Fake Opals: What You Need to Know When Shopping Online

In the bewitching world of opal jewellery, where truly bespoke plays of colour mesmerise even the most seasoned gem aficionados, determining the authenticity of these enigmatic stones becomes an art in itself.  

The natural progression of opals popularity has led to a rise in ‘man-made’ and ‘lab-created’ fake opals. If you are unfamiliar with the various opal types, distinguishing the authenticity of your purchase can prove challenging, especially when the opal stone price listed is a tempting deal. 

Numerous international stores offer opals at significantly reduced prices, leading many buyers to overlook the need to verify the gem's genuineness, relying solely on implicit trust. However, with the increasing prevalence of synthetic opals, capable of imitating the appearance of natural opals, the reliance on this blind trust is no longer sufficient, particularly in the expanding online jewellery market. Dishonest marketing strategies are frequently employed by many online sellers, who often market these synthetic creations under ambiguous names that don't explicitly reveal their artificial nature.

The misleading statements online surrounding ‘Australia’s National Gemstone’ are incredibly disheartening for reputable opals jewellers and those in the opal industry, as real and honest information is pushed aside in favour of myths and old (and frankly quite frustrating) wives' tales. This has led to an overwhelming uncertainty in the realm of purchasing opals, with so many questions to overwhelm those who wish to own their own ‘curated rainbow’.

“What are synthetic opals?” 
“How can I tell if an opal is fake?” 
“How can I identify a real opal?” 

All of these questions overwhelm and frustrate those who only wish to own a ‘rainbow gem’ of their own. 

What is a ‘Fake Opal’ Exactly?
Synthetic, or fake opals, are fashioned in laboratories, and they mirror the internal composition, structure, and properties of their natural counterparts. However, their production has spurred the demand for affordable and expedient jewellery, effectively meeting this market need. Consequently, this trend has not only fostered a prevalent culture of misinformed pricing and compromised quality in the realm of budget alternatives but has also contributed to a growing sense of apprehension between buyers seeking authentic opals and the jewellers catering to them.

Originating in Switzerland, Gilson opal is currently predominantly manufactured in Japan, with its history dating back to 1974. This variety of opal is crafted from silica, making it an authentic synthetic emulation of natural opal. The term "Gilson opal" is frequently used to refer to imitation opals, which, in addition to being man-made, incorporate minerals and materials that are not naturally present in genuine opals.

Ethiopian Opal
Originating as a lacklustre brown entity reminiscent of a beer bottle, the Ethiopian Opal necessitates extensive modification to unveil its vibrant colours. The process of creating Ethiopian Opal involves a chemical treatment that, while temporarily effective, is not without its limitations. Disturbingly, we have received numerous reports from customers who were confronted with the startling revelation of the treatment's reversibility. The roots of this predicament can be traced back to systemic policy failures within the Ethiopian government, as suggested by the World Bank. Compounding the issue is the frequent omission of this crucial information to the customer, leading to disillusionment and a breach of trust.

How to Identify Fake Opal
While there has been a large body of information questioning the validity of opal stones, and Ethiopian opal has had a marked impact on consumers, it still begs the question, how can you tell if an opal is real?

Currently, there are not many ways commonly available that can be used to determine if an opal is real or fake. To distinguish these fake opals from their authentic counterparts, look for what gemologists call a ‘Columnar’ structure or ‘snake skin’ pattern. To do this, turn the Opal on its side and look for straight columns of colour running vertically. This is the sign of a fake opal. Under high magnification (around sixty) it’s clear to tell if the opal you own is synthetic, as the regularity and columnar nature of the opal is clearly visible.

A real opal under a UV light will also appear noticeably different to a fake opal. Synthetic opals, in addition to their visual clues, will emit a green colour under UV light; this is why it is often advised to take a UV torch along to test if the stone ‘fluoresces’, and if not, it is natural. 

Granted, one thing that an individual can trust is how the opal reacts as they move it in their hands. One way to tell if an opal is real is to look at its colour and play of colour. Genuine opals exhibit a unique iridescence, known as play-of-colour, which is caused by the diffraction of light as it passes through the opal's microscopic silica spheres. The play of colour can appear in a range of hues, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and pink. In contrast, fake opals often have a uniform colour or a repeating pattern that does not change as the stone is rotated. 

In the realm of opal commerce, the surge in synthetic opal production and dyed stones has significantly altered the dynamics of the market, fostering a culture where price and quality are often misconstrued and where the distinction between genuine and imitation opals becomes increasingly ambiguous.  The prevalence of non-reputable online sellers, Ethiopian opals, and a range of other sources producing fictitious opals, have further compounds this issue, making it imperative for opal enthusiasts and buyers to exercise caution and due diligence when making their purchases. With a growing appreciation for the complexity of opal authenticity, informed buyers can navigate the market with confidence, ensuring that the opals they acquire are genuine and reflective of their inherent rarity and allure.