Natural Opal buying guide – How to check and understand difference between different opals?

Opal is one of most popular phenomena gemstone as they display very unique characteristics like ‘play-of-color’ or different background fire colors. They are quite abundant but also rare as well depending on the quality grades. Each quality has different ‘price levels’ in the gemstone market which we will try to briefly explain below.

Opal Classification

In the trade opals is classified in following categories.

  • Black Opal – Background color ranges from translucent to opaque black to dark grey, but should appear black in reflected light; shows play-of-color
  • White Opal – Background color ranges from translucent white to medium gray; shows play-of-color
  • Crystal Opal – Background ranges from transparent to semitransparent; shows exceptional play-of-color

*Example of Crystal Opal we just custom made for our client – details can be seen here on our Facebook page.

  • Water Opal – Background ranges from transparent to translucent; shows faint play-of-color or no play-of-color at all
  • Boulder opal – Includes host-rock fragments, or matrix as part of the finished gems; shows play-of-color
  • Fire opal – Background color ranges from transparent to translucent reds and oranges to yellows; might or might not show play-of-color
  • Assembled opal – Precious opal layers, or layers of precious opal and other material, cemented together to improve durability and appearance

Price Value of Opals

To determine the value of an opal, in simple terms, we look at three aspects

  • Color – Background color and play-of-color
  • Pattern – Arrangement of play-of-color
  • Clarity – Transparency and amount of inclusions

Background Color

In terms of price, black opal commands the highest prices of all opal types and a single black opal of exceptional quality can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Due to its unique qualities, black opal usually sells by the piece rather than by carat.

Black-Opal-Image
Black opal commanding a price of £72,000 © AustralianOpals.co.uk

White opals make the majority of commercial-quality opals in the market and that is why they are most familiar to consumer market. White opals come in large ranges as described below:

  • Commercial qualities – Usually pale and cloudy yellows or browns with very faint scattered play-of-color
  • Top-qualities – almost transparent gems featuring distinct patterns of crisp, lively play-of-color.

Due to these large ranges, white opals can range less than one dollar per carat to more than a few hundred dollars per carat.

Play-of-color

Desirable play-of-color is further broken down in hue. In the trade, red is considered most desirable, then orange followed by green. However, favored hues can vary with fashion or personal preference.

image3
5 carat white opal we sold a client which displays strong flash ‘play-of-color’

It is quite difficult to determine what the dominant play-of-color is in an opal as different viewing angles can change what dominant hues is. For example red might dominate in the same portion of an opal cabochon where blue dominates when viewed from a different angle.

Fire opals are unique in terms of having different background colors, from red through orange to yellow is valuable. Therefore value can be determined by both background hue color and play-of-color, unlike the other opal types which is usually exclusive to play-of-color. The top color is usually red-orange to bright red and color is uniform throughout the gem. Opal experts usually avoid fire opals with a cloudy look as this is the sign that the stone is drying out and in danger of cracking.

Fire opals also sometimes come in faceted stones when they have no play-of-color, while the ones which do come with play-of-color are cut as cabochon.

Pattern

Pattern is the arrangement of an opal’s play-of-color. The industry uses three general categories:

  • Pinfire – Very small patches or “dots” of play-of-color
  • Flash – Large areas of play-of-color
  • Harlequin – Large, distinct, usually rectangular patches of play-of-color with edges touching each other.

In general, people in the trade prefer large, closely arranged patches of color, over tiny, scattered dots. Again the most valuable opals have ‘bright’ play of color.

For an opal to have high rating or value it must have highly vivid ‘play-of-color.’ Also, opals which have ‘entire spectrum’ of color are considered very rare and valuable. Most opals are multi-color but won’t display all the colors and will have one main color and two or more secondary colors.

Clarity

With an opal clarity is its degree of transparency and freedom from inclusions. Clarity value is again determined by what the opal’s background color is. For example, crystal opal experts admire the transparency, while in black opal they prefer an opaque background. In the end, one has to see what clarity works best for each type of opal that helps display ‘the most play-of-color.’

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