching and chipping. Opals are best suited for earrings, brooches, and pendants. These jewels receive little contact with harder objects, compared to what a finger ring experiences. If you do get an opal ring, choose a setting that protects it from coming in contact with other objects.
Understand that, if you wear an opal ring on a regular basis, it will require occasional repolishing. Reserving your ring for special occasions will greatly reduce the risk of damage.
Make sure you remove your ring before physical activities like gardening and sports. Also, do not immerse the gem in liquid chemical solutions, like dishwater. Opals are porous and absorb liquids.
- Play of color: the phenomena of flashing or moving colors due to diffraction and not related to the body color.
- Noble opal or Precious opal: Opal with play of color.
- Common opal or Potch: translucent to opaque opal without play of color.
- Fire: in opal, refers to play of color.
- Fire opal: named for its body color and may or may not have play of color.
- Crazing: cracks that develop as an opal dehydrates.