Opals are one of the most vivid and diverse gemstones on the planet. Yet for being such a diversified gemstone, for years there was only one major source of opals in the world: Australia. As the leading opal supplier, Australia accounted for 95% of opal production in the world for over 100 years. That was until a discovery in the mid-90s put Ethiopia on the global map. While Australia maintains its position, Ethiopian opals are only growing in demand.
So, what is Ethiopian opal and is it the same quality as Australian? What kinds of opal does Ethiopia supply? In this article, we’re surveying the unique attributes of these fiery African opals. Most importantly, are Ethiopian opals good quality?
Ethiopian opal, also called Welo opal, is a unique, diverse and fiery opal mined from the foothills of Ethiopia. Thirty years ago, the only source of opal was Australia. Yet in the mid-90s things changed and the market opened up to a new opal supplier. Then, more discoveries in 2008 and 2013 served to solidify Ethiopia’s stake in the opal market.
Are the features of this variation distinctive from Australian opal? What about value and durability? The biggest intrigue about these stunning gemstones is that they are of the same high-quality of Australian opal for a fraction of the cost. Now, jewelers around the globe, even in Australia, are selling Ethiopian opals in their collection. This is in large part because there’s a proven market for the product, and it offers the buyer’s variation that contributes to a business' success.
Ethiopian opal has a distinctive patchwork honeycomb pattern. This pattern is the most desired pattern in the market, making it a highly desired collector’s item. What makes this pattern so special? Because most miners have never even come across a honey-comb patterned opal, you can imagine the novelty of this unique gemstone. What’s more, they are abundantly sourced from Ethiopia. So, we know these opals are unique, but where in Ethiopia do they come from?
In 1994 the first opal supply was discovered in the Menz Gesche District, a historic region in the northern Shewa Province of Ethiopia. These early discoveries yielded a stunning arrangement of diverse and colorful body tones including brown, red, orange and yellow.
The first supply of Ethiopian opal was excavated from igneous rocks like tuff and rhyolite and were called “Shewa opals,” after their origin. Fast forward fourteen years and the second opal deposit in Northern Ethiopia was discovered. This supply of opal came from the Wollo Province and is responsible for putting Ethiopian opal on the global map. That’s because Wollo opal, now known as Welo opal, exhibited the prized play-of-color that makes opal gems so valuable and desired.
Then, just five years after this magnificent discovery, another deposit of Welo opal was mined from stratified volcanic rock. This deposit yielded a supply of gray and black opal.
One deposit might not have made Ethiopia a significant source of opal. However, it was the cumulative discovery of three different types of opal that established Ethiopia as a fierce competitor to Australian opal.
To discuss the durability of Ethiopian opal, we first have to talk about its composition. Unlike Australian opal, most Ethiopian opal is hydrophane. This term denotes the gemstone’s ability to absorb water and change color after absorption. A lower specific gravity creates a more porous stone capable of absorbing enough water to enhance the gem’s weight by up to 15%.
How does hydrophane translate to durability?
Well, water absorption can cause an opal to craze or crack. The best way to avoid this result is to keep the gemstone away from water. However, splashes of water won’t result in a crack, it’s more likely to occur after significant exposure to water. Also, once the opal is laid out to dry it will dewater over time. Does this mean you shouldn’t buy Ethiopian opal? On the contrary; these gemstones are too beautiful and unique to pass up! That said, you’ll want to be mindful to avoid exposing the gem to water, oils, hair products, and lotions.
Worst-case scenario? Your opal experiences slight changes in body color. However, within a few days to a couple of weeks, it’ll dry out and be back to it’s normal, bright and flashy colors.
We’ve stated that Ethiopian opal is of similar quality as Australian, so let’s explore why. In terms of appearance, the two are relatively alike. Still, any opal--regardless of origin--will dramatically vary from the next. The real difference lies in the hydrophane quality. Australian opals are considered the most high-quality opals in the world, and they’ve got a reputation to prove it!
Slowly, and without any major brand interference or marketing, Ethiopian opal has grown to become the second-largest supplier of opal in the world. While that figure might be relatively low, the quality, beauty, and affordability of Ethiopian opal is broadening its presence in the gemstone marketplace. More and more jewelers are incorporating these gems into their fine jewelry pieces!
The sponge-like quality of hydrophane opals means you’ll have to take specific care to maintain the longevity and health of the gem. When you examine Ethiopian opal for the same quality standards as Australian opal, most specimens rise to the occasion. Not only do these gems exhibit a stunning play of color, but they have the same variety of base tones as Australian opal.
Ethiopian opals are evaluated by the same grading scale as Australian opals. This involves examining the pattern, brightness, and play-of-color of the opal. As you can gather from what we’ve already discussed, Ethiopian Opal checks all the boxes on the list!
To truly test the quality of an opal requires not only examining its origin but the specific features of each gem. While one opal from Ethiopia might pale in comparison to one from Australia, the origin could easily be switched. Bottom line: quality relates to each stone’s specific characteristics.
It’s easy to see why Ethiopian opals are so popular! They’re beautiful, full of color and one-of-a-kind!
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