Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Treasure in the Christmas Ornament Closet

     When we travel, I often view the types of jewelry indigenous to the area we are traveling. And I often purchase a piece that is representative. I have amber from the Baltic Sea area, a peridot from India, some jade from China, Eilat stone from Israel, and most recently a tanzanite necklace from Tanzania.
      I thought I had lost the large black opal pearl enhancer my husband and I had picked out in a store in Melbourne connected to a mine not too far away in Australia. We were in Australia in 2006.  I have mourned that piece of jewelry ever since. I recall laying it and the necklace it was attached to on my foyer table. And then some months later I realized I didn't have it. It was not in my jewelry case, and I couldn't recall having worn it for some time. I had continued to mourn what I considered to be a final loss of that item. This necklace had a magnetic clasp and I pictured something catching the necklace and pulling the clasp apart allowing the whole piece to fall off of my person. I even pictured someone finding the necklace and perhaps at first not realizing what they had found. I hoped that that person whoever they were, had been able to enjoy this piece as much as I had. Sometimes those thoughts helped my sense of loss, but selfishly not always.
    Then this year I decided for the first time in 5 years to put  up my artificial Christmas tree. We were hosting a Holiday party for the neighbors and I needed to decorate the house at least a little bit. I have a nice frosted artificial pine with the lights already attached. Getting those lights on always seems to me to be the hardest part of the job. I dove into the upstairs closet where I store all my Christmas and Holiday decorative paraphernalia. I brought down several boxes of ornaments that I had forgotten that I had including some lovely burgundy balls, feathered birds, and bows, etc. I had forgotten that I even had these lovely Christmas things. I began hanging them on my tree. From time to time I went back to that closet to see what else I could find. Underneath a box was a piece of gold gauzy fabric that I recall using on my foyer table in the past. I picked it up thinking about where I could use it this year underneath some other glittery holiday ornamentation. As I shook it out, something fell out. I bent over and spotted the coils of a gold tone necklace, and there attached to that necklace was my Australian black opal. I couldn't believe it. It had not been truly lost--lost, but just lost in my deep closet of Holiday ornaments and memories. What a find and what a treasure in that closet! It has made Christmas 2013 a memorable one for me. I am healed in my mourning.

My lost and now found necklace

Notice that the background matrix is a dark blue to grey,
hence this is called a black opal.

Different angles of view show the play of light green and
darker green and iridescent blue  across the stone.
     Now I love Buddhist thought and have read a lot about Buddhism, the 8 Noble Truths and various other tenants. I attend a weekly Spirit, Mind, Body group which has a very definite Buddhist foundation. I have learned that I should not be that attached to any material item in my life. Everything in life is impermanent. The only constant is change itself. We can only move into higher spiritual realms and move toward enlightenment by giving up attachments to our possessions, and to things that we hold dear. But I admit that I have not moved that far spiritually and I really missed this necklace. Well, now I have it again. I am grateful for that and see that it was a Small Christmas miracle that I happened to find it amongst the trappings of the wonderful Christmas season. I felt the need to write something about this in this blog. And I think I will also start a series of pieces about various jewelry pieces that I have accumulated and which have meaning to me. If you are a regular to my blog, you know that I often get drawn serendipitously into topics by the happenings of my daily life.
     So.....What do you know about Australian black opals? Opal is surprisingly a hydrated form of silica, i.e. sand. Its water content can vary from 3 to 21%, but most precious opals are between 6 and 10% water. This water gives opal its amorphous and actually very soft consistency. It is therefore not really called a mineral, but instead a mineraloid substance. This consistency is responsible for its softness and ability to fracture and crack. Sometimes just the drying out process forms cracks in the stone. For that reason uncut and fresh opals are usually stored in water until they have slowly aged and become more stable. Opal is laid down in cracks and fissures in many kinds of  rocks which have cooled such as basalt, marl, rhyolite and even sandstone.
     Fully 97% of the world's opals are mined in Australia. Australian opals come from mostly Southern Australia from near a town called Coober Pedy, from the Mintable Opal Field 250 km northwest of Coober Pedy, and from Andamooka, also in South Australia. The latter areas produce most of the black opals which are only 10% of opal production. Also the Lightning Ridge Mine in New South Walles, Australia produces a relatively high percentage of black opal.

     There are many names given to different types of opals. I will not go into all these types and colors here. Common opal or "potch" as it is called by the miners in Australia does not have the play of color that makes opal a precious gem. The structure of opal is responsible for that play of color and the more there is as the stone is tilted in the light the more valuable the stone. Particularly red and orange seem to be desirable and are rarer although the iridescent greens and blues are also beautiful, the green on white the most common.. As the silica is laid down it forms microscopic spheres which align themselves in planes that are cubic or hexagonal. It is the light refracting off these planes of spheres that forms the rainbow colors. The thickness and orientation of these planes determine the play of color and the colors themselves. The optical density of the stones can vary from opaque through translucent to semi-transparent, which can also vary throughout the cut stone adding further interest to the depth and appearance of the stone. If the spheres are laid down among translucent white opalescent material they are called white opals. But if the matrix is darker, such as dark gray or dark blue, the opal is called a black opal. They command more value in the jewel market. Another form of opal gem is the boulder opal. In this case the stone is cut in such a way either as gemstone or as a display opal such that the opal is seen laid down in the matrix stone as well. Both are included in the piece due to their attractive appearance.
A white opal ring that I have owned since teen years with two small sapphires.

     Jewel stones are made from solid opal as it is cut from the rock. Also sometimes a  layer of opal too thin to cut into a cabochon or a free form shape is glued to an underlying piece of dark non opal rock or even plastic to stabilize the thin layer and to show off the play of color against a dark background. This is called a doublet. On still other occasions a quartz or plastic coating is placed on top of this double layer to stabilize it further. This is called a triplet and is not regarded as a precious stone. These are still natural opals but usually have less value than a solid opal stone. Then of course there are also synthetic lab created opals. Usually these have a much more regular pattern of colors with the planes of color being small and all about the same size, often giving an impression of "chicken wire" design. One certain way to tell is to place the opal under a UV light. Natural opals fluoresce but synthetics do not. They are of course less expensive than natural opals.     

Pendant made of paua shell, a species of Abalone specific to
New Zealand, especially the Southern Island along the fjords.
    The name opal is applied to other items. Sometimes opals are sold in jewelry which is really the common opal. It has an opalescent quality to it -- that is the stone appears milky and turbid but it does not have a play of color. Common opal is such a stone. It is not classed as a precious stone. Mexico produces a stone of orange and red color which is often called the fire opal, but it also does not have a play of color. Other precious gems and semi-precious stones have opalescent characteristics, some of them organic. Examples are mother of pearl, abalone shells, and another piece I picked up on our New Zealand, Australia trip. To the left is a photo of a pendant made from the New Zealand paua shell, a species of the abalone found only in New Zealand water, especially off the fjord coasts of the South Island. This organic material almost looks like a very black opal. It makes a very nice piece of jewelry with a cost of as you can see, around US$13.00. Also you may run across opal as an ingredient in cosmetics. This is not a silica product. These cosmetics contain other synthetic materials that have been created to have similar optical qualities to the silica opal gemstone but are not made from them or like them in any other way.
     The Opal is usually regarded as the birthstone of October. Over the eons it has usually been regarded as a stone carrying good fortune. However, there was a novel written in 1829  by Sir Walter Scott entitled Anne of Geirstein which gave a bad name to opals and caused the sale of opal gems to fall by 50% in England during the next year after its publication and to remain low for 20 years. In the novel, Baroness of Anheim drops a bit of Holy Water on her opal stone and it becomes colorless. Worse yet, in the story the Baroness dies shortly after that. Due to the popularity of the novel, opals became associated with bad fortune and dying. Similarly in Russia, if an opal was found for sale, it was inadvisable to purchase anything near it or in that lot of sale goods, because there would result bad fortune.  I for one do not regard opals in this fashion. I love my opal stones and love to show them off. And of course my Australian purchased stone has special meaning to me.        .

     The information about opals in this post were summarized from the Wikepedia article on opal, which is quite thorough. For many lovely photos of the various types of opals and more in depth information about structure and the different types of opal, please refer to that article.        

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