Ethiopian opal update

ETHIOPIAN OPAL UPDATE (A soapbox opinion)

Should the Australian Opal industry be worried about the influx of Ethiopian Opal onto the world market?

I believe many in our industry are blissfully running their businesses along the same lines they have always been without any knowledge or interest in what is happening on the world stage. Their heads cemented firmly in the sand. Perhaps they should take notice because the “times may be changing.”

At the Tucson trade show in 2010 opal from the Welo Province in Ethiopia was being offered by several gemstone dealers. I mentioned it in an article in volume 51 of Metal Stone& Glass (My blog on Tucson 2010).  Part of what I wrote was “At the possible wrath of some Aussie opal lovers I dare to make this statement. If this field is as extensive as it may well be, perhaps in the future, Australia could lose its dominance in the light opal market.”

This year at Tucson the amount of Ethiopian Opal offered for sale increased dramatically. My feelings are that Ethiopia is possibly providing somewhere around 20 – 30% of the light opal market to the world and growing!  (There are deposits of chocolate coloured opal in Ethiopia but the opal I am referring to is light based opal very similar to our light opal) The price was around 30% cheaper than comparable Aussie opal at the wholesale level. Often with new fields or new deposits this is the case until the opal is proven both as a product and to its’ reliable availability.

So the question has to be asked. How to we handle this and what changes need to be made to protect OUR market place? What exactly are the problems?

The amount of opal offered in itself is not alarming because at least opal IS reaching the world market. I believe this is the most important fact. The more opal on display across the world can only help the popularity of the stone as a gem.  Hopefully the market will increase and more people will become interested. If more of the worlds jewellery stores begin to stock opal than that has to be good.  With the production of light opal in Australia declining it may be a good overall thing that this new opal can fill the void

BUT there are some problems and there are changes that need to be made here in Australia particularly with the marketing of OUR  product.

As yet no one is really sure of the long term stability of the opal. Most dealers of Ethiopian opal I talked to say their opal is stable and are not having any trouble. However, when I asked if they knew of anyone treating cracky opal with opticon or one of the glues available with a refractive index similar to opal the general response was “I don’t have that problem with my opal but I have heard some people may do it”.

One concern I had was the affect Ethiopian opal might have on the doublet and triplet market. I asked some of the Chinese opal cutters if they had tried the new material. Their overall response was that it was not suitable for triplets and the doublets were very ‘watery’ without the ‘kick ‘ Aussie opal has.

People in our industry must stop using the line “Australia produces 95% of the world’s opal” This is simply no longer true. We all need to say something along these lines “Australia produces the bulk of the world’s opal. Opal is found in many countries but we believe ours is the best”  We should NOT put this new opal down as that is counterproductive to the promotion of opal as a gemstone and can only come across to a customer as ‘sour grapes’!

However we can shift the focus back to our product in several ways. We must all guarantee our opal. Firstly we must tell our customers that our opal is not treated in any way what so ever and that we guarantee it against crazing. At my shop ‘Mineshaft’ most of the opal we sell is from our own mines so we let the customer know that this opal has been out of the ground for many years and is completely stable.  Not only that but it is backed by knowledge from the mine to the finished piece of jewellery and comes with a story. It all comes back to knowing our product and educating customers on the positives rather than mentioning anything to the detriment of the industry as a whole.

So I am saying to the industry “sell our Aussie opal as the premier opal of the world along with all the romance and history that all our opal fields exude. Educate the consumer so that when they leave the store they are in love with opal and know more about OUR opal and OUR opal fields”.

Ethiopian Opal Beads
Close up Ethiopian Opal beads

18 Comments on “Ethiopian opal update

  1. I am not an opal dealer, but a collector. I have many pieces of Australian and Ethiopian wello opal. While the Ethiopian stuff is cheaper I have definitely found over time that it turns orange in the body color, where the Australian stuff remains unchanged. In my case this does not seem to affect the fire. It still has color play it’s just the body color has turned orange. of about 50 different opals of the Ethiopian stuff I bought only about 10 of them haven’t changed color.I take care of all my opals the same. I do not do anything but wear them and wipe them with a soft cloth. I have not exposed them to too much water or any oils, other than I suppose the oil in my skin although that has never affected my Australian ones. Nor do they get a crazy amount of sun. When I’m not wearing them they are safely tucked away in my jewelry box. I’m guessing no one knows the reason for the change? It is rather disappointing. I would love to know If anyone knows anything about this or how to reverse it?

  2. I’ve brought about 30 strands of Ethiopian opal so far and have found they can loose colour with damp weather but a hairdryer brings back the colours in a couple of minutes. I had one strand that I’d used silver beads as spacers and the opals must have reacted with the silver as changed colour and cant get it to reverse. I have limited the amount of silver I use incase this happens again. Overall I have loved making some striking jewellery and have found it worth spending a little more to get the better quality strands as there are a lot of plain beads with no fire in cheaper strands.

  3. Hello Mary,
    Opex has been around for many years and I am sure will be at Tucson again next year. I am surprised they have not got back to you. I don’t believe this is their fault. Ethiopian opal is relatively “new” to the market and is different to Australian opal. As such, we are all learning the pros and cons of it as a product. It is well suited for beads because of the shape of the rough and the cheap price. I believe this is the best use for this opal, particularly as it is a lot softer then Aussie Opal and there is less chance of scratching .As to the “orangeing or yellowing” I am not sure about yet. This is often asked but a lot of Ethiopian opal does have a very strong yellowish appearance. As to wether this increases over time I don’t know. I have pieces put away from the time it first came on the market and although “yellowish” I don’t believe they have changed. Ethiopian opal is often dyed to find new parts of the marketing chain.

  4. Hello i put my ethiopian opals in oil based on someones suggestion and half of them went clear. I removed them from the oil. They have been without color for about 4 weeks. In the past 2 weeks i started individually rubbing with cotton. Amazing how oil keeps coming out of them after a vigorous cotton rub. I want to put in the sunlight but it is super cloudy where i am now so i have been using a white light with a very very low amount of heat signature. I also experimented and put the completely clear ones in a bag of rice, 2 clear ones turned a milky white and with a hint of fire play. Then about 6 or 7 (mostly the orange colored ones) returned half color. So i was cofused if the rice helped or not being that 2 turned completely white and then some returned some color. I am going to keep on cleaning with cotton and check the status. Since they were in oil should i wash with a mild soap to cut the oil? Thanks! 🙂

  5. At the gem show in Tucson 2013 I bought a lovely strand of Opals from Opex Opal. I had seen them at the show for many years and thought they were a good business. My beautiful opals are now orange. I e-mailed Opex Opals, went to their web site and I called. No one answers the phone and no one e-mailed me back. These were sold as better beads; they were in the locked display case. If Opex Opals is still in business and show up at the Tucson show, they will have some explaining to do.
    What opal business is safe to do business with?

  6. ,
    Could you send me a few close up pictures from different angles?
    Where did you buy this ring and what were you told about the opal when you purchased it?
    Do you know if it is a solid opal or a doublet or triplet opal?
    Answer the best you can and i may be able to answer your questions
    all the best

  7. I purchased a ring with an opal (blue) never wear it when i work or in water or gardening, just when we go out, after a year my opal changed to a yellow butter color? Can you tell me why this is happening? im very disapointed because we spent a lot of money on this opal ring

  8. I have purchased from a single vendor Ethiopian opals the past two years. I have purchased about three qualities of opal. After I had them in a display case for about 4-6 months the light began to diminish noticeably. I have a hard time distinguishing the levels of quality. We are in a semi arid desert. They have set in sunlight and LED lighting. The color has not come back. It also turns yellow as they sit. None are white anymore. This is the only website that addresses any problem with these opals. I also carry Australian opals. Some I have had for years. Very little degrading of light.
    My question right now is is there any hope of the color returning? If I continue to buy the opals what should I look for in the way of the opals keeping their light. Do I need to look for stabilized opal? My opals soak up wine very well! Thanks

  9. Hi,
    Thankyou for your comment.
    This has been my main concern with Ethiopian opal. I believe the material is good for the opal industry provided those selling it explain the deficiencies and limitations. The market price for the material reflects this and is the reason why the material is so much cheaper then the Aussie material.
    However it is very pretty material and has introduced opal to many people who have not looked at opal before.
    all the best,

  10. I am writing here in regards to the use of these (welo) opals in everyday jewelry pieces. My husband has been cutting/cabbing welo opals for use in jewelry he makes. He doesn’t use any kind of resin or treatments on his opals and he fashions them by hand with sandpaper in various grits. It has been our experience that the gemstone does become contaminated when worn continuously. Our 28yr old daughter went through several pendants before we discovered that she never took her necklace off. What tended to happen was the previously stunning colors would begin to fade. Then the stone would become very cloudy and begin to display a pale-cream to dull-yellow color. Finally, the stone would crack/break. I hope you find this information helpful.

  11. pierino casale

    Brilliant idea !, it is good idea to work together to make the market stable like other business sector such as Petroleum producing countries (OPEC) ,but here in Ethiopia opal market is less developed due to the nature infrastructure and the lateness of opal discovery.It is only foreigners especial Indianian who buy the the opal cheaply from farmer and over supply to the market.Now i am planing to bring together all opal producer ,cutter and trader together to form a legal association to develop fair market system.

  12. Hi,
    Very interesting and I am sure many people will have their own methods and
    For the benefit, particularly for the future of the Ethiopian opal market,
    the procedure needs to be disclosed and everyone made aware of it. I notice
    you have not mentioned anything about your method and disclosure other then
    you are doing it. I would really be interested in what you are doing.
    all the best,
    I must admit we did not use such quality wine in our experiment

    I have E mailed back and forth with Roy and here is some of the more relevant information. Once again the whole integrity of the industry depends on ALL new treatments being declared and NOT waiting for others to disclose before they do. I urge Roy to write a paper and submit it to any of the gemmological bodies for publication.

    Hi Peter,

    Yes. But as far as I know in all cases the pores are filled or the
    surface is coated. With resins, glues…..

    The method, which I have developed works without these materials.
    Thus, there is no risk of yellowing/aging (change of the body color with
    I will do it, (disclosure) but because the treatment can only be detected by
    IR-spectroscopy and not by use of typical gemmological instruments I can
    not guarantee that other opal dealers will do the same.
    Details of the treatment:

    The treatment is a wet chemical method.
    In depence of the porosity and size of the stone the process may take
    several weeks to complete.
    After treatment the water-loving (hydrophilic) porous opals lose it’s
    ability to soak up water and are now water-repellent.
    It works on a molecular level by reaction with water molecules and by
    replacement of polar silanol groups on the surface of the silica.
    The treatment itself is stable and is only reversible by heat treatment
    (but this, of course, leads to cracking of the opal)
    Until now the method was successfully applied to hydrophanes
    (Welo/Ethiopia) and fire opals (Shewa/Ethiopia).

    Some words about me:

    I am 38 years old, mineralogist and before I have founded my own
    one-man-company in 2009 I have worked for several years at the
    department of “Colloidal Physics” in Mainz.
    (preparation of colloidal particles, surface functionalization,
    preparation of opaline materials – synthetic opals and imitations . . .)

  13. Hi Peter,

    I agree with you.

    For this reason I have developed a method to turn hydrophanes into non-hydrophanes (on a molecular level, without the use of opticon or any other resin or oil).

    I have lost a lot of opals to find the right conditions, but finally it works and the treated opals are water-repellent and not able to soak up water anymore.

    The apperance of the opals does not change after treatment and according to the analysis of the DGemG (German Gemmological Association) the values of RI and SG lie in the range of natural, untreated opals. The treatment can only be identified by IR-spectroscopy.

    Of course, not every opal “survives” the procedure (in some opals cracks appear) and the treatment has to be disclosed, but the pieces and opals, which can be used, are stable.


    P.S: Just for curiosity I have repeated your red-wine-experiment 🙂 (excellent French red wine – Cote du Rhone, 13.5 % alc. vol). Nothing happened and the treated opal still looks the same.

  14. Thank you for your comments Dominic.
    Firstly I will again say I really like Ethiopian opal. It is a very pretty stone and the gemstone world needs it..
    However there are several reasons why it should sell well below the cost of equivalent Australian Opal.
    1/ It is so much softer so requires much greater care
    2/ Looses it’s colour in water (The colour does come back) .One of the reasons customers buy a solid opal is so they can wear it all the time (shower and all) and wash their hands etc. Not everyone takes their jewellery off each time they wash.
    3/ The as yet unknown problems resulting from absorption. As most Ethiopian opal is Hydrophane (absorbs moisture) it can also absorb other things. E.g. leave a piece of rough in a glass of wine or any other coloured liquid and it will take on the colour. There may be a long term residual staining problem with absorption of body creams, perfume etc. I feel this may be a significant long term problem with Ethiopian opal and work need to be done.
    4/ The stability over the years is still an unknown factor.

    There is a place for this wonderful Ethiopian opal in the market place. Because of the above limiting factors and the ready availability the price, I believe, will settle much lower than Australian opal.

    Most Australian opal dealers (As we do) guarantee their opal against crazing so I am assuming, Dominic, that you will be guaranteeing your Ethiopian opal the same way when you sell it and that you can give justifiable reasons for your high pricing. Rarity, hardness, stability etc all play a part.

    Opal from my mine has been out of the ground for over thirty years and we guarantee it.

    I do sell Ethiopian opal and the price is approximately half to a third of the cost of equivalently coloured Australian opal but comes with no guarantee and all the information given. (Total disclosure is a must to provide confidence in the gemstone industry).

  15. I have been cutting Ethiopian opal for 3 years now ,and I live in Tucson Az . I can say you roll the dice when buying rough opal . I have some pieces to which i am holding on to , to monitor . I feel the high carat stable pieces today are being given away . The should be priced the same or even higher than Australian opal . I found a crystal piece on line 44cts between 2-3 on 5 selling for 65,000.00 . My 39.16 which can be seen on ytube under opal aaaa blows it away . When i sell I will not be giving it away 🙂

  16. Thankyou for yor comments.
    I have been playing around with Ethiopian opal for a couple of years now. I am learning about its properties and I am very interested in the long term stability of this material. There are several fields here in Australia where the opal only starts to craze up to five years and longer after it is mined.
    More important for the growth of ethiopian opal is the absorbtion issues. Below is a section of an article I have written.

    “This year, for me, the interesting thing was the ongoing saga of Ethiopian opal. I believe Ethiopia would be producing well over 60% of the worlds light base opal! It could be as high as 80% and still growing. It is a beautiful stone but there some reservations. Previously my main concern was stability. So far the Welo opal seems to be holding up but it is still early days. My concerns are now taking a different path. This is the problem of absorption. Most of the opal is hydrophane (Absorbs moisture). Some of it will actually stick to your tongue. Most people are now aware that the opal loses its colour when immersed in water although it does come back hours, days or even weeks later.

    Terry Coldham and I purchased some rough to play around with. Terry, despite my protests on wastage, decided to leave some opal rough overnight in a glass of red wine. Next morning we had what can best be described as “rhodochrosite opal.” Despite trying to remove the dark pink colour through basic washing it was impossible. The next night we mixed some black boot polish with some of my wife’s face cream and this turned the opal into ‘black opal’.

    So my concern is this. What will be the long term affect of body creams etc on the colouring and nature of the opal? Will the appearance be altered and will there be residual staining? Should customers be made aware of this potential problem? There definitely needs to be more work done here.”

    I am not rubbishing ethiopian opal. I am just interested in it fitting in to the right place in the market and finding the right price structure. Because of the problems mentioned, as well as the fact that it looses it’s colour when placed in water, and the fact that it is a lot softer then Australian opal it needs to fit in to the market place at a much cheaper price. Its limitations need to be placed in front of the customers.

    Even so we are interested in setting up a section to cut some of the material on an ongoing basis.
    all the best,

  17. As the Ethiopian Opal is introduced to the market very recently, as compared to Austs 100 years experiance, every one should easily understand the said opal is the best in quality and highly demanded. Therefore, we should work together in order to keep up your market share.

  18. The hits we are getting for Ethiopian opal jewellery are growing everyday… but you are right, there are some problems with the knowledge surrounding Ethiopian opals – perhaps they won’t last the test of time. From our experience the Welo province opal is pretty good but we have heard some terrible things regarding chocolate opal, with buyers spending a fortune to end up with cracked useless rocks (basically). My personal favourite field will always be Mintubi/Mintabie.

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