Revered as a symbol of hope, fidelity, and purity, opal was dubbed the Queen of Gems by the ancient Romans because it encompassed the colors of all other gems. Opal is prized for its unique play of color, the ability to diffract light into flashes of rainbow color.
Opal occurs in different colors, ranging from semi-transparent to opaque. The most common is white opal. Crystal or water opal has a colorless body. The most valued variety, black opal, has a dark blue, gray, or black body color. Boulder opal combines precious opal with the ironstone in which it forms. Bright yellow, orange, or red fire opal are quite different from the other varieties of opal. Their day-glo tones, which are translucent to transparent, are beautiful with or without the play of color. Opal, along with tourmaline, is the birthstone for October and the suggested gift for the fourteenth anniversary.
Today's supplies of opal come primarily from Australia, Mexico, and the United States. Most opals are not faceted but cut into rounded or free-form cabochons that enhance their play of color.
Although opal is rarely enhanced by methods other than cutting and polishing, opals can be treated to bring out their play of color. One technique is to immerse white, gray, or black opal in a sugar solution and then in strong sulfuric acid, which carbonizes with the sugar and leaves microscopic carbon specks that blacken the body color, making its flashes of color more visible. Opals can also be permeated with colorless oil, wax, resin, plastic, and hardeners to improve their appearance and durability. Occasionally, some thinner or translucent opal may be painted with a black epoxy on the backside of the gemstone to darken the body color and improve the play of color. Fire opal is not commonly enhanced.
Opal, with or without enhancement, should be treated with some care. Opal is softer than many other gemstones and should be stored carefully to avoid being scratched by other jewelry. It should also be protected from blows, as exposed corners can chip. Opal should not be exposed to heat or acid.