Did you know that Opal is the birthstone of October?  To celebrate this month of opal, we would like to share with you a little information about this amazing gemstone, and why we are so passionate about it here at Giulians!

What is opal, and how is it formed?

Opal is a form of hydrated silicon dioxide (chemical formula SiO₂·nH₂O).  It is formed in dessert-like areas, where the geology is rich in silica deposits – sedimentary rocks like limestone or sandstone – and has strong seasonal rainfall followed by long hot and dry periods.  During heavy rain  the water carries the silica from the rocks creating a silica-rich solution which finds its way deep into the earth, below the water table.  During the dry months the sun dries out the earth causing the water table to evaporate and retreat, leaving microscopic spheres of silica behind.  This process, repeated over millions of years, slowly creates layers of the silica spheres, and this is what forms opal.

Not all the opal formed will show the spectral hues we all love. A lot of what forms is called common opal, which can be a non-descript bluish-black or milky white colour.  The opal that shows the brilliant play-of-colour (or what many people refer to as ‘fire’) is known as precious opal.  Most opals are cut into gems with a component of common opal or host rock still attached, as it plays an important role in the look and strength of the gemstone.

The colour variation found in potch. Both of these specimens are black opal.  Image: Giulians
This is a large specimen of mostly common opal – with a small section of precious opal showing blue-green play of colour. Image: Giulians

Why is it found in Australia?

The reason opal is found in Australia is due to the Great Artesian Basin.  An artesian basin is an area where a body of groundwater is confined under the earth and held under pressure by surrounding layers of rock.    The Great Artesian Basin is the largest and deepest artesian basin in the world, covering 23% of Australia and stretching 1,700,000 square kilometres below arid and semi-arid parts of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory.  It has a total volume of water of approximately 64,900 million megalitres.

The Great Artesian Basin was formed about 130 million years ago by a sheet of quartz over a shelf underground.  Rain ran off the mountains of the Great Dividing Range creating rivers.  The water on the eastern side ended up in the ocean while the water on the western side had no-where to go and just sat and sank into the earth. This process occurs every wet season and has been occurring ever since the Dividing Range was formed after heavy rains.  If you look at the opal fields in relation to the basin, it is little wonder why opal is mined in these locations.

Map of Australia, showing the Great Artesian Basin in light blue, in correlation the 3 major opal fields. Image: (TentotwoGreat Artesian Basin, added locations by ACoffey, CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

What causes the amazing colours seen in precious Australian Opal?

The rainbow colours seen in opal comes from the dispersion of white light through the layered spheres of silica.  For this to occur, however, the layering and stacking of the spheres of silica need to be both uniform in size and perfectly structured.  Without this structure, the result is common opal, or what we call ‘potch’ in Australia.

Scanning electron microscope imaging of the silica spheres of gem grade opal. Photo courtesy: www.adelaide.edu.au
Scanning electron microscope image of common opal. Notice the irregular and non-unified structure. Photo courtesy: Renac Christophe

The stacking and uniformity of the silica spheres is not the only factor involved. The size of the silica spheres determines the range of colour seen in the precious opal.  Smaller clusters of stacked spheres will show blue-greens, while the larger spheres will show the rarer colour; red.  The conditions under which opal is formed generally wouldn’t allow for a lot of space, so the smaller spheres (and therefore the blue-green colours) are more commonly found.  Rare and bright reds, combined with dark coloured potch is said to be the ultimate in opal. It is referred to in the industry as ‘black on red’ and will be considered very valuable.

The colour seen in opal is directional.  Some opals can display a blue-green flash in one direction and orange- red in another, while others may have shifting or rolling colour flashes.  It all depends on the angle of the stone and the way the light is hitting it.  A stone that has bright colour in all directions will be valued higher than an opal with colour in only one direction.

Full rotation of a 2.67ct Australian black opal showing the way the colour patches shift and change as I move the gem. Image: Giulians

The best thing about the colours found in opal is the diversity.  No other gemstone has such a variety of colour, pattern and combinations, so personal taste plays a major role in which opal appeals to you!

A selection of Giulians black and boulder opal pieces showing the wonderful diversity of colours and patterns.  Image: Giulians

 

Black Opal – Lightning Ridge, New South Wales

The most valuable of Australia’s opal is Black opal.  Black opal is found in sandstone, mined approximately 20- 30 metres below the ground.

#1 Common Opal or Potch, #2 Precious Opal, #3 Sandstone. Image: Giulians

Because it forms in sandstone, a relatively soft rock, it allows for deeper deposits to form.  Some of these deposits are called nobbies.  A nobby is bulb shaped opal nodule found in clay which can be quite large or the size of a pea.  They are tumbled to remove the sandstone, then ‘rubbed’ to allow the miner to look at the colour and quality.  Nobbies are mostly mined in Lightning Ridge – which is why black opals are known for being cut into lovely high-domed cabochons.  Other deposits of opal, like seam opal, occur in veins and bands and sometimes yield thinner and more irregular shaped gems.

A nobby of black opal – which has been tumbled to remove the sandstone and rubbed to reveal the opal. Image: Giulians

I thought black opals were supposed to be… black!

Many people who come to view our black opals often make this observation.   The truth is quite the opposite!  The potch found in Lightning Ridge has a darker body colour than that of white opal – and that is where black opal got its name.  The darker the body colour, the better the contrast between the common and precious opal – resulting in more vivid and striking play-of-colour in the gemstone.  The black opal potch can vary from inky-black through to very light grey – the light grey tones resulting in softer colours.  The potch is almost always kept as part of the finished gemstone – to provide thickness, strength and colour depth.  In thicker colour bands, black opal can be cut without its potch – and this is sometimes referred to as black crystal or jelly opal.

A 4.85ct black opal with almost no common opal or potch left behind it. Image: Giulians
Full rotation of a 9.39ct black opal showing blue-green play-of-colour. Image: Giulians
The natural potch left on the base of a black precious opal. Image: Giulians

Boulder Opal – Quilpie, Queensland

First discovered on a station south of Quilpie in 1872, boulder opals are found in a belt stretching from Quilpie to Winton in Outback Queensland.  Natural boulder opal is very unique.  Unlike black opal, it is formed in an area where the geology is made up of ironstone.  Ironstone is a dense sedimentary rock that formed in the Cretaceous period.  Due to this density, the host rock is very unyielding, so the opal formed in cracks and fissures within the ironstone.  These are referred to as veins, and they can vary in thickness from fine through to thick.

An example of the dense ironstone, with veins of opal running through it. Image: Giulians

Because the majority of boulder opal veins are thin, the ironstone boulder is cut as part of the gemstone – giving the opal its name.  Miners split the boulders through the veins, leaving the thin opal on the surface with the ironstone behind.

A vein of opal through ironstone – and how it has been ‘split’ open. Image: Giulians

Due to the reddish brown to brown-black colour of the ironstone, the play-of-colour seen in boulder opal can be very similar to that of black opal.  The natural ironstone making up some of the carat weight also means they are generally cost a little less.  You will also get more free-form and undulating shapes in boulder opal, as the miners have to follow the natural directions of the opal vein.

A stunning piece of Australian Boulder opal showing an undulating surface where the miner has had to follow the natural vein. Image: Giulians
This piece of boulder has a beautifully polished ironstone base. Image Giulians

White Opal – Coober Pedy, South Australia

The name Coober Pedy is said to have evolved from a combination of two Aboriginal words meaning ”white man in hole”.  Kupaka – meaning white man and Piti – meaning hole.  White opal forms in limestone which, like sandstone, is a soft host rock allowing deeper seam deposits to form. The body tone of white opal is much paler, so the play-of-colour seen is more bright pastel hues.  It is not uncommon for white opal to be cut without its potch which means the opal play-of-colour will be seen from the front and the back.

Limestone with some white opal potch. Image Giulians
A rough piece of white opal – displaying a milky body colour with a little pastel fire. Image: Giulians
White crystal opal with very bright play-of-colour and with very little potch on the back of the gemstone. Image: Giulians

I hope you have enjoyed learning about the geology and origins of Australian opal in Part 1 of our Opal Discovery!  In part 2 I will be looking more in depth at the colours and patterns found in opal, and the differences between them.  If you have any questions about opal or would like to know more about our opals, please get in touch by using the form below or emailing us giulians@giulians.com.au.

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Sources and Links:
http://mininglink.com.au/site/lightning-ridge
http://www.opalsinformation.com/index.php/articles/terminology/130-opal-terminology
https://www https://www.cooberpedy.sa.gov.au/page.aspx?u=368#.W7wjpXszapo.ritas-outback-guide.com/boulder-opal.html
http://www.expedition360.com/australia_lessons_science/2001/08/the_great_artesian_basin_forma.html

 


By Alice | Posted on October 9, 2018

Ever wondered what Gary gets up to on his days off?  Golf, gardening and… this!

Last year Gary was tasked with making a commemorative plaque for a friend’s retirement.  Using some specimen grade ‘boulders’, Gary got on the power tools in his front yard.  His youngest son Liam, who is a keen photographer, captured some fantastic photos during the process.

We hope you enjoy this gallery of images showing the transformation of a lump of boulder opal rock into a gorgeous retirement gift, presented to Mr Ron Greedy, a longtime member of Les Clefs d’Or Australia.  Celebrating 22 years of ‘Service Through Friendship’ – Congratulations Ron!

A natural boulder of iron stone and opal.
The reddish-brown dust is from the ironstone, which is the host rock of Boulder opal.
Slicing through the large Boulder opal specimen.
Such work requires the use of a proper dust mask, eye and ear protection.
Using hammer and axe head to chisel the required section, causing it to ‘split’.
More hammer, less chisel!
Sitting back to check progress.
Wetting the stone helps to show colour, mimicking the look of a polished finish.
The finished piece of boulder, ready for varnish and the name plaque.
Affixing the Les Clefs d’Or Keys and a brass engraved plaque.
The engraved brass plaque.
From left: Gary Coffey, honorary Les Clef’s d’Or member of  11 years, and the recipient of the opal plaque, Mr Ron Greedy.

By Alice | Posted on July 31, 2018

Sometimes, an opal just speaks to you.

This intense natural Australian opal, from Lightning Ridge in NSW, did exactly that.  Within weeks of its arrival, Gary had formed an idea, which then progressed into a finalised design, featuring flowers, butterflies and 24ct gold beadwork.  Below is a gallery of images capturing this design evolution.

The source of inspiration – A 9.39ct opal, from Lightning Ridge, NSW.
Early thoughts put on paper.
Starting the 1:1 scaled drawing in pencil.
A splash of colour is added, showing the use of yellow, pink and white gold.

This design is now complete – and the manufacturing process can begin. Watch this space for further updates!

If you are interested in having your own custom piece created or would like to know more about this process, please contact us using the below form.

 

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By Alice | Posted on May 30, 2018

Handmaking an Opal Pendant.

Rather than choosing a piece that is already made, some of our clients choose to get a piece custom made during their stay in Sydney.  It starts with the gemstone – in this case a lovely boulder opal from Quilpie in Queensland.  Once the opal is selected, a sketch is created for the jeweller to work from, and manufacturing begins!  Here are some step by step photos of this creative manufacturing process.

3.03ct Natural solid boulder opal from Quilpie, QLD.
A pencil sketch of the design to be made.
18ct white gold in bar form – this is where it starts.
A machine called rollers are used to alter the dimensions of the bar.
Pieces of metal are bent into shape, soldered and filed.
Joining the components together.
The finished product.

If you would like more information or if you have interest in getting a piece custom made, please email giulians@giulians.com.au or fill out the below enquiry form, and we will get in touch!  Don’t forget we can ship worldwide, insured door to door.

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By Alice | Posted on May 25, 2018