What do Opals, Queen Victoria, and a sassy shoulder have in common? Find out as we introduce Part One of our Opal series. In this episode, we discuss the origination of Opals, the science behind their creation, stories and fables from this ancient gemstone, and a brief look at all of the regions producing this fabulous rainbow gem.
Jonathan: I think everybody loves opal. It’s the queen of all gems.
Brecken: Ah, yep. So say the Romans… and they’re dead.
I didn’t have my coffee, so I’m a little off my game.
New Speaker: All right. You guys are ready.
Jonathan: This is the hardest part. Starting. Starting is hard.
Brecken: It’s me.
Brecken: Hi, this is Brecken
Jonathan: and Jonathan
Brecken: of Gem Junkies. Are you ready?
Jonathan: I am ready
Brecken: podcast number two,
Jonathan: podcast, number two.
Brecken: We’re like big kids now.
Brecken: We’ve had our first podcast.
Jonathan: Yeah. That now it’s training wheels off. So we got gymnastics tonight, right?
Brecken: Yes. We, Jonathan and I, have twin two-year-olds, girls, and they are just the most precious, loving, amazing little girls. Right, Jonathan?
Jonathan: Yeah. Or they can be wild, crazy two-year-olds, because they are two.
Brecken: And so we go to gymnastics every Tuesday night. And yeah, they enjoy it. They get their wiggles out.
Jonathan: Get your wiggles out.
Brecken: So this week we’re doing opal, which we’re gonna do a whole series on, but first we wanted to touch back on last week. Our Lotus garnet episode.
Jonathan: Yeah. Thank you for all the very nice comments. And we got some emails with some questions, some we will answer directly, but one of the ones that came up that I thought was really good is where does Lotus Garnet come from in Tanzania?
Brecken: Right! It is from the Mahenge region in Tanzania
Jonathan: and the Mahenge region is in central Tanzania. Kind of south central versus like Tanzanite
Brecken: and mint garnet
Jonathan: Mint garnet, tsavorite that all comes from Northern Tanzania, right near the Kenya border, near Sabo National Park, which is how tsavorite got its name. So thanks for writing in and feel free to ask any questions that you have about this week’s topic of opal.
And you can write us at [email protected]
Brecken: Perfect. And so let’s talk about opal.
Jonathan: So opal is very special to me. It’s how my dad started the company in 1973 as a longhaired hippie college student, just as a summer job. He went up to Spencer, Idaho, and mined opals and then brought them home and cut them in the back room of a single wide trailer and boom there’s how Idaho Opal and Gem got founded.
Brecken: Yeah. So our name, our original company name, was Idaho Opal and Gem Corporation. And about mid-nineties, we switched it to Parlé, which is how you know us now. Our original name traces us back to our roots, our origin. Yes, our blood,
Jonathan: our blood roots.
Brecken: Jonathan was sorting opals in diapers. Right?
Jonathan: Definitely not.
Brecken: Yeah. At least diapers. Maybe you were potty trained early. I don’t know.
I think the best place to start with opal is probably its formation, like how it’s made. So do you wanna take that away, Jonathan?
Brecken: You want me to be the scientist this week?
Brecken: Okay. So opal is formed when silica-rich water percolates down through the soil and ends up against a hard surface that it can no longer percolate through. And then it forms bands of silica, which is your opal. Oh, go ahead, Jonathan.
Jonathan: And so the silica spheres stack on top of each other. If you looked under really high magnification, you’d see a bunch of like marbles all stacked up in a pan. And if you shook them and got ’em arranged all evenly, that would form precious opal. If they were all mixed all up and all different sizes and all over the place that would give you common opal, which has no play of color.
Brecken: Right. So the difference between common opal, which is extremely common, and precious opal is the fact that it has the phenomenon of play of color. And it’s actually where the light enters the gemstone and kind of wraps around the silica sphere and comes back to your eye with pretty color.
Jonathan: Yeah. So it’s one step past a prism. So most of your gemstones are like a prism. The light enters the gemstone, it bounces around inside, and it comes back to your eye.
With opal, it’s one step past that and it actually breaks it down to its spectral colors. And so that’s where you get all the different colors based on the size of the micron’s spheres, which you end up at 0.2 of a micron for blue, 0.25 for green, and 0.32 for red.
Brecken: Right. And red is considered the most prized color in an opal. It’s the rarest color.
Jonathan: And therefore the most expensive.
Brecken: And therefore the most expensive. We love those reds.
Jonathan: Yeah, reds are definitely the best.
Brecken: So the major sources for opal nowadays are obviously Australia, which has been probably the major source for the past few hundred years, I would say. Then Mexico for fire opal, and then Ethiopia, and also a little bit from Brazil too. The US has opal. It’s how our company started. My father-in-law Frank started mining opal in the 70s in Spencer, Idaho. But it’s in really thin veins of opal and it’s in the really hard host material.
Jonathan: Yeah. So it’s in rhyolite and it’s right up by Yellowstone National Park. And it was formed by the same formation that formed Yellowstone. And so because of the rhyolite, they have to blast out all the opal. And we all know with a gemstone that’s the same hardness as glass, blasting anything doesn’t do very well on that kind of material.
Brecken: So you end up with really thin seams and you have to make triplets out of them, which is where they glue either ironstone or an onyx backing to it, and then cap it with quartz or a sapphire crystal or glass. Depending on the caliber of the triplet.
There’s also opal in Nevada.
Jonathan: There is opal in Nevada. There’s black opal in Nevada, which is the only other place where there’s really black opal other than Australia.
Brecken: So it comes from a petrified forest, right? So the opal, the silica actually went in and replaced the trees. Kind of filled in that fossil.
Jonathan: Yeah. The organic material fell apart and the silica replaced it.
Brecken: Right. And that happens in Australia too, because it was an ancient seabed. So I got to visit Nessie when we went to Sydney, Australia, she’s a dinosaur that’s all opal.
Jonathan: Yeah. So it’s like mostly common opal with just small amounts of play of color. But I think you’re jumping ahead a little that’s actually,
Brecken: I know. I like Nessie.
Jonathan: Oh, you love Australia cuz that’s where it has the most opal.
Brecken: That’s true.
Jonathan: So we should probably talk about where was opal first found. Was it A- China, B- Slovakia, or C- Idaho?
Brecken: I’m gonna say B. Slovakia.
Jonathan: That’s right. It was first found in Slovakia.
Brecken: What did I win?
Jonathan: The pleasure of being right.
Brecken: I do like that. So opal gets its name from an ancient Roman word “opalus.”
Jonathan: Yes. Which means “a change in color.”
Brecken: All right. So they probably saw the play of color that we all see in opal. We don’t need much, I guess, human intervention to make it beautiful. Really, most of your opal is just polished. It’s not cut like a diamond or a Sapphire to bring sparkling liveliness to the stone. So if you think in ancient days, they didn’t have the cutting equipment that we have now. So. Your diamonds, your rubies, your sapphires, your emeralds were either mostly cabochons or the facets were really poorly done, which is why opal, I think was such a special stone to them. They kind of glow from within, so you don’t, you don’t need a lot to make them beautiful.
A lot of people think that opal is unlucky, right Jonathan?
Jonathan: Yep. That’s a common thing, but I think they’re very wrong.
Brecken: They are wrong. Opal used to be considered an incredibly lucky stone. A lot of the ancients believed that it was incredibly good luck that it gave the wearer the gift of prophecy, that it could heal you. And that it, in some terms had like these mystical powers. It wasn’t until. Sir Walter Scott, is that who it was?
Jonathan: Yep, Sir Walter Scott wrote Anne of Geierstein. And Anne of Geierstein was a super popular book at the time as popular as Harry Potter, which is kind of interesting since the main character was
Jonathan: Yes. Hermione,
Brecken: just like in Harry Potter.
Jonathan: And what was so special about Hermione?
Brecken: Well, Hermione was beautiful and the villagers did not like it, they just didn’t think this woman could possibly be this beautiful. And she was poised and had grace and she always wore. “She always wore.” She always wore this amazing opal and happened to catch the eye of the King.
And the villagers didn’t really like this very much. They thought there was something odd about this beautiful woman that just happened to come into town. And she wore an amazing opal that just seemed to glow and give the woman magical powers.
Jonathan: Yeah. She was an outsider and they all thought she was a witch.
Brecken: Of course, if you don’t like something a woman does, she’s a witch.
Anyway, she ends up having a baby with a king, and the king and she get married. They have a baby and the villagers were like, “We’ve never seen her in church. Why doesn’t she go to church?” So they go to church to have the baby baptized and one clever villager decides they’re gonna throw some water, holy water, on the opal. And she just drops down. Right. She doesn’t die, she just collapses.
Jonathan: She collapses and then they take her back to her room and they close the door. And then when they open the door again, she’s gone.
Brecken: She’s gone, she’s disappeared and never heard from again.
Jonathan: Yeah. And what’s what I, think’s funny about this is that everyone latched onto this when this was like less than one-tenth of the book, the whole rest of the book as you can tell, it’s called Anne of Geierstein. So it’s really about Anne of Geierstein.
Brecken: Not Hermione and her opal.
Jonathan: Not Hermione and her opal, which is only one little tiny part of the book. And so, you know, it’s a wonderful tale and really contains nothing to indicate that Scott meant to represent opal as unlucky.
Brecken: About the time that Sir Walter Scott wrote this book, the Australians were discovering opal. And Queen Victoria happened to have a vested interest in Australia. And as they did in most of the world, at that time, she wanted opal to be the prized gemstone that it should be. This is why she made it acceptable to hand out or give opals as gifts. Right. So you can receive opal as a gift.
Jonathan: Yeah. So, that’s where it came from that you can’t buy opal for yourself, but it’s okay if it comes as a gift.
Brecken: Right. But she even had a little slip-up with an opal broach, right?
Jonathan: She did.
Brecken: During her coronation, she was wearing an opal broach. That was, I don’t know, clasping something together. And the broach broke.
Jonathan: Shoddy craftsmanship on the broach. I don’t know what this has to do with opal.
Brecken: It has nothing to do with the opal, but it revealed a little too much skin than was acceptable at the time. So I think it was just her shoulder, but anyway, it didn’t help opal’s luck.
Jonathan: Nope. That didn’t help either.
Brecken: All right. So we all agree that opal is an extremely, extremely lucky stone and a beautiful stone. Who doesn’t like opal?
Jonathan: So throughout history, there’s been a lot more about opal being lucky than unlucky, but there’s definitely some more recent history about it being unlucky, which is why I think that has tended to stick in the general population today.
Brecken: So I think it’s important to kind of delve into the sources of opal that we’re seeing on the market right now.
Jonathan: We have the primary sources of where opal is actually coming from right now would be Australia, number one, Ethiopia, number two, Mexico, number three, and a little bit from Brazil, number four.
So those are probably your top four sources that are in current production.
Brecken: I think the Brazilian material is really cool. It’s got a pattern that’s called rain fire.
Jonathan: Yeah. It’s like little confetti all throughout the opal.
Brecken: You can pick up a piece of Brazilian opal and know it like right off the bat, just because of its pattern.
Jonathan: When it has that pattern.
Brecken: Yeah. When it has that pattern and it’s also incredibly stable.
Jonathan: Very stable material. Very little of it ever crazes or dehydrates or anything like that.
Brecken: It kind of almost has that jelly, that jelly opal look.
Jonathan: Yeah. It kind of has that look. So that’s the fourth. So next would probably be talking about Mexico.
In Mexico, about 70% of all opal out of Mexico is just common opal. So they call it fire opal because it’s colored by iron. So most of it has an orange, a red, or a yellow tint to the base color. So rather than white or light in color, like most opal it has that fiery look that orange and yellow, and most of it has no play of color. And it was formed by volcanoes. It’s volcanic rather than sedimentary.
Brecken: Yeah. It comes out in these really cool, like nodules that are what, sandstone surrounds them. And you can kind of like chip away at the sandstone because it’s really light. I mean, it’s really soft.
Jonathan: It’s really soft and you can kind of scrape it away.
Brecken: And you get these really cool amorphous shapes that lend themselves well really creative jewelry.
Jonathan: And so we find that much more interesting. And it’s also one of the only opals that are faceted. So they do a lot of faceting of the orange and red material.
Brecken: You’ll hardly ever see an Australian faceted opal. No, it’s not gonna happen.
Jonathan: You just don’t see it. It’s mostly from your Mexican.
Brecken: Well, it wastes a lot of material too.
Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah. But that’s not a problem with Mexican, because most of it’s just common anyway.
Brecken: And then the next is Ethiopia.
Jonathan: Which has really been producing a lot in the last 10 years.
Brecken: Yeah. We saw it come to market 9-10 years ago really strong when we were in Tucson.
Jonathan: Yeah. So we were at the Tucson Gem Fair and that’s where 10, about 10 years ago it really came on strong. And so the Ethiopian material is very interesting. Most of it is hydrophane. So hydrophane means it’s porous kind of like a pumice stone and not such big holes, but uh, little tiny holes and so if you drop it in a glass of water, most of the color disappears. You take it outta the water sometimes it dries out. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Brecken: Right. And it’s not so much a problem for durability, like cracking and crazing.
Jonathan: No cracking and crazing it’s fairly stable.
Brecken: But the problem is like daily wear.
Jonathan: So if you think about all the things ladies and even men wear on a daily basis, you know, your perfume, cologne,
Brecken: body lotion, even body oil. Even red wine.
Jonathan: Yeah, if you’re dunking your opals in… ,
Brecken: but it can actually take the color of, for instance, red wine and it can dye the stone.
Jonathan: Yeah. So that’s one of the interesting things is a lot of them, a lot of the Ethiopian material has dyed all kinds of crazy blues and purples and greens and oranges.
Brecken: Frank, my father-in-law Frank, had an opal lecture at Conclave a couple of years ago, and my mission was to go around Tucson and find dyed Ethiopian opal, and the color, all different colors. I had hot pink, lime green, and purple. And it, I mean, it’s kind of interesting.
Jonathan: It still has a play of color.
Brecken: But it’s dyed hot pink. Yeah. So it’s different.
Jonathan: It looks fake.
Brecken: Well, it is. Yeah. Well, it’s dyed hot pink opal. Like it doesn’t happen in nature.
Jonathan: It’s kind of crazy. So that’s kind of the strange thing about Ethiopian opal is that hydrophane and not all of it is hydrophane, but it’s, you know, all the parcels and everything get mixed. So you never know what is and what isn’t, cuz there’s no way of telling just from looking at it that, you know, this absorbs this much water and that absorbs that much water. You just can’t tell. So we’ve chosen to stay away from Ethiopian opal and focused primarily on Australian and Mexican
And the other thing that I think we should talk about is how you value an opal. What makes an opal valuable?
Jonathan: Red definitely does.
Brecken: The more red, the more valuable. Also the brightness too.
Jonathan: Yeah. And so that’s what I always say is the most important part after what kind of opal is it? Is it a black, a boulder, a light, a doublet?
What is it after that? The most important part, saying that the type is all the same is the brilliance. How bright is it? And I like to compare it to, you know, a 10 wat light bulb versus a hundred wat light bulb. The a hundred wat light bulb is obviously much more valuable than the 10.
Brecken: Does it glow?
Jonathan: Yeah. Does it have that just absolute glow? And then the next thing that would be important, but mostly in black opal is its body color, base color. Base color becomes very important. Is the base color, does it add value to the play of color or does it take away from the play of color?
Brecken: Yes, the black color. So when you have that really, really black base color, it can make the play of color just pop, just scream. Sometimes though, when you get kind of in that gray middle tone, I think it detracts from it. Some it kind of weakens.
Jonathan: Same with, I think, in the Mexican or Ethiopian material, that stuff it’s kind of yellowish. Is that it’s hard to see the play of color. And the play of color just doesn’t really, it’s not as striking. And then I think transparency is really important. Is it a see through or is it opaque? And the more opaque the opal is, the more that play of color really jumps out at you. Where if it’s see through you know, it’s kind of cool, cuz it looks different on everything that you wear it, which is why some people like it transparent. But from a market standpoint, the more opaque, the more valuable.
Brecken: Yeah. The thing I like about opal is beauty is really in the eye of the beholder. I mean, whatever you like.
Jonathan: If you love blues and greens, it’s even better because they’re much less expensive than reds and oranges. So that’s one of the things is it
Brecken: If you like gray base that are kind of transparent. Perfect! There’s an opal for you. Like there’s an opal for everybody and yeah.
Jonathan: And that’s the other thing, is that opal comes in every price point. You can get an opal for $10 and you can get an opal for a million dollars and everything in between.
Brecken: And no two opals are the same.
Jonathan: So every one is unique and unique to the person, unique to the design. And that’s the great thing is people, a lot of times will ask us about our designs, “is that a one of a kind?”
And I said, “well, the opal’s one of a kind, so yeah.” You can’t ever repeat an opal.
Brecken: No. And a lot of times we actually make opal pairs for earrings by cutting stones in half.
Jonathan: So we call those a split.
Brecken: You can’t, I mean, matching opal is, it’s an art and my mother-in-law is extremely good at it.
Jonathan: Yeah, she does all our bracelets. If you wanna talk about matching. Matching 10-12 opals in a row, all to go together, it gets tricky.
Brecken: It’s time consuming and tricky and you, it takes a special person.
Jonathan: So one of the other cool things that also comes into value is about pattern is that. More pinfire or more broad flash. Your pinfire, like your little tiny dots of color, whereas your broad flash is like one single flash of color across the whole gemstone. Or the very most valuable is called Harlequin. If you think of like flagstones all put together in a garden, all blocked together, kind of and that’s, that would be the most valuable pattern.
Brecken: Yeah. We actually had. Pattern that we bought a couple years ago. Do you? I called it pixie dust. Cause it had like all the green little sparkles through it.
Jonathan: That’s like a pinfire, but like a really, really fine and very bright pin fire that was some cool material.
Brecken: I know, it made me think of tinker bell.
Jonathan: And then we’ve gotten some really interesting new doublets that have our tiger stripe pattern.
Brecken: Tiger. Zebra. Depends who you are, who you ask. We haven’t named that one yet. I’d probably lose too.
Jonathan: Uh, so that’s something that’s kind of cool is that you can even get with pattern, you can even get a cat’s eye opal.
Brecken: Actually your dad has that really cool star opal.
Jonathan: But those are much more rare and you can’t find. Don’t tell people about things they can’t have.
Brecken: Yeah, actually this is a, it’s a cool stone. That was actually mined in Idaho. And it’s got a three ray red star.
Jonathan: Very cool. We’ll try to get a picture of it and put it on the blog. That one’s really cool. And we’ll also post some pictures of the zebra or tiger stripe and to kind of give you guys some different ideas of what different patterns look like. And if there’s a pattern that we mentioned that you really wanna see that we don’t put up, just shoot us an email.
Brecken: I think the only thing we really didn’t get a chance to cover today. Well, opal is such a broad category. Like there’s so much we didn’t talk about. So I, we’re gonna do this in kind of a series.
New Speaker: The opal series.
Brecken: The opal series. And so, yeah, so we’re gonna have an opal series and I think next week, we’ll talk about Australian opal.
Jonathan: So the number one source for opal, and there’s so many different types of opal as well that come out of Australia. So we’ll definitely talk about all the different types and what makes Australia.
Brecken: So I didn’t grow up in the business and growing up, I thought that opal was only that really milky, white. Well, let’s not say ugly because I don’t wanna use that word, but you know, boring stone. And so when I met Jonathan and he showed me all of the amazing colors and the range of opals that you find in Australia from blacks to lights to boulder, it’s pretty amazing. So we’re excited about next week.
And if you have any questions or comments about this week, or have any topics that you would like us to cover next week, just email us at
Jonathan: [email protected]
Brecken: And we would be happy to answer your questions. That’s gonna do it for today. Thanks for listening.
Jonathan: Thanks for listening. Bye.
Brecken: Bye Felicia.
Jonathan: I got my groove back. I was hurting at the beginning. I was like, “I don’t want to do this!”