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In the fascinating realm of gemstones, opals stand out for their mesmerizing play-of-color and unique characteristics. However, not all opals are created equal. The market offers a range of opals, primarily categorized into common opal and precious opal. This article aims to demystify these categories, delve into the phenomenon of play-of-color, and explore the value and types of common opals.

What is an Opal?

Before diving into the specifics, it’s crucial to understand what an opal is. An opal is a hydrated amorphous form of silica, often featuring a kaleidoscope of colors. Its formation is a result of seasonal rains that drench dry grounds, facilitating the deposition of silica particles. Over time, these particles form a gel that eventually hardens into opal.

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The Mystique of Common Opal

Common opals are often overshadowed by their more illustrious counterparts, primarily due to the absence of the mesmerizing play-of-color. However, they offer their own unique charm through a range of consistent and soothing colors, from milky whites and soft pinks to exotic shades like deep blues and greens. Unlike precious opals, which can be temperamental in different lighting conditions, common opals display their beauty uniformly. Some even exhibit optical phenomena like adularescence, a soft, billowy light that rolls across the surface, akin to the glow of the moon.

In terms of durability and versatility, common opals outshine precious opals. Their lower water content—compared to the up to 20% found in precious opals—makes them less susceptible to cracking or crazing. This stability extends their usability beyond just jewelry, finding applications in carvings, beads, and ornamental art. Certain types, like the “fire opal,” can display intense colors that are highly valued, even without the play-of-color. Thus, while they may not command the high market prices of precious opals, common opals have a unique set of attributes that make them appealing in their own right.

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The Phenomenon of Play-of-Color

The play-of-color is the hallmark feature that distinguishes opals from other gemstones, and it’s primarily due to the microscopic silica spheres tightly packed within the opal’s structure. When light enters the stone, it interacts with these spheres, breaking apart into its spectral colors and creating a dynamic display of hues ranging from fiery reds and oranges to cool blues and greens. The size and arrangement of these silica spheres are pivotal in determining the quality and intensity of the play-of-color, with larger spheres generally producing reds and oranges, and smaller ones yielding blues and greens.

What sets the play-of-color apart is its dynamic, ever-changing nature. As you move the stone or change your viewing angle, the colors shift and transform, offering a unique spectacle each time. This is due to the three-dimensional stacking of the silica spheres, which allows for multiple angles of light diffraction. In precious opals, this phenomenon is highly pronounced and is one of the most sought-after features for valuation. Understanding the play-of-color is not just an aesthetic pursuit but also a crucial factor in evaluating the worth and uniqueness of an opal.

The Allure of Precious Opal

Precious opals stand as the pinnacle of beauty and rarity in the gemstone world, primarily due to their captivating play-of-color. Unlike common opals, precious opals offer a dynamic visual experience, displaying a range of colors from fiery reds and oranges to cool blues and greens that shift and dance as the stone is moved. This unique feature is a key valuation metric, making precious opals highly sought-after. The allure doesn’t stop at visual spectacle; these gemstones are often found in exotic locations like Australia, Ethiopia, and Mexico, adding an element of rarity to their appeal.

The cultural and historical significance of precious opals further elevates their allure. In ancient Rome, they were considered symbols of hope and purity, while Australian Aboriginal legends believed opals captured the colors of rainbows. These cultural narratives, combined with their unique geological requirements for formation, make precious opals not just visually stunning but also rich in meaning and rarity. This multi-faceted appeal explains why they command such high prices and are so highly valued in the gemstone market.

Exploring Common Opal Colors & Types

When it comes to common opal, the range of colors and types is surprisingly diverse. The colors can vary from milky white and soft pink to deep blue and green. Types of common opals include:

  • Potch: This is the most common type of common opal and is usually grey or white.
  • Hydrophane: These opals become translucent when soaked in water.
  • Cacholong: A milky-white variety often used for carving.

Are Common Opals Valuable?

While common opals may not fetch the high prices associated with precious opals, they are far from being considered valueless. Their value is influenced by a variety of factors such as color intensity, size, and overall appearance. Types like fire opals can display vibrant colors like bright orange or red, elevating their market value. Additionally, the durability and stability of common opals, owing to their lower water content, make them versatile for a range of applications beyond just jewelry, including carvings and ornamental art pieces.

The market for common opals is diverse, appealing to collectors, artisans, and casual buyers. Their affordability and unique characteristics, such as the ability of hydrophane opals to change transparency when soaked in water, make them accessible and intriguing. This versatility in application and aesthetic appeal adds a layer of value to common opals, making them a worthwhile investment for a variety of consumers. Their unique attributes and broad market appeal ensure that they hold a special place in the gemstone world, offering a different yet captivating form of beauty and utility.

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Understanding the difference between common opal and precious opal is essential for both collectors and casual enthusiasts. While precious opals are celebrated for their stunning play-of-color, common opals offer their own unique charm and beauty. Whether you’re looking to invest in a gemstone or simply admire their aesthetic appeal, knowing what sets these two categories apart can enrich your appreciation for these captivating stones.