At the Hong Kong Gem Show in September 2015, we met a gentleman selling Opals named Carlson. We were sceptical as no one had ever heard of this newcomer at the show. He showed us two parcels of Ethiopian Opal. The first was similar to what we had already seen in the marketplace and while it was nice, it was not enough to turn our heads.
The second parcel was an altogether different matter. The size of the Opals suggested Mother Nature had spent 55 – 60 million years making these stones. We have always cherry picked the ‘eyes’ of Opal parcels for our Lorique collection. Yet here, in the bustling marketplace of the Hong Kong Gem Show, was a parcel of large calibrated Opals which was opening up the possibility of Opals of this size in collections outside our most expensive offerings.
As always with Opal, the size of the material was not our only consideration. The play of colour these Opals displayed, despite their size, was on a par with the finest quality we had bought until this point. Furthermore, the Opals were facetted. This was a ground-breaking parcel as previously, large Opals were facetted in the cabochon shape, with gemstone cutters unable to resist the temptation to follow the trend set by the more expensive Australian Opals with their finest Ethiopian material. Ethiopian Opal may have introduced the facetted Opal to the market, but until this cutter, this had been a cut reserved for the more moderate sizes of Opal.
As I spoke to this mysterious and unknown gemstone cutter his story seemed too good to be true. As we negotiated on price we discovered this parcel was cut from a purchase of rough made many years ago, before the introduction of the embargo banning the export of rough Opal by the Ethiopian government. This reinforced our long held belief that many of the stones (as much as 95%) circulating in the market today were not mined recently. Instead, they are held, in either rough or cut form, by collectors such as Carlson.
Always proudly displaying my Gemporia nametag, most sellers at Hong Kong know we are one of the world’s largest buyers at the show and that our jewellery is made in Jaipur. You can imagine my scepticism when Carlson said he was also based in Jaipur. My suspicions were aroused as he was a complete unknown, based in the city of all our facilities – he couldn’t possibly have stayed under the radar all this time. To try and catch him out I said I was interested in the parcel, but wanted it tested by the government laboratory in Jaipur for evidence that it had been sugar treated (remember, the play of colour was spectacular for these sizes) as he was selling it as natural. To my surprise he insisted I take as many samples as I wanted to test, and that we would meet back in Jaipur in a week’s time to decide the price.
As I flew from Hong Kong back to the UK, with a separate plane taking the material to the laboratory in Jaipur, I wondered what would come of this deal, and whether my hastily booked flight back to Jaipur would open the door to the parcel, or be a waste of time.
Less than a week later, I was sat in our Jaipur offices, with the laboratory results and Carlson proudly displaying the whole parcel. The results came back natural, just as he had said. Something still didn’t make sense. How had this miraculous parcel flown under the industry’s radar for so long? So, having exhausted all my usual fact-finding techniques, I just came out and asked Carlson. I couldn’t believe what followed.
To understand this unique parcel you have to understand how this Opal forms. Ethiopian Opal, unlike Australian Opal (except samples from Tintenbar), is formed by volcanic activity rather than sedimentary deposition. The Ethiopian Opal we have all come to love is formed by the geological movement that defines the Great African rift. This active continental rift zone is tearing Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and northern Mozambique from the rest of Africa. If the current rate continues, these will form a new continent in the next 10 million years, which geologically speaking, is a short time span. This continent-shattering movement is evidenced by the volcanoes which are responsible for the Ethiopian Opal we enjoy.
When these Opals, formed by volcanic activity, where first discovered in 1994, gemmologists descended onto the area determined to find a source that was not vulnerable to ‘crazing’ like the original material was. However, Carlson took a different approach and hired a team of seismologists who surveyed the area from an entirely new perspective. Rather than chasing the seam, or gemstone rumours, this team mapped the ancient volcanic labyrinth in search of the optimum fissures for Opal creation. Too large, and the deposit of silica spheres would not be in sufficient concentration to create play of colour. Too small, and the seam would not yield the world-changing sizes he had dreamt of since hearing of the new discovery.
In 2009, 15 years after the initial discovery, and 12 months after the other prospectors had struck it rich with the original Welo Opal deposit, his patience and unique approach to exploration paid off. With an inner circle of miners he trusted with the secret, he mined the deposit discreetly. Four years later, as rumours of the Ethiopian government’s then upcoming decision to ban the export of the rough began to circulate, Carlson shipped all of his rough material to his hometown of Jaipur.
There the process began again, recruiting a small, intimate team of cutters who could be trusted to both do the material justice, but also keep it a secret. After two years, the rough had been transformed into a parcel ready to change the industry. He packed it into an unassuming suitcase, and revealed the wonder to the Hong Kong Gem and Jewellery Fair in September 2015.
Carlson told me how by studying the play of colour to determine the concentration of silica spheres we have been able to date the age of these Opals. Every 1 mm of Opal has taken Mother Nature up to 5 million years to form. When you get your Opal home you will be able to calculate the approximate age of your gem by studying its dimensions.
We are incredibly proud of our Ethiopian Opals for their size and extraordinary play of colour.
Browse Ethiopian Opal jewellery here.