It can be said that every stone has a story. And cutting to uncover its greatest potential is the domain of imaginative carvers. The statement is certainly true for the variety of opal that deliver inspiration to daring gemstone carvers.
As the buying public gets savvier about opal types, their developing taste for the material seems boundless. Retailers might inform customers about the wide array of opal and nurture that interest.
Color for Days
When consumer’s interest is piqued with unusual opals, they will be pleased to learn that right here in the USA, some exciting varieties can be found. Oregon-based Outlaw Rocks LLC, has an inspiring company motto; American mining done responsibly! This 5th gen family owned business produces blue, fire, pink, peach, red, white, caramel and chocolate opals, all from their own mines.
The rough material at Outlaw Rocks is captivating enough for carvers to become enthused into shaping these stones into beads and carved sculptural pieces – whatever the carver’s mind can envision. Color takes the lead in these opal varieties, and since many of these specimens are found in large sized rough, their utility is endless.
Carving Out Surprises
Opal that most consumers are familiar with has a phenomenon called play-of-color. The distinctive aspect intrigues the viewer, yet may present challenges for a cutter. Hawaii-based Dusty Gazongas of Zodiac Opals lends his perspective. “I’ve been carving opals for about 5 years now. For retail settings, an innovative design team is very helpful when selling opal carvings, as the majority of these opals will require a custom setting before they find a home,” he points out. Carved opal is for the artistic consumer, as every piece of opal, whether carved or cabbed is a one-off. Gazongas believes that tutoring drives opal’s demand. “As with all opal sales,” he points out, “providing education regarding the different types of opal is important, and seeing each one as unique can create a special personal connection to these rare and amazing jewels.”
Cutters learn by doing, and with so many opal types to experiment with, its lessons are legion. “Any variety of less stable opal (like hydrophane and certain kinds of jelly opal) is usually more difficult to carve,” Gazongas says. Less water in the carving process reduces the chances of crazing versus traditional cabbing, he finds. According to Gazongas, “the best surprise when carving is uncovering a very bright pocket of gem opal hidden inside an otherwise unremarkable stone, and letting the chase for color determine its form.”
While opal turns up in pockets around the globe, Australia is the traditional deposit for the play-of-color variety. And it is spectacular stuff, with different regions producing distinct variations. South Australian Shane Blackler, of Jennie N Shane Opals, Coober Pedy, discusses the creative journey of cutting opal. “You can find color layers to work with in cabbing but you may want to carve it into fascinating shapes instead.” Blackler goes on to explain that the Coober Pedy material is especially challenging to work with. “It has a lot of selenite (a soft gypsum material) in it; so you’ve got to carve through that to find out what you’ve got in the stone,” he reports.
Obviously, the big thrill with precious opal lies in its myriad rainbow colors that blink enticingly at the viewer with each delicate turn of the stone. Even though one wants to experience its entire rainbow of hues, Blackler has some advice for carvers. “Don’t try to get all the colors out of one stone, because you’ll never be able to do that,” he cautions. Instead, he advises, “Cut it up and make several stones out of the rough. People try to cut a thin color bar into a cab – it’s just not going to happen. Trim that stone down and try to find the stone you want in there first.”
Takes All Kinds
Well-known gemstone carver Helen Serras-Herman has been working with and enjoying carving opal for decades – both the play-of-color varieties and the lustrous pastel toned kind. There are similarities to cutting opal versus transparent gemstones, and some distinct differences. “When cutting precious opal,” Serras-Herman says, “a slower grinding method, or ‘grind and examine, and examine some more’ approach is recommended.” Carving boulder and matrix opal, like Yowah and Koroit Australian opal, she finds, “gives the carver a little more rough material to work with, and a nice range of color bands.” But they can be challenging for the carver too. “I have a love-hate relationship with these opals,” she confides.
Serras-Herman also thinks of how designers can benefit from the vast array of opals on the market now. “Jewelry designers can find finished gems that will fit their design inspiration and budget.” Many shoppers today look for natural untreated stones; but they want affordability too. That’s a tough combo. While that’s not always possible with transparent colored stones, it can be one of opal’s more salient traits. “Most opals are affordable and all natural, not treated in any way, which are appealing incentive points for buyers,” she confirms. “When set into jewelry, they are alluring. Customers tend to gravitate towards these exotic pieces and are eager to learn more about them.”