Everything You Need to Know About Buying Opal Jewelry

Opals are easily one of the most beautiful gemstones that you can own. Unlike most other gemstones like diamonds or sapphires, each opal is distinctive and personal. What gives it its unique look is its wide range of patterns and flashes of colors. This makes it a stylish accompaniment to almost any outfit. Opals have always been used by high end jewelers for their statement and fine jewelry collections and in recent years have skyrocketed to becoming one of the most popular and fashionable gemstones to wear.

The thing is, buying an opal can get quite complicated. There are a number of different types of opals available on the market and you will need to consider several factors, including type, size, color, pattern and brilliance, to make sure you aren’t getting ripped off. Here are some questions to answer on your quest for the perfect opal.

What Type Are You After?

There are at many types  of opal that you will need to know about before you decide to buy. The following is a list of precious opals. These contain gorgeous play of colors when rotated and they may also have beautiful patterns. Remember that the more intense and bright the colors, the more expensive the opal will be. While blue and violet are more commonly found, red is rare and costs more. The opal you choose largely depends on how much you are willing to spend.

Opal types

Type Facts Before you buy
Black Opal • Contains a dark background color
• Flashes of colors are maximized because of the contrast with the dark body
White or Milky Opal • Has an opaque milky appearance. Does not have any flashes of color.
• Very common
• The background colors are white, grey or brown with yellow, blue, red and green pinfire
Very affordable
Crystal Opal • Very beautiful variety
• Has a range of flashing colors
• Generally transparent or very translucent
• A dark backing may be attached to make the natural colors more visible
Colors are very subtle
Boulder Opal • Contains piece of host rock attached to the back of the precious opal Less valuable than black opal but can be mistaken for it.

What is body color and tone?Opal pendant

When you’re selecting your opal, bear in mind that the darker the tone of the gemstone, the more valuable it becomes. So if you’re concerned about why the black opal costs more than the common opal, it’s in the tone! This is because when the body tone is darker, the flashes of color are more pronounced. What you’re really paying for is the sharper and more intense colors emanating from the stone.

How bright is the opal?

All opals have a brightness grading scale. This categorizes opals based on how intense the reflection of colors are when penetrated by light. The grades are Dull/Subdued, Bright and Brilliant. As you may have already guessed, Brilliant grade opals are the brightest and contain eye-catching flashes of color, which make it the most expensive when you’re shopping for an opal. Dull/Subdued opals are the cheapest, appear milky and have hardly any shine. Bright opals are average in terms of brightness.

What are dead spots and opal patterns

The more expensive opals, like precious opals and black opals, display a range of gorgeous patterns caused by the deflection of colors. The larger the pattern, the more valuable the stone becomes. However, there can be dead spots in patterns so watch out for this when you are buying your opal. Dead spots occur when the play of colors is absent from that section of the stone and can devalue the opal. If your opal appears dull and static in sections, check with the retailer about dead spots.

Patterns Facts Before you buy
Harlequin (mosaic) These are hard to come by due to scarcity
The pattern looks like a mosaic – made up of square patches
Can be very expensive
Buy from a trusted seller
Ask for a certificate
Ribbon Made up of strips of color running parallel like ribbons lying side by side Check to see if the strips contain different colours. This increases the value of the stone.
Chinese writing The pattern looks like Chinese characters.
It has strips of single colours overlapping like characters
Scarce pattern
Very popular and sought after
Very valuable
Pictures The pattern looks like a picture
May resemble an object, face or animal
Straw Contains thin lines of color arranged haphazardly If the pattern has more red in it, it will be more expensive

Is carat weight important?

Unlike a gemstone like a diamond, there is no rule that a large opal will be more valuable. The main factor that influences price are the flashes of color and the amount of precious opal the stone has ( for example, boulder opals are large but contain more host rock and only a small amount of precious opal which make it cheaper).

How do I check for clarity?

Just like other gemstones, an opal’s clarity can be affected by a number of factors. There can be flaws or inclusions that reduce the overall value of the stone. Look  out for crazing (minor cracks) which can be found on the surface of the opal. Also check if there are any inclusions such as sand or rock that can be embedded within the opal. If these are large or visible to the naked eye, you might want to rethink buying the opal because not only will they impact the beauty of the stone but they will also decrease its value.

Should I choose a lab-made / man-made opal or a natural opal

blue opal pendantHand-made opals are usually less valuable than natural opals. So you will be paying less for an opal that could look exactly like the real thing. Here is what you need to look for:

Synthetic Opals – these are lab-created opals. Like moissanites that resemble diamonds, synthetic opals are made from the same chemical formula as natural opals. The patterns and density are often different, however. Look out for a snake-skin pattern. These are cheaper than natural opals.

Doublet Opals – when a thin slice of precious opal is attached to a dark backing, it can look like a solid opal. It is very difficult to distinguish a doublet opal from a solid one. Sometimes, the seam where the two pieces are attached can be a give-away, but this is very difficult to see with the naked eye. Once mounted onto jewelry, even this becomes impossible. Ask your retailer if the opal you are buying is a doublet opal. You should not be paying as much as a solid opal for this.

Triplet Opal – as with the doublet opal, triplet opals consist of thin slices of precious opal sandwiched between a black backing and a slice of glass or quartz. This too can be identified by viewing the opal from the side and looking for the seams. However, it’s difficult to spot these once the stone is placed in its jewelry setting.

While synthetic opals are quite durable, doublets and triplets can fade over time and become foggy due to the glue used to sandwich the pieces together.

How difficult is it to look after an opal?

Like pearls, opals are delicate gemstones. They need to be looked after and maintained properly. Over time, opals will have scratches and marks which can cause it to appear dull. Take the opal back to an opal cutter who will professionally polish the stone for you, reviving its brilliance.

Always use mild detergent and warm water to wash off any grime or build up on an opal. Ultra sonic cleaners, bleach and chemicals are not for this delicate stone. Also, if you are storing an opal for a long period of time, they say to wrap it in cotton wool with a few drops of water to keep the stone from losing water in low humidity environments.

Where can I buy opal jewelry?

how to buy opal jewelry

 If you’ve stuck with us this far, then it means you are serious about arming yourself with useful information before buying your opal! So this brings us to our final point. Because opals are difficult to evaluate and you can easily be fobbed off with a low rated opal, we recommend that you buy your opal at a trusted jewelers. They will not only answer all your questions and walk you through the details about your opal, but will also provide you with a certificate of genuineness so you know what you’re getting is the real deal.

Opal infographic 

Opal engagement ring infographic