Update: The Australian black-bodied “fireworks” opal sold for $162,500.
What you see: An exceptional black opal with a “fireworks” pattern, found at Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, Australia. Bonhams estimates it at $120,000 to $140,000.
The expert: Claudia Florian, co-consulting director of Bonhams’s natural history department in Los Angeles.
Where are opals found? They can come from different locations. They can be found at the sites of former volcanic activity, or where silica deposits itself in a sedimentary fashion. Australia is an example of the sedimentary form. The colors that the opals will have depend on the trace elements in the spot where they are found. The opals at Coober Pedy, Australia have a white body color. A thousand kilometers away from there, at Lightning Ridge, the opals have a rich, deep, black body color in which you find this play of fire. It’s a much more dramatic contrast.
Is Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, Australia known for opals? Yes. The first major discovery was made in 1905. This particular opal was found 20 to 30 years ago. It’s never been up at auction before.
How did this opal become so wildly colorful? It’s a very random occurrence, actually, that determines whether opals have a pattern or not. What makes the color so vivid is really the beauty of nature and the way the spherules [tiny spheres] of silica manage to create a pattern.
Did the opal come out of the ground looking like this, or did a stone-cutter bring out its beauty? Its beauty would have to be revealed by the stone-cutter. Miners can agonize over keeping an opal in its rough state or cutting it away. It’s an unknown thing until you actually open it up, and you need an expert polisher who will work with you to take away the layers until they reveal the best-looking stone. The cutter kept it as large as possible with a gem-quality pattern. Those are decisions you have to make when going through the gem-cutting process.
Do winning bidders tend to keep an opal as-is, or do they have it set in a custom piece of jewelry? It’s a little bit of both. I have male and female customers. Men like to invest in opals and see them as an asset class, as a segment of their portfolio. Women tend to buy smaller stones that they can mount into a ring or a pendant. They tend not to go for specimen-size opals. Guys will buy the superlatives, such as the world’s biggest black opal.
Why is the word phenomenon in quotes in the title of the auction? I’ve been doing auctions for 35 years. I set myself a challenge–how could I package it in a way that looks different and fresh, and try to educate people? By focusing on the vocabulary of gemology, and what’s behind it. When we go to gemological school, we focus on what are known as “phenomenal” gemstones. It’s a reference to optical phenomena. Opalescence is an optical phenomenon. Iridescence is an optical phenomenon. You can have a sapphire that’s transparent, and you can have a sapphire with inclusions that line up along a six-ray radial axis, so when you cut and polish it into a cabochon shape, you see a six-ray star. That’s an optical phenomenon called asterism. Rubies can have it, and even peridots and garnets can have it. I decided [for this auction] in addition to focusing on the world localities of opals, I’d make a theme of gems with optical phenomena.
Are there any aspects of the opal that the camera did not catch? I think we got a pretty darn good photo of it, but the beauty of opals–the color shifts with the shift in light conditions. They’re best seen in person. But the photographers at Bonhams are the best in the business.
The lot notes call this “one of the most memorable pattern opals to be offered at auction in the last decade.” What makes it so memorable? Over ten years of doing opal auctions, I’ve had a few pattern opals. Red is the rarest color. It’s the money color. The more red there is in an opal, the more money you’re going to get. With red, it starts at $1,200 to $1,500 a karat, and it can go up to $20,000 a karat. When you see really broad patches with red predominant, that’s a lot rarer. For me, this is one of the best I’ve seen.
How to bid: The exceptional black opal with a fireworks pattern is lot 3147 in The World of Gold, Opals, and Other “Phenomenal” Gems sale taking place May 15, 2018 at Bonhams Los Angeles.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
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