An Interview with Opal Expert Joel Ragan
Opal expert Joel Ragan has worked with these gems for 45 years. Learn how he got started and his top tips for cutting opals and designing opal jewelry.
7 Minute Read
From Hobby Shop Lap to Opal Expert
How did you get your start with opal?
My dad was in the Air Force, so when I was young we lived on an Air Force base. The base had a great hobby shop, and there were lapidary classes there. So, I signed up for some classes. The first stone I cut was glass with some copper filling, it's called goldstone. But not long after that, I cut my first opal. From then, it's just been my passion. It's always an amazing experience. Every one comes out different, and you never know before it's finished what it will look like.
That's one thing I love about opal, that each one is unique. Each opal has a different color quality. It's really amazing how opal's color works. These tiny little balls of silica have to be exactly the same size and fit together to form pyramids. Then, how wide the pyramids are and how they're arranged in the stone determine the color play and patterns in the opal.
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This article is also a part of our Opal Specialist Mini Course, in the unit Introduction to Opals and Their Properties.
What do you look for in an opal?
There are so many amazing opals that I love as well as a huge variety of different patterns and colors. The one thing I always look for is bright and vibrant colors. Having those high grade colors really makes a big impact.
Do you have a favorite pattern?
Oh, there are so many different patterns. I'm not sure I have a favorite. The harlequin pattern is one of the most prized, but it's not necessarily my favorite.
There's one stone in my collection, a semi-transparent 22-carat piece with really amazing color play. It floats within the stone like a cloud in space. It really looks like a photo from the Hubble telescope. Just amazing, vibrant colors floating in space. It gives the stone a really amazing 3D effect, like it has layers of color.
I'd say that's my favorite, when you can see that bright color play in three dimensions. It's stunning.
Creating Unique Opal Jewelry
Since each stone is unique, how do you incorporate opals into jewelry design?
In my jewelry, I try to let the stone be the star. I really look at each stone as a unique piece and create a vision around it. Once I'm done cutting it, I just know whether it's supposed to be a ring, a pendant, or earrings.
I use CAD (computer assisted design) and always think in 3D when I'm creating a design. CAD has helped a lot with designing for opal. It's a lot faster now. Before CAD, we could still get the vision and the details, and the jewelry would come out as we imagined, but we had to carve the design into wax by hand. It just took a long time.
Now, I can just use my phone to get a picture of the cut opal, and the jewelry fits it like a glove.
I also like to really take my time with my stones. 15 years ago, I bought a piece of rough that was pretty large, about the size of a pear. But there was just one spot of color in it. Once I cut it, though, there was a huge stone inside. It's 37.5 carats with rich, vibrant color play and semi-transparent. Just beautiful.
Once it was cut, I knew what I wanted to do with it, but even with CAD it was difficult. Imagine taking molten chocolate and pouring it over the stone, letting it drizzle and drip over the edge. That's what I did, only with white gold and pavé diamonds. It's a beautiful pendant that came out just how I imagined.
I like doing unusual things in my jewelry. I created one piece, a pendant, with an oval of diamonds and a pendulum that hangs from the top of the oval. The opal hangs from the pendulum, suspended in the middle of the oval, and moves with the wearer.
For another piece I'm working on, I have an amazing two-sided Lambina opal. The colors are like vibrant inks. I'm using natural pink diamonds on one side and rubies on the other side to enhance the red color play.
Designing for Durable Opal Jewelry
Do you worry about durability in opal jewelry?
You know, there's a superstition that opals are bad luck, and that's because they break sometimes. But opals aren't bad luck.
The reason this superstition sticks around is that the commercial settings on opal can be really just awful. Opal is sensitive to pressure, but so many commercial jewelers set opals with prongs. There's nothing worse you could do! A prong will create a high pressure point, and if you make a pressure point in an opal, sooner or later it's going to crack.
That's why I love using CAD to design opals. I can get the perfect fit. And I never use prongs to secure an opal. If I use prongs in the design it's purely decorative.
I also use epoxy in my jewelry wherever the opal would touch metal. It acts as a shock absorber, so when you knock the stone it's less likely to break.
I even had an opal and emerald ring that I wore for years. One time, I knocked it too hard. The opal's still fine, but the emerald cracked!
That rumor that opal is bad luck just came from a time when everyone was superstitious. There was a book with a character that always wore an opal, and when it changed colors it always caused misfortune. But opals really aren't bad luck. You can ask anyone in Australia, they'll never say that an opal is bad luck.
Stories from the Opal Mines
Have you visited Australia's opal mines?
I've made a bunch of trips out to the Australian opal mines. It's really something out there. It's hot. And it's dry. You're in the middle of nowhere, and there's nothing but piles of rocks.
When you get to the mine entrance there's just a corrugated tin roof with a ladder going down, and once you're inside it's just like caves that people have cut out and carved.
Usually the mines are set up with a central hub and spokes that go out from there. The miners dig outward until the color stops and leave pillars in the middle of the shafts to support the roof. Then, once they're done digging outward, they mine the pillars on their way back to the center.
There was one mine where they found what was at the time the largest gem opal, and it was in that central pillar right by the mine entrance. They found it as they were closing the mine. It was just two inches in from that central pillar, so if they had dug just a little bit more when they were carving out that pillar they would've found it earlier. It was a huge piece.
Top Tips for Opal Lapidaries
Do you have any advice for people just starting to cut opals?
Yes, the first thing I'll say is that you shouldn't start out by cutting high-grade material. You'll likely over-cut it and ruin the piece. There's plenty of lower grade material that will give you great practice, and it takes some time to understand how different stones cut.
Sometimes the color runs in a seam, and you have to follow the seam to get the best color out of the stone. Sometimes it's wavy, and you try to follow the waves. Those are harder to cut.
You don't have to spend a lot of money to get opal rough, and even small pieces can give you great practice. And those small pieces can sell nicely, too.
The key is really to learn the basics. Anyone with a small lap can learn to cut opal. I usually use standard wheels, too. There are a couple of rare cases where I use hand sanders, which are like emery boards. You can get them anywhere from 300 to 8,000 grit. For special cases, I polish the opal by hand, one stroke at a time, to get it perfect.
Here's another tip. I never use wax to put my opals on the dop stick. Instead, I always use a glue gel. When I'm done, I just use a little acetone and the opal comes right off.
I also make my own dop sticks. I like to use metal dops because they draw the heat away from the opal while it cuts. Opals are heat sensitive, and they can get damaged from the heat of the friction while you're working, so drawing the heat away from the stone really helps.
Cutting opals is really a great passion. Sometimes, you'll get a nobby and cut it, and all of a sudden there's rich, deep color — or not. And it's not disappointing when you don't get color because you never know. The surprise, the suspense, the knowledge that there's another nobby waiting for you to reveal its color, that's what makes it great.
When you cut your first opal, it will change your life.
A geologist, environmental engineer and Caltech graduate, Addison’s interest in the mesmerizing and beautiful results of earth’s geological processes began in her elementary school’s environmental club. When she isn’t writing about gems and minerals, Addison spends winters studying ancient climates in Iceland and summers hiking the Colorado Rockies.
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