Antiques: Collecting opals

PUBLISHED: 12:35 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:38 20 February 2013

Opal set necklace sold for £920

Opal set necklace sold for £920

Christina Trevanion, jewellery specialist at fine art auction house Halls, Shrewsbury, rediscovers her passion for the stone that's shrouded in superstition

Lucky me, owning an opal

I recently returned from a month-long, blissful trip to New Zealand and Australia, and while Down Under fulfilled a lifetime ambition of buying an Australian opal in its native country.
In the hunt for my perfect opal, which took approximately two and a half days (much to my partners chagrin), I rediscovered my passion for these extraordinary and splendid stones and would like to try, in part, to lift the veil of fear and superstition that surrounds them.
In my job as a jewellery specialist and auctioneer, I hear people say: I cant buy an opal, Im not a Libran or: I dont want an opal, theyre very unlucky. Both of these statements make me sad and are borne from a lack of understanding about this magnificent stone.
The opal is associated with the birth sign of Libra. The tradition of birthstones originated in the Middle Ages, when fortune-tellers, eager to exert more influence over suspicious people, chose a birth stone to represent each month. They even suggested that a particular stone would bring the wearer the properties associated with it.

The opals property was thought to be hope. I personally think it is very nice to have a birthstone and, as a Gemini, my birthstone is pearl. However, I wouldnt turn down a diamond ring because Im not an Aries!

Many people think that, historically, opals have been unlucky, when actually this opal myth only dates back to 1829, when Sir Walter Scott published Anne of Gerstein. In the book the lead character dies and her death is attributed to the opal she was wearing. Prior to the book's release the opal was considered to be a gemstone of good luck, beauty and fascination.

Its reputation was further compounded because opals used to have a tendency to drop out of their settings, crack or craze; this is because opal is composed of extremely minute spheres of silicon dioxide and between these spheres lies a water/gel substance. Usually up to 20 per cent of the opal is composed of water. The interaction of light between these spheres is what causes its unique play of colour. However, what makes it beautiful also makes it vulnerable and, when exposed to extreme temperatures, the opal dehydrates and this causes the stone to shrink or crack.

It is because of this that people tend to see opals as a rather high maintenance stone, but this is also true for emeralds and pearls and all jewellery requires a certain degree of maintenance. If stored properly and worn with respect, opals do not need any additional care and are very easy to wear.

Traditionally very little has been known about opals, but now the situation is vastly different. With the advent of sophisticated microscopes, we can now understand why opals are how they are; we can remove the mysticism that surrounds them and start beginning to appreciate these beautiful stones for what they are rather than as an omen of something gruesome.
As a reminder of my Antipodean adventure, I chose a Queensland black opal. Black opals themselves have been mined in Australia since the end of the 19th century, before which they were unheard of. There are many different classifications of opal and types; broadly they include: black, grey, white and jelly, along with fire opal which is usually found in Mexico.
Prices for opals are still relatively low and, therefore, even good quality examples are still relatively affordable. Valuing an opal is rather like valuing a picture in that each has to be taken on its own merit. However, I wonder what prices would be like if everyone saw what I do when I look into an opal. Not just a rock with flashing colours but a stone borne from the parched red ranges where Aboriginal tribes roam the lands under the vast clear skies and the stars are so bright and so prolific, you feel like you can touch them.I think, for my next trip, Id better avoid the diamond fields of Africa, it might prove quite expensive!
Be sure to check out the forthcoming auctions at Halls Welsh Bridge saleroom in Shrewsbury to find your ideal piece of jewellery.

Our next collective sale, which includes affordable jewellery, on February 10, is time specifically for those seeking Valentines Day gifts, while our first 2010 auction of fine jewellery, silver and pictures is on March 24.

Contact Christina Trevanion at Halls on 01743 284777.

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