Enticed by the mesmerizing iridescence of an opal? Us, too! If your opal search has landed you in a pickle where you can’t decide between Australian Opal and Ethiopian Opal, it helps to know the key differences.
Gemstone collectors are always on the hunt for unique opal specimens. Opals abound from the far reaches of Australia to the historic Shewa Province in central Ethiopia. For a century Australia dominated the world’s supply of opals and still does by supplying over 95%. Yet in the 90s a new player entered the opal arena: Ethiopia.
Now Ethiopia is renowned for supplying opal, black opal, and fire opal. Is Ethiopian the same as Australian opal? If not, what’s the difference? Excellent question. Let’s get straight to work comparing the two.
Before we weigh the two origins side-by-side, let’s first briefly cover exactly what opals are. Famous for their fiery flashes of color (play-of-color), and iridescence, opals are a natural gemstone made of hydrated silica.
If they’re all made of the same stuff, are they all the same? On the contrary. One of the most important factors that influence an opal's value is the way color dances across the surface of the gemstone. Additionally, the base tone, or background color, is of utmost importance because it shapes the way color reflects from within the gem.
Now that we’ve gotten the chemical framework of opals out of the way: how does origin influence the gemstone? In other words, what’s the big difference between Australian opal and Ethiopian opal?
Turns out: quite a bit!
As we disclosed earlier, Australia is the leading production source for the global supply of opals. Essentially, Australia dominates the market because there are so many opals across the continent. Does sourcing most of the world’s supply of opals come with a cost? Yep, and a pretty high one at that. It’s no secret that Australian opal has a reputation for being expensive. Ultimately, this boils down to a simple fundamental in economics:
When you dominate a market for a specific item, prices skyrocket. Still, it’s not like Australian opals are expensive simply because they are abundant. Opals from Australia also have prestige because they are of such high quality. What distinguishes Australian Opal from any other in the world? It’s mined from deep beneath the earth’s surface. Because Australia was millions of years ago covered in geothermal water, there’s water deep in the ground where opals grow, and that water is precisely what shapes the physical and chemical properties of Australian opal.
To characterize Australian opal into one category is nearly impossible because there are so many variations of it. In Australia, opal forms in the earth’s host rock of ironstone or sandstone in variations of:
Precious opal -The most general form of opal exhibiting play of color
Boulder opal - An extremely brilliant opal from Western Queensland
Black opal - Opal with a dark black or gray body tone
Rough opal - Uncut opal specimens taken directly from an opal mine
Australian opal naturally contains a high volume of water, but it’s not hydrophane like Ethiopian opal, meaning it doesn’t alter when submerged in water. Which leads us to...
Straight from the mines of Africa, Ethiopian opal is a relatively new style of opal that initially became popular in the mid-90s. Prior to this time, Australian Opal was really the only true source for opal gemstones.
However, the discoveries of opal in Ethiopia opened the door for a new type of opal to spread in popularity. In contrast to its Australian counterpart, Ethiopian opal is drastically more affordable. What else sets it apart?
Whereas Australian opal is mined from deep beneath the ground, Ethiopian opal grows in large volcanic deposits high up in the hills. What makes this variety so appealing is its stunning play of color, one of the most desirable attributes of opal. The most notable variance of Ethiopian opal is that it is hydrophane, which means that when the opal is immersed into water, its colors, transparency, light and even size alters.
The types of opal sourced from Ethiopia include:
Fire opal, also known as “Welo” opal - yellow or reddish-brown opal
Hydrophane opals - porous opals that absorb water and change color
Considering the processes of mining opal, each country of origin has its fair share of challenges. Mining in both countries is extremely difficult because opal isn’t easy to get to, and is often a dangerous mission. In Australia, miners must dig deep into the earth’s surface. In Ethiopia, they have to climb the rough terrains of the Ethiopian hills.
If they are both difficult to mine, why is one more affordable than the other? For one, Ethiopian opal is easy to work with and facet. Additionally, Australia sources a huge amount of opals and still conquers the opal marketplace.
The truth is that no matter where you source an opal from, no two stones will be exactly the same. In fact, two opals mined from the same exact excavation can look like they came from different parts of the world. That’s the beautiful mystery and intrigue of opal: you’ll find no two stones alike. Still, there are notable differences between Australian opal and Ethiopian opal. Let’s recap:
Price: Ethiopian is a more budget-friendly variation of opal
Water content: Ethiopian opal is hydrophane, whereas Australian opal naturally contains water and water does not alter its appearance
Play of Color: Both exhibit a beautiful play of color, depending on the specific stone
Ethiopian opal is still considered a new discovery, whereas Australian opal has a prestige honored by time
What’s the difference between Australian opal and Ethiopian opal? The better question is: which do you like best? It ultimately boils down to which gemstones lure you in. Still can’t decide which one is right for you? The good news is that you don’t have to because Opal Auctions meets all of your opal needs.
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