Feature: Great Balls of Fire

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Ten years ago, opal dealer Mark Tremonti heard that an exceedingly rare black opal had been unearthed in Lightning Ridge, the remote mining region in the Australian Outback. He quickly flew to the desert to cajole the miner into selling him the prized gem, bringing with him some necessities for closing the deal: two cases of beer and a bottle of rum.

Out of the Blue

“These miners are unusual types,” he says of the men who dig holes as deep as 90 feet and more in the desert, where temperatures often exceed 110 degrees. “A miner won’t sell you the stone unless he likes you, and I heard this particular guy likes to drink.” By the time the second case of beer was empty, Tremonti owned the 16-carat harlequin opal, a fluke of nature that presents a checkerboard pattern, with each square emanating a different hue. The next day, he flew to Taiwan and sold it to a collector for upward of $10,000 per carat; he would not reveal his profit margin.

“I never saw another opal like that one, and probably never will again,” says Tremonti, a former miner himself who spent 22 years digging in Lightning Ridge, a 100-square-mile area that produces about 95 percent of the world’s opals.

Tickled Pink

Opals are formed from a combination of silica and water deposited in sedimentary rock formations during the Cretaceous period, about 110 million years ago. Spheres of silica gel within the stones create their distinctive light refraction and striking color play. While opals are relatively abundant, flawless stones with deeply saturated color are rare.

Light Bright

A fine black opal that emits a wide spectrum of hues—from blue to purple to orange—and flashes of light is the most desirable and expensive opal variety. No two of these stones are alike, as each radiates a unique brilliance and color intensity, which appear far more vibrant on a black rock base compared to the lighter base material of more subtle white opals. Aside from the widely known iridescent black and white varieties, more esoteric opals include translucent orange Mexican fire opals as well as opaque Peruvian varieties in shades of pink, blue, and white.

Playing with Fire

Once considered a common gemstone, opals of premium quality are again intriguing daring jewelry designers with their vivacious presence. “You have to be fearless to set a black opal,” says jewelry designer Nicholas Varney, who is known for his extraordinary use of exotic gemstones in combination with organic elements such as wood or coral, which he often leaves in their natural state. “It’s the only gem that exhibits a spectacular array of colors, and it deserves a fabulous setting that enhances those colors.” For one of his latest creations, Varney accents the black opal’s rainbow of hues by mating the stone with green tsavorites, mandarin garnets, red spinels, and other brightly colored gems.

The allure of opals can be traced to the world’s earliest cultures: In the 1930s, anthropologist Louis Leakey discovered in a Kenyan cave opal artifacts dating back 6,000 years. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed the stone symbolized hope, innocence, and purity. In the Middle Ages, opals were believed to have curative powers for eye ailments and came to be known as “ophthalmios,” or “eye stones.” In the 16th century, the Aztecs introduced Spanish conquistadors to Mexican fire opals, which they brought back to Europe. But it was not until 1887, when black opal was discovered in Australia and found favor with Queen Victoria, that the gem achieved widespread popularity. Black and white opals thrived during the Art Nouveau era, when René Lalique created several opal jewelry designs for actress Sarah Bernhardt.

British designer Stephen Webster references the soft, flowing lines of Art Nouveau design with his latest collection featuring opaque opals. “The soft pink and green colors give my jewelry a romantic, feminine feeling,” says Webster, who acquired his first lot of mint green Turkish opal last year. The stones’ opaque quality makes them conducive to softly rounded cabochon cuts, as opposed to geometric, faceted treatments. “Most people don’t know what the hell pink Peruvian or green Turkish opal is,” jokes Webster. “But it sounds very exotic, and it has this inner glow that people love.”

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