Opal is known for its unique display of flashing rainbow colors called play-of-color. The name opal is thought to be derived from the Sanskrit upala, meaning “precious stone,” and later the Greek derivative “Opallios,” meaning “to see a change of color.”
The play of color comes from opal’s formation process, which is different than many gems. The color comes from the reflection of the scattering of light from the minute, uniformly sized and closely packed silica spheres that make up precious opal. The arrangement of these spheres, which vary in size and pattern, is responsible for the different colors. The more brilliant the color, or fire, the more valuable the gem. The most familiar opals are nearly opaque white or more translucent white, some having a black or reddish background. All opals vary greatly in their color of fire. Some have only red and orange lights, some also have green, and some also have yellow and blue lights. Black opals may have all of these colors as well as purple. Opals show just about every shade of every color in a variety of combinations. Opals with an abundance of red are usually the most expensive. Those strong in blue and green are equally as beautiful, but less rare, so their price is somewhat less. One of the most rare opals is called the Harlequin opal, which displays color patterns resembling a checkerboard.
Opal is a delicate and soft stone, rating a 5.5 to 6.5 on the hardness scale. It is usually milky and translucent. Opal is a hardened silica gel containing 5-20% water. Some opals may crack if allowed to dry out too rapidly after being mined. Opals may be somewhat porous, in which case it is dangerous to immerse it in liquids other than water. Opal is amorphous, meaning, it has no crystal structure. The only other major amorphous gemstone is amber. Good quality opals are transparent, not milky.
Caring for your Opal Jewelry
Your opal will last a long time if you take good care of it. You should treat your opal with some care to prevent any scratches or blows. The stones should never be kept in oil or any other chemicals. This may cause them to lose some or all of their fire. Because opals contain some water (as much as 20% water), they should never be stored in a bank or vault for long periods of time because of the dehumidifiers used in many vaults. If opals get too dry, they tend to crack. This phenomenon is called “Crazing,” and it wipes out the value of the stone. You should avoid leaving your opal near anything potentially drying. To keep your opal from drying, it may be helpful to immerse it in water for several hours from time to time.