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The finest black opals come from Lightning Ridge, an Aussie mining area that has been yielding top-quality opals since 1903 — about the same time Louis Comfort Tiffany took his first stab at designing fine jewelry at the age of 54.
Tiffany, whose father was Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder of the famous jewelry company, was already a household name based on his magnificent stained glass, ceramics and metalwork. When the elder Tiffany passed away in 1902, his son was determined to embrace a new discipline.
According to the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louis Tiffany’s earliest jewelry designs were exhibited at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, where they earned favorable reviews from the art critics of the period. Tiffany’s naturalistic designs, use of semiprecious stones with enamel and meticulous handcraftsmanship elevated his imaginative jewelry to the status of art.
Tiffany was particularly fond of opals, according to the Smithsonian, and used them extensively in his work. Louis often sought the advice and expertise of George Frederick Kunz, the gem expert at Tiffany & Company, who traveled the world in search of unusual gems and semi-precious stones for the company’s designers.
Louis designed the black opal necklace, shown above, later in his career. The Art Nouveau necklace is 30-inches in length and features two black opals — a large one on top and a smaller one at the bottom — secured in a vine of 18-karat gold grape leaves and accented with brilliant-cut green demantoid garnets.
Donated to the Smithsonian in 1974 by Mrs. F. R. Downs Jr. and Mrs. R. O. Abbott Jr., the unique piece was originally purchased from Tiffany’s on New Year’s Eve 1929, according to the original sales receipt. It is currently part of the National Gem Collection at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and an excellent example of October’s official birthstone. The other October birthstone is tourmaline.
Precious opals are universally loved because they can present all the colors of the rainbow. Each opal is truly unique and more than 95% of the world’s fine opals are sourced in Australia. Other varieties include white opals, boulder opals, crystal opals and fire opals.
Scientists believe that between 100 million and 97 million years ago, Australia’s vast inland sea, which was populated by marine dinosaurs, began retreating. As the sea regressed, a rare episode of acidic weather was taking place, exposing pyrite minerals and releasing sulphuric acid. As the surface of the basin dried further and cracked, silica-rich gel became trapped in the veins of the rock. Over time, the silica solidified to form opals.
In precious opal, the silica spheres are uniform in size and are stacked into an orderly arrangement, which gives the structure the ability to break visible white light into separate colors.
Interestingly, 95% of the opals found by miners is void of color. These specimens are white, grey or black. The locals call it “potch” and it has very little value. Potch is composed of the exact same mineral as fine opal – spheres of silica dioxide. The only difference is that in potch, the tiny silica spheres are jumbled, whereas in precious opal they’re all laid out evenly.
The value of a fine opal is based on a number of factors, including brightness, color, pattern, body tone and consistency (how it looks from multiple angles).
Credits: Images by Ken Larsen / Smithsonian.