If gemology were still practiced as a blend of myth and materialism, the way it was in the days of the Greeks and Romans, opal would be seen as a Promethean gem that steals fire from the gods and shares it with mankind. As punishment, the gemologist might say that the gods endowed much of it with a hypersensitivity to heat that gives this high water-content silica gel a tendency to dehydrate and crack up—gem dealers call it “crazing”—with thirst.
Such a legend would certainly explain the plight of Ethiopian opal—one of the most beautiful varieties of this play-of-color species ever found. Imagine the best broad-flash Australian black and white opal but with deep mahogany and maple brown body colors that has been called everything from chocolate to root beer to bronze. What’s more, the very finest specimens exhibit unique snake-skin and harlequin patterns of iridescence.
Alas, many of these stones tend to develop the same kind of hairline cracks that mar the brown beauties from Nevada’s Virgin Valley. Nevertheless, Ethiopian opal has attracted a small cadre of enthusiasts who have made it their sole specialty or a cornerstone of their business. Finding one of the latter persuaded me to finally write this “Gem Profile”—four years after first seeing it at the Tucson show. Why did I wait so long? I wanted to wait until I met a jeweler who sold it in significant enough quantities to qualify it for prime time shelf space.
I met that jeweler, in what must be considered a providential way, when he served as a fellow juror with my son recently in Los Angeles. His name is Wazir Salaam, jeweler and designer of Jendayi Collection in the Baldwin Hills section of that city. A retailer who specializes in African gems, Salaam fell in love with Ethiopian opal when he was first introduced to it around eight years ago. Yes, he had heard it was temperamental, but by learning to carefully select stones and sell only those that withstand a healthy amount of curing and quarantine time, he has never had one returned.
Mind you, he’s not talking about the 20 percent of the stones he sells that are stabilized with his own home-grown Opticon recipe. Those are sold as treated and clearly marked as such on invoices. “Ethiopian opal got an early, undeserved reputation for crazing because it was at first sold indiscriminately,” Salaam says. “It took a long time for miners, cutters, and dealers to learn how to evaluate chocolate opal. But I feel I know what stones I can and can’t sell.” Most of those stones are ones he or his son Aquil have cabbed.
THE SECOND WAVE
Until late last year, all Ethiopian opal was of the chocolate variety from the Yita Ridge opal fields 150 miles northeast of Addis Ababa, the country’s capital. Yita Ridge opal forms inside geodes composed of a compacted volcanic ash known as rhyolite. Most of the geodes are empty. Of the 20 percent or so with opal, the vast majority is colorless potch or dull-colored common opal.
But then comes the few percent with genuine full-bodied color-play. It is these stones that Salaam puts front and center in his store both loose or set in his own designs. “I can’t think of a better stone to demonstrate the difference our store seeks to make in the lives of our customers,” he says. “Our trademark is ‘jewelry that tells a story,’ and chocolate opal has got a story that resonates with shoppers, 70 percent of whom are African-American.”
Yes, indeed, chocolate opal has got a story—one practically as old as the human story. It was first discovered by noted anthropologist and archeologist Louis Leakey in a Kenyan cave during a 1939 artifacts gathering expedition. Leakey found the opal had been used for tools rather than trinkets—meaning back-to-human-beginnings use.
In 1994, gem dealer N.R. Barot found similar opal in a Kenyan market. A year later, mining engineer Telahun Yohannes found the Yita Ridge deposit and soon after started mining there. It was this material that started flooding the market after 2002.
Last year, however, white seam opal from the Gondar desert region in northwestern Ethiopia was introduced in great quantity to the market. This opal, which occurs in broad-flash, contra luz and hydrophane varieties, is often reminiscent of Australian and Brazilian opal, says Ethiopian opal specialist Dan Statz of DB Opals, Madison, Wisconsin. “It has a much better reputation for stability,” he says, “and it has given my business an incredible shot in the arm.”
Statz, who used to cut many of the opals he sells, now spends most of his time taking orders for rough from as far away as India and China. Yet when asked whether he prefers Yita Ridge chocolate or Gondar white, he gives the nod to chocolate. “It’s got a beauty all its own,” he says. And, adds Salaam, at prices rarely over $200 per carat retail for fine material, that beauty becomes harder to say no to.