By Melissa Pearce in Sydney
The worldwide demand for Australia's national gemstone has been high in the last couple of years, especially for the most valuable black variety, which make a spectacular centrepiece in fine opal jewellery.
The rarest black opals are found in Lightning Ridge, in New South Wales, a good nine-hour road trip from Sydney. There, beneath an unforgiving landscape where summer temperatures hover around 40 degrees celsius, lies a mysterious, patterned mineraloid gel with a magical play of fire. The colours dart from the deepest jet to light azure, from crystalline emerald to blazing vermillion and back again, mesmerising contemporary jewellers just as they did miners trying their luck on the rainbow stone in the early 20th century.
Opals are unique in that their colour is created by refracted light, encapsulating the seven hues of the rainbow. No two are the same. The pull of Australian opals is that they have the ability to capture the natural beauty of this vast continent.
With black opal, the general rule is the darker the base and the colour bar sitting on top of it, the greater its worth per carat. Red hues are also highly prized. The darkest opal of Lightning Ridge is sometimes referred to as "Old Man's Opal", but I spoke to three jewellery designers who are handling it in thoroughly modern ways.
Perth-based Keiko Uno happens to be a keen scuba diver as well as a talented jeweller, and the cornucopia of underwater colours she sees along the West Australian coast have infused her designs. Her latest piece of opal jewellery, a commission by former professional surfer Layne Beachley, was the perfect collaboration between two sea lovers.
The Spirit of the Sea neckpiece that Uno created for the seven-time world surfing champion is a joyous statement that captures the essence of what the ocean represents to both women. Uno says: "I've expressed the sea's freedom and positive reenergising of the mind, body, and soul through the vibrant use of gemstones, the playful waves of the generous metal work, and the contrast of the black rhodium and yellow gold metal finishes." There is a strength to the design also that is perfectly suited to the athlete's active lifestyle.
Alessio Boschi uses black opal in startling high jewellery creations of ambitious scale and transformative ingenuity. His Plumes necklace takes the peacock tail as its inspiration and uses 15 standout black opals as the centrepieces of cascading and movable feathers. The necklace recently won the Harper's Bazaar Jewelry China magazine Excellence of Design Award and also featured as a finalist at the Couture Design Awards 2014 in Las Vegas.
The complex Plumes necklace took almost nine months and more than 20 craftspeople to accomplish together with the matching earrings, ring and bangle that make up the Plumes suite. Boschi recommends gentle handling of opal. That includes using the best setters and avoiding prongs that will put too much pressure on parts of the stone. In certain cases it is better to use jewellery glue to ensure the stone stays in place and, if prongs are required, that they be small, delicate ones.
Brisbane-based Margot McKinney has a personal connection to opal as it is her birthstone. She says: "I find black opal absolutely intriguing because of the juxtaposition of the remote arid conditions in which it is found with the extraordinary play of colour for which it is so famous."
The jewellery designer, who is celebrating her family business' 130th year of operation, celebrates the iridescent gemstone in the Objects of Desire anniversary collection. Her favourite gemstone accompaniments to accentuate the colours at play in a black opal are bright blue Paraiba tourmalines and aquamarines with marine or turquoise-hued black opals; mandarin garnet if there is orange in the gemstone; and pink tourmaline to bring out any pink blush that might be present. "Sometimes I cascade the colours in the surrounding gems to match the movement of the colour in the opal. I especially love to use cabochon stones around opal to marry with the smooth surfaces."
A standout opal collier in the current collection, with Australian Keshi South Sea pearls, sapphires, aquamarines, peridot and a sprinkling of diamonds, is intended to be worn in the day as much as the evening.
As McKinney confirms, the setting of an opal is key to enhancing its visual impact: "As important as situating a home to maximise its light, the alignment of the opal needs to release its full riot of colour."
Read more about opal jewellery here