Flash Dance: The Opal Resurgence



The bounty of opals streaming out of Ethiopia has turned the tide for the gem. Once considered unlucky, it’s now a designer favorite for its availability, still-affordable pricing, and flickering play of color.

In early 2008, farmers in Ethiopia’s Wollo province stumbled upon a cache of opals with an enchanting white-to-yellow-to-brown play of color. Unbeknownst to them, their find would kick-start a rush on the iridescent gems that’s still going strong today.

“The Ethiopian find has been the most important [opal] source from a volume standpoint for at least the past five years,” says Stuart Robertson, G.G., research ­director for Gemworld International Inc. in Glenview, Ill.

By all accounts, the availability of Ethiopian material has stoked demand for all kinds of opals (mainly Australian, though the gem is found in myriad locales ­including Mexico, Peru, and Turkey), resulting in a flood of new opal jewelry and higher prices.

The Wollo Rush

F. Mazzero/Opalinda, April 2013
An opal miner from Ethiopia’s Koke Weha mine cooperative. He carries the typical tools.

Dealers say Ethiopian goods are selling for up to three times the price they fetched a few years ago; fine Australian goods—boulder opals from Queensland, black opals from Lightning Ridge, and light opals from ­Coober Pedy—­easily command five-digit sums because of relative rarity. The opal business, however, comes with its share of ­caveats. Buyers must remain vigilant about undisclosed treatments and inflated pricing.

Philip Zahm of Philip Zahm Designs in Aptos, Calif., who has worked with opals for more than 20 years, fell hard for the Ethiopian goods. First and foremost, he says, they don’t suffer from crazing (the appearance of fine cracks due to lack of moisture). Zahm also likes their relative affordability coupled with an intriguing play of color—white with “different tones of orange”—as well as a fire that is sometimes comparable to Australian material.

Loose Ethiopian opal rough; Philip Zahm Designs, Aptos, Calif.; 831-662-3533; philipzahm.com

Dealers cite the high dome shapes in which Ethiopian opals can be cut. “They mount up real pretty,” says Mike Romanella, vice president of Commercial Mineral Co. in Scottsdale, Ariz. Compared with the low and flat color patterns on Australian material, Ethiopian domes offer a wow factor.

Even Australian opal dealers concede that the African stones are pretty and great for beads, though not for pairs. “For consistency, color, pattern, and creating matched sets, Australian opal outperforms Ethiopian,” says Gerry Manning, president of Manning International in Fairfield, Conn., a specialist in Australian white and black opal.

T. Cenki/Opalinda, March 2013
Opal in situ at the Koke Weha mine: This photo was taken some 150 feet deep in a tunnel dug in the ignimbrite—difficult and dangerous work, all done by hand.

Bill Marcue, owner of DW Enterprises in Boulder, Colo., has been selling Ethiopian opals almost exclusively for six years and maintains that their low prices—“Small stones cost anywhere from 3 to 5 dollars per carat wholesale,” he says—have a lot to do with the gem’s popularity.

Unlike many gem varieties, the Ethiopian material is plentiful. “It’s in a layer that runs for hundreds of kilometers, sometimes 400 meters ­underground,” Marcue says. The abundant supply has, in turn, given rise to demand, causing prices to climb steadily in the seven years since the Wollo discovery.

Romanella was one of the first dealers to carry the goods. He says a good Ethiopian stone worth about $150 a carat today sold for $60 a carat in 2009, while fine-quality material now costs about $200 to $300 a carat wholesale. Robertson confirms that the price for Ethiopian material has more than tripled, adding that the opals are still “quite affordable compared to Australian material.”

Tricky Treatments

Ring in 24k and 18k gold with crocodile skin texture, 6.95 ct. Lightning Ridge crystal opal, and 1.01 cts. t.w. diamonds; $28,600; Victor Velyan, Los Angeles; 213-955-5950; victorvelyan.com

Ethiopian opal is permeable, meaning it can be smoked and dyed (Romanella spied the latter treatment at ­September’s Hong Kong fair). Sometimes colors are obviously unnatural, like the purple hydrophane opal discussed in a 2011 piece in GIA’s Gems & Gemology that authors determined was “colored by an artificially introduced dye.” Other treaters do their best to imitate Australian blue. To detect dyes and smoked stones, Shane McClure, G.G., director of West Coast identification services at the GIA laboratory in Carlsbad, Calif., says to be wary of Ethiopian opal that’s not white, light yellow, amber, or brown and to get treatment guarantees in writing.

Further, because Ethiopian opal is a hydrophane, it can become transparent when wet and its play of color can disappear; sometimes it doesn’t return or looks whiter when it dries. “It needs to be treated like a pearl,” Marcue cautions.

Necklace in 18k gold with 36.7 cts. t.w. Lightning Ridge black opal, 3.75 cts. t.w. emeralds, and 1.2 cts. t.w. diamonds; $125,000; Pamela Huizenga Jewelry, NYC; 646-528-8299; pamelahuizenga.com

The recent bounty of Ethiopian goods has also brought durability under scrutiny, possibly because of unstable finds from the Shewa ­province in the mid-1990s. “The material from the newer Wollo mine has been more stable, for the most part,” McClure says. But compared with sapphires and diamonds, “opals can be brittle and need to be cared for with that in mind.”

Opal Fever

Vulnerabilities aside, it’s the look of opal that buyers like. “Pretty always sells,” says Michael Traurig, a principal of Phoenix’s Jayson Traurig Bros., a purveyor of Australian stones. He believes while Ethiopian goods essentially snuffed out the market for low-end white Australian rocks, African material made opal, in general, more visible. “It put us on the map again.”

With intense blue and green colors and flashes of red, orange, and yellow, the beauty of Australian stones is undeniable—as is their declining availability. Experts agree that supply has dried up in the last 20 years, with few miners entering the business and more exiting due to low margins and limited supply. “Most plots are played out in a few years,” says Matt Hopkins, a partner at Hopkins Opal in Westerly, R.I., whose father lives in Lightning Ridge and rents three claims of land where he digs for opals.

Photograph by Ted Morrison
Ring in 18k gold with 22 cts. t.w. Ethiopian opals and 5 cts. t.w. diamonds; $18,500; Sutra, Houston; 713-984-4987; sutrajewels.com

Naturally, this rarity—coupled with interest from the Chinese in all types of better-quality gems—has led to high prices. Dealers say black opal is selling for a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars per carat, and that Queensland boulder opal—of which Yowah is a variety—can sell for $80 up to $13,000 a carat for finer stones. Traurig was in Lightning Ridge in August and saw miners offering a 7.5 ct. black opal for $12,000 a carat. “I don’t know if they sold it, but it was worth every penny,” he says.

And though much of Australia’s light opal comes from Coober Pedy, Jonathan Farnsworth, vice president of sales for Parlé Jewelry Designs/Idaho Opal & Gem Corp. in Pocatello, Idaho, recalls acquiring a 48 ct. milky opal in 2012 from Mintabie, another mining town 175 miles north. The piece—a “retirement stone,” he says—had been cut 35 years prior in China and set in a gold and diamond pendant necklace that ultimately retailed for $23,300. Ordinarily, the milky variety can start from just a few dollars a carat.

Designed to Sell

Pricing Australian opal isn’t easy largely because grading is subjective. Blue and green are the most common colors of boulder and black opal, followed by orange and red. Personal preference affects price as well. Robyn Dufty, president of DuftyWeis Opals in Maysville, Ky., maintains that you can charge more for an interesting design because “top designers will fight over it.”

And fight they have. Opal has become a designer darling in recent years, thanks to its intriguing appearance. Los Angeles–based Erica Courtney became enamored with Ethiopian goods because of both their value and their aesthetic. “The influx of Ethiopian stones was almost like a reintroduction of opal to the market,” she says. “The price was so right that it dragged many people, including me, back over to opals.”

Earrings in oxidized sterling silver and 22k gold with boulder opal; $3,575; Margery Hirschey at Fragments, NYC; 212-226-8878; margeryhirschey.com

If Courtney can get her hands on opalized wood or Peruvian, Mexican, or Brazilian opals, she’ll buy those as well. “With opal,” she adds, “you have to buy it when you see it.”

Ditto for Pamela Huizenga, a designer based in Port St. Lucie, Fla., who uses pink and blue Peruvian opal in her work. She started buying Ethiopian material by the kilo six years ago and has hoarded Australian stones for years, cutting them herself and convincing superstitious consumers to ditch the myth that self-purchasing the stone brings a tide of bad luck.

On the contrary: Opal is the perfect gem for ­shoppers seeking one-of-a-kinds. “There are a lot of fine stones that simply don’t exist anymore,” says Dufty. “Opal has filled that void.”