Martin Katz ring

Martin Katz ring

Opal: Delicate Beauty in a Watery Orb

New York Times, May 20, 2010

PEDRO SEGUNDO, BRAZIL — On a recent trip to this town in the state of Piauí, in “the middle of nowhere in the Brazilian opal fields,” Jürgen Schütz, president of Emil Weis Opals, a dealer in Idar-Oberstein, Germany, struggled to send an e-mail dispatch.

“For an unknown reason the computer deleted my first message, so I have to do it again,” Mr. Schütz wrote, before recapitulating his point: “Diamonds you buy with your head or brain — you can easily compare the certificates with each other — but opal you have to choose with your heart and your soul.”

This conviction, shared by lovers everywhere of the fiery, multihued gem, rests on a number of idiosyncrasies. Start with the obvious one: In opal’s most resplendent and recognizable, though by no means definitive, form, it resembles the earth as seen from outer space, a tempest of blue-green swirls punctuated by unpredictable and otherworldly flashes of color.

The opal’s painterly palette reflects its unique chemistry. An amorphous composite of watery silica spheres, it lacks the crystalline quality that allows most stones to be faceted.

On the downside, opal carries heavy spiritual baggage. Saddled with a host of superstitions, it has been often called an unlucky gem, despite also being feted as a birthstone.

In “The Curious Lore of Precious Stones,” published in 1919, the gemologist George Frederick Kunz attributed the opal’s jinxed reputation to a popular misreading of an episode in Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 novel, “Anne of Geierstein,” in which an opal’s loss of color was associated with death.

Whatever the explanation, a persistent rumor of bad juju has made no difference to designers, who have lately gone crazy for the gem.

“If there were a support group called Opals Anonymous, I’d join,” said Ann Ziff, a doyenne of New York society whose Tamsen Z collection features Australian black opals in combination with tanzanite, aquamarine and other gems that pick up on opal’s signature “play of color” — the changing patterns of color that occur when light is refracted by the gem’s sub-microscopic spheres.

Ms. Ziff is not alone. The designer Victoire de Castellane of Dior says she fell in love with opals at age eight, after spying one set in an antique jewel.

Another devotee is the celebrated artist-jeweler Marilyn Cooperman. “Opal for me is a soothing stone, but far from dull,” Ms. Cooperman said. “It has soft fire.”

The last time high-end designers flipped for opal on this scale was a century ago, at the height of the Art Nouveau period. In the hands of the master jewelers René Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany, opal enjoyed a reputation as a mystical, moody stone in line with the era’s longing for nature, fluidity and movement.

That ended when the geometric certainties of the Art Deco age clashed with its delicate sensibilities. Scorned by the high end, opal lost its magic touch.

Now, for its new admirers, its rediscovery carries the charge of an almost religious conversion.

“Opal wasn’t something that ever made me say wow,” the designer Kimberly McDonald said. “Then I happened to see one set in its matrix and it immediately reminded me of one of my favorite paintings. It was so van Gogh.”

That was two years ago. Since then, Ms. McDonald has incorporated two unusual varieties of opal into her collection, both sourced from Mr. Schütz. One is a black-and-white “zebra opal” from a little-known mine close to Andamooka in South Australia. The other is boulder opal from Queensland, which is cut, polished and set inside its host rock, a brown ironstone.

Australia produces upwards of 95 percent of the opal on the world market, from cheap doublets, which typically feature a thin layer of milky opal adhered to a black backing with glue, to extraordinary black opals from a legendary deposit at Lightning Ridge, which can fetch $500,000 at wholesale.