Rapaport Magazine
Colored Gemstone

A Designer Stone

Vibrant color and random patterns in the stone create the magic in boulder opals.

By Mark Lepage
Boulder opal, tanzanite, blue zircon and diamond “Rhapsody in Blue” brooch by Paula Crevoshay. Photo courtesy Crevoshay Studio.
Opal is the sixth-most popular gemstone after diamond, ruby, sapphire, emerald and tanzanite. And while black opal is the largest-selling variety, boulder opal has a singular attraction to sellers, buyers and devotees of precious stones. Boulder opal has been called the “fun stone” and described as the abstract oil painting of gems. The main appeal for those who prize boulder opal is its unique play of iridescent color.
   “It’s artwork,” says Michael Traurig, a principal of the wholesale export firm of Jayson Traurig Bros. of Australia. “Most of the time with boulder opal, you get a different character from the black opal Lightning Ridge stones. You get something of everything the other opals have.” David Wolf of New York City’s Just Appraisers agrees. “I refer to boulder opal as the Aurora Borealis of gemstones.”
   Robyn Dufty of DuftyWeis Opals in Kentucky has focused on boulder opal since 1975. “It’s always been one of my best sellers, and we sell everything in opal. We’re probably the biggest opal company in the world, with a German partner, Emil Weis Opals. In the U.S., boulder opal has been my biggest seller because of its affordability and uniqueness, and its appeal to the American spirit,” Dufty says. “A lot of Americans like to have an individual piece that no one else has. American women are very gutsy about what they wear in jewelry, and boulder opal really lends itself to that. It can be very affordable, with brilliant colors.”

A Rarity from Australia
   Boulder opal is found exclusively in Queensland, Australia, discovered there by German miners in the mid-1800s. Some 97 percent of the world’s opal is produced by Australia, where it is the national gemstone. Of that, only 2 percent is boulder opal, making it very rare.
   Boulder opal forms when high rainfall dissolves silica that seeps into cracks and crevices in ironstone. As the water evaporates, the silica solidifies into unique formations of tiny spheres of the same shape and size. Light diffraction produces a rainbow effect called opalizing. “The ironstone lends it an earthy feeling,” says Traurig.

Form and Function
   This inconsistency adds to what Dufty describes as the “magical” qualities of boulder opal’s coloring. But there is also the appeal of its unique form and shape. Gerry Manning of Manning International, based in Connecticut, wholesale natural colored gemstone and cultured pearl supplier, says, “The thing about boulder opal is that it lends itself to unique, irregular-shaped gemstones. It’s for the designer jeweler. It has a wide range of applications.”
   Traurig adds that “It lends itself to being cut into free form. It’s excellent for making one-of-a-kind artistic pieces of jewelry. You lose the character of the stone if you cut it into conventional forms.”
   That artistic jewelry is tremendously important to the gemstone industry. “Every few years, there are jewelry designers who get into the trade magazines and become front-and-center with their unique designs using boulder opal,” Traurig says. That publicity draws attention to the stone and captures the public’s curiosity and interest. Often, those pieces win awards, including the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) Spectrum Awards. “These designers and these awards are the only advertising that we get,” explains Traurig. “Where the diamond industry has multimillions to advertise with, we have zero funds for advertising.”

No Rules on Pricing
   The price of boulder opal is determined by its uniqueness of color and form. The range of prices is wide and is based on the piece, not the carat size. “Boulder opal is not sold by carat,” Traurig says. “You can cut a piece of ironstone as thick as you want and manipulate the price per carat. Buying boulder opal by the carat is flawed. It’s a difficult thing to price.” Manning agrees, noting that “There is no way that I or anybody else can give you an accurate pricing guide for boulder opal. If someone tries to — walk away.”
   “Basically, it doesn’t have a specific standard,” Traurig adds. “It’s not a totally quantifiable item like stones that are single-color. Many have tried but so far nobody has succeeded in quantifying it. It’s a very subjective call. Pricing really starts with miners looking at how much it cost them to get it out of the ground.”
   Dufty says, “Retail, you could start about $20 for a small stone of 6 millimeters, going way up — we’ve had stones you could spend up to $100,000 on. But the really good stones sell from $6,000 to $7,000 up to $20,000 to $30,000.” Some stones retail for over $100,000. While unwilling to place a dollar value on it, Dufty has a boulder opal that won first place in the Phenomenal Gemstone category at the AGTA Spectrum Awards for 2014 (see Celebrating Color in the Style section).
   One thing dealers agree on is that prices have gone up. “Thirty-five years ago, I used to buy boulder opal splits called flintstones for $25 to $35,” says Manning. “Now pricing for those same pieces is more like $1,500 to $2,500.” Why? Mining costs, including the price of oil, have risen, and government mining regulations and leasing, affected by aboriginal rights in Australia, have complicated things. Production is also going down. Nearly all boulder opal mining is open-cut from 10 feet to 30 feet below the surface. Ultimately, the extraction process is delicate and requires a lot of careful handiwork, which has less appeal to huge mining companies. The major companies in Australia will pay miners very high wages to extract gold and copper, which offer a higher return, making opal mining less attractive.
   Still, the available boulder opal remains a comparative bargain among gemstones. Traurig concludes the stone is favored by “two types of people. One type likes the artwork of it, the other is looking for something resembling black opal but for less money. Boulder opals cost less than black opal because black opal has been around longer and is more accepted. For the same amount of color in a boulder opal, you pay less. I’ve got a customer I sold some very nice black opals to who now wants to buy more opal but spend less money. His question to me was: ‘Do you have it in boulder opal?’”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - February 2014. To subscribe click here.

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Tags: Mark LePage