Black Opal, The most rare and valuable type of opal. The word “black” does not refer to the face of the opal.
JOHN FORD'S OPINIONS ON OPALS
John Ford on Selling Lightning Ridge Opals Exclusively
I’ve been called an “Opal Snob” because I don’t sell doublets, triplets, simulated opal, Ethiopian, Mexican, or Brazilian opals - I only sell opals from Lightning Ridge, Australia. I only sell solid Australian opal because it is the finest opal in the world. I place an equal importance on the fact that Lightning Ridge Opal is mined in an environmentally and socially sensitive manner. To preserve the natural beauty of the outback all mines are returned to their natural state. And the miners are individuals not corporations who operate in an ethical and safe manner.
I sell a variety of opal from the Lightning Ridge. The amazing body tones, ranging from black to crystal to light white, make incredibly fine pieces of jewelry - especially when set with diamonds. Unfortunately, in the United States, both retailers and consumers are confused by opal for a variety of reasons. To help alleviate the confusion I only sell natural opal from an identifiable source. When you view my Lightning Ridge Collection, you can be sure the opals are natural, non-treated, ethically mined and sourced from Lightning Ridge, Australia.
John Ford On Doublets, Triplets and Synthetic Opal
It’s far too common in the United States that consumers are sold doublets and triplets, both loose and in finished jewelry, as “opal”. Then there is the synthetic stabilized opal, both in finished and in rough form. I exhibit at jewelry shows throughout the U.S. and the general public is totally confused over what is real what is not.
What are these stones worth compared to real opal gemstones? Doublets, triplets, synthetics, and stabilized opal are to opal what cubic zirconia is to diamonds. There is simply no comparison. And, if someone cuts a sliver of real opal and glues it to the backs of ironstone or some other backing and claims that it’s a legitimate gemstone, I will say they are wrong.
In short they are a very cheap substitutes for the real thing. This confusion among consumers negatively effects the public perception of the value and stature of opal to other gemstones. I for one can’t understand why any opal dealer dealing with genuine opal would ever display these cheap substitutes next to genuine opal.
I am not saying there is not a legitimate market for these substitutes. But let’s be clear that doublets, triplets, and synthetics, have no place in a fine jewelry case. You will only find fine natural Australian Opal in my case - all sourced from Lightning Ridge, Australia. That’s a fact - just as you will only find fine diamonds in my cases and not cubic zirconia.
John Ford’s opinion on Ethiopian Opal
I’ve watched the emergence of Ethiopian Opal in the market at the Tucson gem show for about the last 10-12 years. The emergence of Ethiopian opal came at exactly the same time I decided to move forward and develop a collection of black opal and diamond jewelry now called the Lightning Ridge Collection. In considering my future opal collections, I had to decide whether to include Ethiopian material. Ethiopian opal is lucrative from a profit point of view because it is so inexpensive compared to Australian Opal. I made the decision to avoid and not market Ethiopian opal and here’s why…
Frankly Australian opal and Ethiopian opal are just inherently a different type of opal. When you manufacture opal jewelry accented with diamonds it needs to be ultra-sonically cleaned. Unlike Australian opal which is ultrasonic safe, Ethiopian opal is a hydrophane opal and loses color when submerged in water. Australian opal is non-porous, Ethiopian opal is porous. What does this mean? It means the Ethiopian opal can literally soak up when exposed to perfumes, lotions, dyes resulting in a drastic change in appearance.
It’s difficult to tell your customers that they should not get their new opal wet because it may fade (even though the color returns over time) or reframe from hand lotions etc… The Ethiopian opal, in my opinion, is simply inferior to Australian Opal. Australian opal is stable, not treated, and does not lose its color when submerged. Its brilliance and play of color is unmatched and has over a hundred years of proven history and is mined in an environmentally and socially sensitive manner. There is a market for Ethiopian opals and reputable dealers do sell it with the proper disclosures. It’s just not something I wish to manufacture into my fine opal collection for the reasons I’ve stated.
John Ford on Buying Estate Opal Jewelry
When buying estate jewelry supposedly consisting of black opal, insist on the seller clearly stating on the receipt that the stone is solid opal and not a doublet or triplet, and state the opal has not been treated. Also ask them to state the country of origin. If the origin is anywhere other than Australia, you should be concerned. If the opal is from Ethiopia, I would simply walk away, as the material is recently discovered, is very inexpensive, and something you would not see in true estate jewelry. Also ask if the opal has any signs of crazing and make sure it is noted on the receipt that the opal is not crazed. When an opal is crazed, its value is significantly reduced.
The Language of Opal
Black Opal: The most rare and valuable type of opal. Black opal has a dark underlying body tone, which gives greater intensity to the gem color.
The word “black” does not refer to the face of the opal.
Carat: A unit of weight used to measure opals and other gemstones. A carat equals one fifth of a gram.
Doublet: A doublet is made by fusing a dark backing (often natural black “potch”) to the back of gem opal, producing a double-layered gem with an appearance similar to black opal.
Fossil: Most Australian opal originated 110 to 120 million years ago, during the age of dinosaurs. Rare opalised fossil bones, shells, teeth or pine cones are found at Lightning Ridge. Miners sometimes use the word “fossil” to describe any opal that has an odd shape, even if it can’t be determined which (if any) plant or animal part the opal has replaced.
Nobby: A naturally lump-shaped piece of opal. The nobby form of opal is only found at Lightning Ridge.
Opal Carving: A specialized method of opal cutting, used to conserve gem opal and to produce uniquely shaped gemstone with freeform shapes and undulating surfaces.
Opal Cutter: A skilled person who cuts rough or rubbed opal into cut and polished gemstones.
Opal Dirt: Claystones in which opal is found.
Potch: A form of non-precious opal that doesn’t contain gem color. Potch is usually black, grey, or white or amber colored.
Ratter: A person despised on the opal fields. A thief who steals opal from a mine, an agitator or a pile of tailings.
Rough Opal: that hasn’t yet been touched by cutting equipment.
Rub Opal: that has been rubbed by cutting machinery to remove gross impurities and establish a preliminary shape.
Seam: A horizontal layer of opal in the ground. Opal is found in seam as well as nobby formation in the Lightning Ridge area.
Triplet: A triplet is similar to a doublet except that the slice of gem opal is very thin, and a third layer – a cap of transparent quartz crystal – is added to the gem.