Of all the gemstones the world over, precious opal is perhaps the most magical of them all. But what do we mean by precious opal? Opal can be divided into two varieties: precious and common (also know as potch). Precious opals are the gemstones with the irregular, iridescent colour patches (called play-of-colour) over either a pale background (white opal) or a dark background (black opal). Black opals are particularly sought after and valuable, and especially those with reds and yellows in their iridescent colour spectrum. But how is this magical play-of-colour formed, you may be wondering? Opal is found in the cavities and fissures of rocks and is formed when low-temperature, silica-bearing water invades those gaps and evaporates, leaving behind many spheres of silica. The silica spheres, packed together, interfere with the light as it tries to pass through them, separating what we normally perceive as white light into its constituent colours (blue, green, yellow and red). The result is the precious opal gemstone with shifting colours, often woven into background rock. It's a gemstone that has fascinated humans from the day it was first found, with fine antique opal jewellery at auction today often reaching exceptionally values.
An Australian Aboriginal legend tells that opals appeared when the Creator first descended to the Earth with a message of peace, travelling down the arc of a the rainbow. When his foot touched the ground, the rock that covered the Earth began to sparkle just like the rainbow he traveled on. And opals were born. Aboriginals prized the colourful stones, as the did the ancient Greeks who thought opal bestowed the powers of foresight and prophecy, while the Romans considered precious opal a symbol of purity and hope. Aside from it's very obvious beauty, today we prize opal as one of the birthstones for October and they adorn much as of jewellery in rings, pendants, necklaces, bangles, bracelets and brooches. Sometimes the stones you see will be entire precious opals fashioned as a cabochon, sometimes they will be opal doublets (slices of precious opal cemented to an ironstone base) and sometimes they will be opal triplets (a slice of precious opal cemented between a transparent top and a dark base). There are obviously huge cost savings when it comes to doublets and triplets, with very little loss the beauty of the stone.
Vintage Opal Rings
Without a doubt, some of our favourite items of vintage jewellery to find are vintage opal rings. Most vintage opal rings will be 9ct gold, and set with either precious white opal, or darker opal doublets or triplets. However, we do occasionally come across 18ct gold pieces set with fabulous black opals and these are an absolute joy to behold and wear. Of course, opal is a soft gemstone and great care needs to be taken when wearing an antique or vintage opal ring, especially an entire opal. Firstly, knocks and bangs need to be avoided, so take the ring off for any activity where it could get banged and never put it in an ultrasonic jewellery cleaner. Keep the stone out of hot sunlight and away from heat generally, including the jewellers torch - do not try and resize your vintage opal ring! Opal is a porous stone, so keep it away from all chemicals including perfumes, moisturisers and swimming pools. Do not store in too dry conditions, and often the advice is store next to moist cotton wool balls to stop the stone drying out and cracking.
Antique Opal Jewellery
Opal has had quite an interesting history when it comes to jewellery, and has been considered both lucky and unlucky at different times. Most opals found in antique pieces were mined in Hungary, the Czech Republic or Slovakia, or were early stones to come out of Queensland, Australia. Many opal discoveries were made in Queensland in the 1870s, with the first record of Australian opal being set into fine jewellery at the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880. Not surprisingly, opals became very sought after in jewellery in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, and can be found in antique pendants, necklaces, bangles and brooches in addition to the already discussed rings. Opals could be set as a set stone and surrounded by diamonds, or they may be set with emeralds and rubies, or used as standalone gemstones in fine gold and platinum pieces. Boulder opal antique pieces can also be found, and in boulder opal jewellery the opal is still attached to the host rock in which it formed. When these stones were fashioned, it was considered prudent for the stone's integrity to keep some of the backing rock attached. Boulder opal pieces are hugely desirable and we have had some wonderful examples pass through our hands over the years, notably large drop pendants.
Vintage Opal Bangles and Bracelets
Precious opals looks fabulous set in yellow gold - something about the blues, greens, red and yellows in the gemstones compliments the warm, buttery metal that surrounds it. Antique or vintage opal bangles are highly sought after, and the opal cabochons are often arranged in a graduated style, with the largest stone in the central moving out to smaller stones at the edges. Sometimes the opals in vintage bangles may be accented by bright, white diamonds, or other times by rubies, and when we source them they never hang around in the shop for very long!
Antique Opal Pendant Necklaces
The great thing about wearing an opal around the neck is that its beauty cannot be missed. As such, opals were exceedingly popular neck-wear stones in times gone by, and adorned lavalier, Edna May, fringe and just about any other antique necklace style that existed. Standalone opal pendants were also worn, and often the gold bezel was formed specifically to surround that individual opal, rather than the stone being cut to suit the setting. It is the opal that often chooses its final shape, rather than the stone cutter, and Victorian/Edwardian jewellers would work their metal work around the stone, just like the jewellers of today do.
Why buy vintage opal jewellery?
Quite simply: for its history. We love all jewellery at Kit Clayton, but antique and vintage pieces possess a magic that modern jewellery cannot. We obsess about times gone by in books and TV shows, and we are no different when it comes to our jewellery. We love the fact that the piece, whether it's an opal ring, bracelet, bangle or opal brooch, has a past of which we can only guess. We love that it's been worn with love and pride, and that it's lived through the momentous moments in human history that we read about in books or learn about in school. Times that our grandparents and great grandparents lived through, and that we would love to go and visit if only someone would invent a time machine to allow us to do so! The antique and vintage jewellery pieces we wear are our very own links to the past.