How to Care for Opals: The Ultimate Guide
While most gemstones are mineral materials, some gemstones, such as opals, are mineraloids. People often make the mistake of caring for their opal jewelry the same way they would treat their other precious gemstones. Pearls have a chemical composition that's unique from other gemstones, so they require specific care.
Knowing how to care for opals properly can prevent them from cracking or becoming discolored. Different types of opals require varying levels of care. Can you get opals wet? What should you use to clean them? We've put together an ultimate opal care guide to answer all of your questions and more.
What Is a Mineraloid and Why Does Opal Require Special Care?
Most gemstones – such as rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds – are mineral materials. A mineral is a naturally occurring inorganic solid, with definite chemical composition and a distinctive crystalline structure. Tourmaline, for example, is boron silicate by composition and belongs to the trigonal crystal system.
Mineraloids are often composed of many of the same elements of minerals, but they lack a crystalline structure. The most popular mineraloid gemstones are opal, pearls, and jet.
How Is Opal Formed?
Most Opal is more than 60 million years old. Opals are unique; no two are exactly alike. The name Opal derives from the Greek Opallos, meaning "to see a change of color."
Opal is formed from a solution of silicon dioxide and water. When silica-rich water runs through deep cracks in the earth's crust, it produces opal. Opal is comprised of tiny compacted spheres of silica and oxygen.
In common opal, these spheres are irregular in size and concentration. In precious opal, the gemstone variety, the spheres come in organized pockets. The spheres have a regular and consistent structure.
This structure remained a mystery until the 1960s when Australian scientists looked at opal under one of the first electron microscopes. They realized that opal's SiO2 spheres and water content diffract light at various wavelengths. This creates an effect called "color play," or opalescence.
The opal is unique from other gemstones in its specific color play, but other gems, such as color-changing sapphire and mood rings, also have interesting color effects.
Due to the molecular structure of precious opal, it ranges from 6 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale, which is the approximate hardness of glass. This puts them slightly below quartz, which is 7. Quartz is one of the most common minerals on Earth and is a component of sand and dust.
Due to their softness, opals require special care to resist scratching. Wiping off dust could potentially scratch your opal. A scratch from quartz particles in the dust would be very small, but you don't want them to accumulate and become visible.
Opals are often referred to as a "living stone." This is due to the water within them. It also means they need special care.
Due to their unique formation, precious opals contain about 5-6% water. As a result, things like temperature change could potentially cause the water inside to expand or contract. This could create a crack in the opal.
Solid Opal, Doublets, and Triplets
Caring for opals is straightforward and easy. In order to know what steps to take, you need to know the kind of opal you have. This is because each kind has slightly different requirements.
An opal solid consists entirely of opal. There are no man-made tops, or backing stuck on, nor any host material throughout. It's simply a naturally solid, polished opal.
Doublet opals have two layers: a thin slice of translucent/semi-translucent opal and a dark backing. The backing material, usually black, is cemented to the back slice of opal to enhance the color. The dark backing can be ironstone material, potch, plastic, or other materials.
The cut of opal doublets usually shows off the most impressive part of the gem, and the dark backing makes them resemble a solid opal. They're not necessarily worth less than full opals.
Triplets are similar to doublets, but they also include a third transparent layer on the top to protect the opal and give it a rounder shape. The transparent dome on top is usually quartz or glass.
The extra layer on top protects the opals but generally makes them less expensive.
How to Care for Your Opal
There are several useful tricks and steps you can follow to keep an opal – the October birthstone – shiny and flawless. It's important to note that there are some myths about opal care, so if you find contradictory advice elsewhere, you might not want to trust it.
Temperature: Because they contain water, opals can crack if you move them from an area that's cold to one that's hot, or vice versa. This could happen if you step out from your air-conditioned home into the scorching summer air, or if you go outside when it's below freezing.
If you must go from one temperature to another, protect your opal jewelry by placing it in your pockets or under your clothes.
Perfumes/substances: If you wear perfume/cologne/other sprays, put it on before you put on any gemstone jewelry. Don't use hand sanitizer while wearing opal rings, either. Opals and pearls in particular respond poorly to any acids or alcohols.
Activities: Avoid doing any kind of physical tasks while opals, such as household chores or outdoor maintenance. You don't want to scratch them or get them sweaty or dirty. You should put them in a safe place to store them.
If you go to the gym, you'll want to take off your opal and store it somewhere safe. If you wear jewelry often and enjoy working out, it's a good idea to learn more about working out with rings on.
How to Clean Your Opal
When cleaning your opal, you'll want to make sure you have a soft cloth. You always want to avoid strong chemical cleaners like bleach or Windex, generic cleaners, dish detergent, and hand sanitizers.
You may have heard that water can damage opals, but this isn't completely true. If you have a solid opal it's okay to get it wet – opals already contain a small amount of water in their composition. You want to avoid using very hot or cold water.
You want to be more careful if you have an opal doublet or triplet. Ideally, you shouldn't put them in water – use a damp, soft cloth, with a gentle soap.
Never immerse doublets or triplets in detergent. Because doublets and triplets consist of multiple layers, which are glued together, prolonged exposure to water will eventually cause it to break down the adhesive and separate the layers. With triplets, if water gets behind the transparent cover, it can cause your opal to look grey or cloudy.
When cleaning opals, it's important to be gentle! You don't want to rub too hard at it with the cloth. You also want to make sure the cloth is clean – if there's any dust or residue on it, it could potentially scratch the opal.
Jewelers should use ultrasonic cleaners because they may cause the opal to crack. If you take your opal to a jeweler, make sure they have experience caring for opals.
If your opal jewelry contains other elements, such as sterling silver or stainless steel, you'll also want to make sure you're cleaning those metals properly.
How Do You Clean and Charge an Opal?
For those who are interested in crystal healing, the practice of charging is said to give a crystal additional energy and vibrancy. There are numerous ways to charge various crystals, but you'll want to use gentle methods with opal.
Solid opals can be cleansed in fresh spring or tap water at room temperature. You can also charge an opal can using the traditional Native American method of rubbing it (gently) between the palms of your hands.
Avoid leaving an opal out in the heat for extended periods, and do not cleanse them in saltwater. Saltwater can erode an opal. You also want to avoid exposing it to temperature changes.
How to Store an Opal
If you need to store your opal, place it in a padded cloth bag for protection and put it somewhere safe.
If you're storing it for an extended period of time, place your opal in cotton or cloth with a few drops of water. Then put it in a sealed plastic bag
The water will not soak into the stone but will prevent some of the water that's inside the stone from evaporating. Your opal is only in danger of losing its internal water if you're storing it in environments with very low humidity (for example, a desert/arid environment, or zero humidity storage safes).
Here are some tips that are good for caring for your opals whenever you're not wearing them. It's good to keep these things in mind, even if you're just storing them for a few hours or days.
- It's a good idea to store your opal jewelry separately from other jewelry pieces to minimize accidental contact, which could cause scratches.
- You might hear that opals should be stored in oil or glycerin, but this is not the case. It won't protect them, it'll just make cleaning a mess.
- Don't store your opals near heat sources or cold places, such as windows or fireplaces. You'll also want to avoid storing them in sheds, attics, or garages if you don't have temperature control.
When you take off your opal, think about where you're putting it down. You don't want to put it somewhere where it can get knocked over or fall into the water. If you're mindful of these tips, your opal can remain good as new.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do you keep Opals shiny?
A: Avoid exposing them to dirt when you can; clean them gently as soon as they get a little dirty. Avoid water and extended exposure to bright sunlight (the sunlight won't damage your opal, but the heat from it can).
Q: How do you keep opals from drying out?
A: Make sure you store opals in environments that aren't too arid or hot. Avoid wearing them for long times in hot and sunny places, such as the beach. It's a good idea to leave your opal home entirely when you're at the beach, due to the sand, saltwater, and heat.
Q: Can you wear an opal ring every day?
A: You can wear any opal jewelry every day. Wear it to work, wear it to classes, wear it to restaurants. Just keep in mind all of the care tips we've covered. Take your opal jewelry off if you're doing the dishes, digging in the garden, baking, etc.
Q: Can you shower with opal jewelry?
You should take off your opal jewelry before showering. Prolonged exposure to hot water can cause the opal to crack.
Q: Are opals fluorescent?
Most opals fluoresce, at least weakly, under UV light. Some localities of opal, such as Virgin Valley, Nevada, produce opals that fluoresce brightly.
Q: What happens if my opal gets wet?
Solid opals aren't super susceptible to water damage – this is a common myth. The opal itself likely won't be hurt if it gets wet. If you're caught in the rain, you'll be fine.
If you get doublet or triplet opals wet, you'll want to prevent any more moisture from collecting. You can put them in a container of uncooked rice for a bit to try to draw the moisture out of the backing. Don't try to dry them with any heat.
Q: What do I do if my opal loses its shine or becomes scratched?
A: If you get significant wear on your opal, bring it to an opal cutter. Small scratches and scuffs can cause an opal to lose its polish and appear dull. Professional polishing can revive your opal's shine.
Q: How often do I need to polish my opal?
For regular wear, about every five or ten years, you might want to get a professional polish. This can reduce scratches that have built up over the years. This will only take a few minutes and shouldn't be expensive.
How to Care for Opals: The Takeaway
Opals require different care and precautions than the other precious gems. That said, they're not really high maintenance. Once you know how to care for opals, you can safely wear them every day.
If you follow this guide, you can enjoy the splendid colors of your opal jewelry for years to come. For more gemstone facts and tips for caring for jewelry, check out our blog.