Unearthing the Opal Industry
by Tatiana Ikasovic
There is much to be said about the beauty of an opal — it’s diaphanous, multidimensional light and purity has inspired poets, ancient kings, queens and scholars alike to obsess over the gem that’s native to the extraordinary Australian landscape; with Shakespeare even declaring opal to be ‘the queen of gems’.
Growing up in the opal industry, I saw the magic of the gemstone from a young age, and was continually mystified by the variation of colours and the way it morphed and shifted depending on the light. There was a certain poetry to its movement — the stone always represented a glowing beacon of hope and prosperity to me, mostly because of the delicate way in which it’s extracted from the earth and the luck involved in finding opal in the first place.
I started Fade to Black three years ago because I felt there was a need for high quality, reasonably priced and modern, refined opal jewelry. My Dad has been in the opal industry for over 35 years, where he cuts and procures the gemstones from the Australian outback, so having firsthand knowledge and a great relationship with miners (many of whom I’ve known since childhood) was invaluable to my business. Because of my upbringing in the industry, I am able to ethically source opal directly from the miners, and all the stones are cut in house by my Dad.
My latest collection for Fade to Black, Sonder, is an accessibly-priced holiday capsule designed with dreamy oval shaped opals and framed by 14 karat gold. In designing this collection, I was drawn to the notion of unity and wholeness, and the original interpretations of opal that have existed for centuries (which you can read more about below). Pieces designed to be lived in daily, gifted to others and passed on through generations as a guiding light and source of hope and continual inspiration.
Since starting Fade to Black, I’ve noticed that many consumers do not have the necessary knowledge to make informed purchasing decisions when it comes to opals and thought it would be insightful to understand a bit about the industry and what to look for when purchasing your next piece of jewelry.
HISTORY OF OPALS
Throughout the ages, many cultures have attributed opal to having mystical properties. The ancient Greeks believed wearing the gem bestowed its owner with the power of foresight, the Romans considered opal to symbolize hope, prosperity, love and, famously, Queen Victoria adorned opal and popularized the gem throughout her reign. Her seal of approval created a high demand for the stone and, subsequently, sent prices soaring.
Opals are believed to be a deeply karmic gemstone, amplifying the positive qualities of its wearer and enhancing creativity, purpose and intuition. Its amorphous nature is akin to that of human emotion and can promote spontaneity with its transient, moody and effervescent color patterns. Roman emperors would gift their wives with the stone because it was believed to be like a rainbow, a trusted talisman that would bring its owner good fortune wherever they travelled.
Interestingly, within all the varied supernatural history and lore of opal, there lies a lingering superstition around this mysterious gem. The writer Sir Walter Scott published his seminal novel Anne of Geirdenstein in 1829, which had the heroine die by way of touching a magical opal that discolors and bewitches her in the process. The public jumped on this claim, and birthed a superstition of opal as a bringer of bad luck. This superstition lasted into the 20th century, by which time people had forgotten the origins of the claim.
SUSTAINABILITY IN OPAL MINING
Opal is formed over millions of years under the earth, and extracting the gem is a delicate and unpredictable process. The Australian government prohibits large scale operations so miners usually work as individuals or in pairs. There are no corporations digging up vast swathes of land in search of opal which contributes to opal being one of the smallest and most niche mining industries in Australia. The miner relies on an element of chance when searching for the illustrious color bar hidden amongst the sandstone walls, submerging themselves 40 ft deep in an underground shaft and often spending years, and sometimes decades, waiting to strike a patch of opal that can turn them into an overnight millionaire.
The Australian government has proposed stringent regulations on miners to ensure that the areas that are unearthed are rehabilitated and revegetated after use. Requirements include refilling the holes they’ve excavated with sandstone, and then planting trees on top of the land so that the area can completely regenerate over time. Many of stones used for Fade To Black have been held by my family since the early 90’s, when production was at an all time high. This ensures that the pieces are all environmentally sound and sourced in a sustainable manner.
GRADING OF OPAL
Kaleidoscopic in nature, the spectrum of color that exists within an opal is a naturally occurring marvel, but it can also be slightly confusing when purchasing. Australian opal is renowned for its brilliance and unparalleled quality, however there are other areas where lower quality opal is sourced too. Ethiopia and Mexico also produce a small quantity of the gem, though the lower quality color pattern and composition makes them considerably less valuable than the Australian variation. They are also more prone to cracking and changing color, and the mining practices aren’t as regulated leading to adverse environmental effects and in many cases leaving miners working for others rather than for themselves.
Fade to Black uses a variety of different colored opals in our pieces, and that’s what makes the gem so unique and personal - no two are completely alike. We offer a customized service where the client can view specific photos and videos of the exact piece they will receive.
3 MAIN TYPES OF AUSTRALIAN OPAL
Black opal: The most prized and rare of all the opals, these are found in Lightning Ridge, Australia. Black opal stones have a dark body tone and display a vast array of colours; namely reds, yellows, dark blues and greens.
Crystal / light opal: Natural opals that range from almost transparent to a light grey body tone. These are the most common Australian form of opal, and have an ethereal, dreamy presence that display light blues, greens, and lavender tones. (My personal favourite!)
Boulder opal: This form of opal has an organic, freeform shape and the natural sandstone is present throughout the surface of the stone, blending into a unique formation of color. Boulder opal can be black or white depending on the body tone.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN PURCHASING
When purchasing your stone, being knowledgeable about what type of opal you are receiving is imperative. You want it to last forever and to ensure the stone is a solid opal and not a doublet or triplet. These are an assembled combination of a thin slice of natural opal and cap of an artificial veneer, such as black glass. These assembled opals are a fraction of the price of a solid gem and can easily fill with liquid when wet. We only use solid opals in our jewelry, and you should demand the same standard from other brands if you want longevity from your jewelry.
A lot of opal jewelry on the market today is overpriced for the size of the stone and the grade of opal they use. Find out where the stone has come from before purchasing and look for Australian over other variations. If the stone has been through several hands before being made, from miner through multiple buyers before reaching you, you’re going to be subject to markups every step of the way, so finding a reputable jeweler with access to the source will ensure you have a better buying experience.
Fade To Black is a modern opal jewelry company that aims to create timeless, sophisticated pieces to elevate a woman’s sense of style. With each design centered around the beauty and individuality of the gemstone, Fade To Black’s otherworldly pieces are a wearable reminder of nature and all its glory. The ethereal light in opal, trapped in darkness for millennia, is unearthed and adorned, a representation of our own journey through life.
Fade To Black prides itself on quality and transparency. Using solid Australian opals, sourced from Lightning Ridge, and solid 18 karat gold, each piece is designed in Los Angeles, California and thoughtfully handcrafted in Sydney, Australia.