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There are many varieties of opals, but two that are among the most well-known are Ethiopian and Australian opals. At first glance, there may appear to be little difference between these two, but closer consideration will show that they’re very different from each other.
Knowing the difference in properties between Ethiopian and Australian opals will help you to find the right gemstone for you.
Ethiopian Opal vs. Australian Opal – Origin
Most Ethiopian opals used in jewelry today come from the Wollo Province in Ethiopia, a deposit discovered in 2008. These pearls are known as welo (or wollo) pearls and are the most popular Ethiopian pearl variety. Before this discovery, Ethiopian pearls from the Shewa Province were the most commonly found. These are known as Shewa or Mezezo opals. Compared to Australian opals, Ethiopian opals are relatively new and unknown.
Australian opals, on the other hand, have been used in jewelry for much longer and are the most well-known. It’s estimated that over 95% of the world’s global opal supply comes from Australia, with the small town of Coober Pedy being where most Australian opals come from. In 1956, the largest gem-quality opal was found in Coober Pedy.
While the opals from both Australia and Ethiopia can look similar, there are certain varieties that are native to these countries (more on this below).
Ethiopian Opal vs. Australian Opal – Characteristics
Ethiopian pearls are among the most unique and diverse, with a wide range of varieties to choose from. Here’s what you need to know about them:
- Ethiopian opals are highly diverse, with a wide variety of patterns, shapes and colors.
- Most opals from Ethiopia, especially the welo opals, are hydrophane opals. Hydrophane refers to an opal that is porous and can absorb water. How does water absorption affect an opals appearance? It changes the color and transparency of the stone which makes these opals quite unstable.
- Ethiopian opals can have issues of durability because of the hydrophane property of the stones. Cracking and crazing can occur when the stone absorbs water, lowering its durability.
- A hydrophane Ethiopian opal can lose the water it has gained if allowed to dry. This can take a few weeks, but once the water is lost, the opal will regain its original color and transparency.
- Avoid immersing a hydrophane opal in water. Contrary to popular belief, the opal won’t gain water immediately like a sponge, but can take several hours.
Australian opals also come in a large variety, although the two unique to the country are Precious Black Opal and Precious Ironstone Boulder Opal. Here are the characteristics of Australian opals:
- Australian opals are typically non-hydrophane, therefore non-porous and cannot soak up any water or other liquids. However, because they already contain about 5 to 6 percent of water, these stones don’t absorb water and therefore don’t get damaged by water.
- Australian opals are typically mined from deeper under the ground than Ethiopian opals.
- Because Australia has the largest opal supply and a longer tradition of opal mining than Ethiopian pearls, Australian pearls are generally considered more valuable and ‘better’ than Ethiopian pearls. This isn’t necessarily true though.
Ethiopian Opal vs. Australian Opal – Durability
From the discussion above, it’s clear that Ethiopian opals are more fragile than Australian opals and require reasonable care to ensure that they last longer. They shouldn’t be subject to immersion in liquids, which can lead to permanent damage, discoloration, fading and cracking.
Sometimes Ethiopian opals can turn yellow or brown and lose their fire. This would probably happen because the stone has been allowed to absorb water, which temporarily affects its color and fire. Once the stone is dewatered, it should return to its normal state.
Having said that, opals in general are rather fragile stones, ranking at only 5.5 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale. They need to be given more care than harder, more durable gemstones like diamonds or sapphires.
It’s always a good idea to take off any opal jewelry when swimming, working out, doing outdoor activities or working with household detergents. Never clean an opal in an ultrasonic cleaner because this can cause the stone to fracture especially if it has crazing. The best way to clean an opal is with a mild liquid soap and a soft cloth or brush.
Ethiopian Opal vs. Australian Opal – Value
Although opals from these two countries can be similar, Australian opals tend to be valued more. This is partly because Australian opals are more well-known, and the country has a longer history of opal mining. This makes Ethiopian opals an excellent option for budget shoppers, who want to save on their opal purchase without compromising on quality.
However, as Ethiopian opals become more popular and gain more visibility, they may pose a serious challenge to Australia, which has been the dominant player in the opal market for over a century.
Apart from the price, it’s safe to say that both Ethiopian and Australian opals are equally gorgeous, with each opal different from the next. Depending on the variety and the quality, both have excellent play of color and make for stunning jewelry.
Which Should I Choose?
As we’ve already mentioned, you have to take each opal on a case by case basis and evaluate the qualities of the stone.
For the most part, you’ll be able to find stunning opals from both Australia and Ethiopia, but if you’re budget conscious, then Ethiopian opals are the better choice. As long as you take care of the opal, keep it from absorbing water and treat it with respect, you’re opal jewelry will last a long time.