More than any other mineral, opals seem to come alive with intense, variegated colors and dynamic waves of light. Early Bedouins believed that the stones contained lightning and fell from the sky during thunderstorms. Today, geologists offer a more earthbound explanation: The stones, which are largely found in vast deserts, result from drenching rainstorms that carry silica deep underground; when the water evaporates, the silica forms opals. Yet science notwithstanding, a flashing opal continues to possess a vibrant luminosity and an otherworldly air that mesmerize the beholder.
This season, a number of inventive jewelry designers who have been bewitched by the stone are creating remarkable pieces using other colorful gems to enhance the opals’ iridescent colors. The resulting increase in demand has sent miners into more remote desert areas, where they are discovering unusual variations and bringing relatively unknown varieties to market. As always, however, the most coveted specimens present a defined play of color. The high-quality black opal found in Lightning Ridge, Australia, for instance, has a black base that provides a striking backdrop to its flashes of red, green, and orange. White opals, which come largely from Coober Pedy, Australia, also deliver deep plays of light and sparkle, though they may have a subtler, milky appearance.
The Mexican fire opal is desirable for its translucence, while water opals indeed resemble clear pools of sparkling water. Among the most unusual varieties are wood-replacement opals, which contain fragments of petrified wood, and the highly desirable boulder opals, which may contain fragments of the surrounding rock and radiate even greater displays of seemingly preternatural light. —Jill Newman
Photo 1. Kimberly McDonald 41-carat black-opal earrings with brown, orange, and white diamonds, and 108-carat boulder-opal-and-diamond-slice earrings, prices upon request (310.854.0890, www.kimberlymcdonald.com).
Photo 2. Arunashi cuff of fire opal, tsavorite, and diamond, $142,500 (310.888.0123, www.arunashi.com); Katherine Jetter Mexican anhydrous fire-opal spider ring with black diamonds, tsavorites, and rubies, $40,000 (646.651.3233, www.katherinejetter.com).
Photo 3. Clockwise from upper left: Wendy Yue opal ring with brown diamonds and sapphires, $8,375, available at Fragments (212.334.9588); Kimberly McDonald 85.4-carat opal ring with diamonds, price upon request (310.854.0890, www.kimberlymcdonald.com); K. Brunini Jewels carved-opal flower ring with diamonds and pink sapphires, $21,450, and wood-replacement opal ring with pink sapphires, rubies, and diamonds, $37,500, available at Meridian Jewelers, Aspen (970.925.3833); Kimberly McDonald 36.55-carat Mexican water opal ring with brown and white diamonds, and 21-carat black-opal-and-diamond ring, prices upon request.
Photo 4. From left: Katherine Jetter 19-carat black Lightning Ridge opal ring with diamonds and tsavorites, $28,000 (646.651.3233, www.katherinejetter.com); Pamela Froman Australian boulder-opal ring with Paraíba tourmalines and tanzanite, $15,840 (323.954.7436, www.pamelafroman.com); Kimberly McDonald 77-carat black-opal-and-diamond ring, price upon request (310.854.0890, www.kimberlymcdonald.com); Wendy Yue opal ring with tsavorites and diamonds, $16,250, available at Fragments (212.334.9588).
Photo 5. K. Brunini Jewels black-opal bracelet with Australian petrified-wood opals and diamonds, $47,440, available at Meridian Jewelers, Aspen (970.925.3833); Irene Neuwirth necklace with boulder opals, black onyx, and diamonds, $32,520, available at Barneys New York (212.826.8900, www.barneys.com).
Photo 6. From left: Katherine Jetter 32-carat Coober Pedy white opal (found in the cavity of a dinosaur-tooth fossil) set with diamonds on a moonstone necklace, $44,000, and a 75-carat boulder opal with diamonds on a moonstone necklace, $44,000 (646.651.3233, www.katherinejetter.com); Pamela Froman Australian boulder-opal pendant with Paraíba tourmalines, $20,900, on a triple strand of apatite beads with gold and diamonds, $4,840 (323.954.7436, www.pamelafroman.com); Erica Courtney Koroit opal pendant with tsavorites on a necklace of Tahitian pearl, whiskey quartz, and turquoise, $17,200 (323.938.2373, www.ericacourtney.com).