The Art of Opals - Famous Artworks that Feature the Gem

Opals have been the centre of fascination for decades, with their aura of mystery being the centre of artists' inspiration, from ancient civilisations to the modern day. The Renaissance period allowed for opals to experience popularity in a new light; now not just seen around the necks of royalty, but viewed upon painted canvas in a museum, a mutual love surviving both artists and aristocracy. 

Opals have frequently been incorporated into elaborate jewellery designs, allowing the full spectrum of a rainbow to adorn the attire of royalty and nobility. Soon, because of association, opals were incorporated into paintings as symbols of wealth, beauty, and divine grace. 

Opals and Sculptures

In the realm of sculptures, opals have been used to create breathtaking works of art; the carved human touch works brilliantly to empower the natural brilliance and iridescence of the opal. Sculptors have skillfully carved opals into intricate shapes and designs, harnessing not only the gemstones' unique properties but also highlighting the raw talent of artists. Carving opal is equivalent to attempting to sculpt with stained glass. Not only is the medium itself fragile and unpredictable, but the sculptor must work with the natural colourations as they appear - one cut too deep and the structure is ruined. 

The Opal Sculpting of Wilhelm Schmidt

German Carver Wilhelm Schmidt (1845-1938) was an early master of the art of opal sculpting. In 2015, Bonhams presented an enthralling collection of late-19th-century pieces attributed to Schmidt, among them a remarkable opal cameo brooch carved in front, side, and back views, set in a gold setting. Hailing from the gem-carving hub of Idar-Oberstein in 1835, Schmidt commenced his training in cameo carving at a young age of 15. After settling in London, he became renowned for his exceptional carvings in various gemstones, including quartz, sardonyx, jasper, labradorite, and moonstone. However, it was his unconventional carvings in the opal matrix that earned him recognition. Despite creating pieces for prominent jewellers of his time, such as John Brogden and Child and Child, Schmidt refrained from signing his works. Nonetheless, cameos attributed to him can be found in esteemed institutions like the British Museum and Natural History Museum in London.

The opal cameos showcased a unique technique pioneered by Schmidt during the 19th century. “Opal cameos, if rare, were not unknown (in the 19th century) but Schmidt had invented a novel technique,” Gertrud Seidmann wrote in her 1988 book Wilhelm Schmidt: The Last Neo-classical Gem-Engraver. Unlike traditional cameos carved entirely from precious opal, Schmidt introduced a novel approach. He utilised rough opal with a thin layer overlaying the matrix, akin to the contrasting layers seen in traditional cameos crafted from agates. Notably, Schmidt also intricately carved the matrix and even the backs of these pieces.


Image: Opal cameo brooch (front, side and back views), late 19th century, probably by Wilhelm Schmidt, sold at Bonhams London in April 2015 for $17,497


The Work of Wilhelm Lucas Von Cranach

Following in Schmidt's footsteps, another German carver, Wilhelm Lucas Von Cranach (1865-1918), ventured into opal carving, albeit in a distinctively less classical style. Embracing the opal craze that swept Europe during the Art Nouveau era, Von Cranach diverged from the geometric Jugendstil style popular in Germany. Instead, influenced by the mystical symbolism and female forms of the Parisian school led by René Lalique, Von Cranach crafted powerful and imposing female figures, such as the Medusa displayed at the Tadema Gallery. The influence of Art Nouveau jewellery is evident in the work of contemporary designer Angela Conty, characterised by fluid lines and a focus on nature. By personally carving her gemstones and then crafting gold settings around them, Conty creates organic pieces where the opal dictates the design, marking her creative journey.

The "Dream Cloud" - A Famous Opal Artwork

From the depths of Queensland, Australia, opal has been sourced to create the ‘Dream Cloud’. This piece is believed to have been carved around 1915, being reminiscent of Beaux Arts traditional style with hints of late Art Nouveau. This piece was shortly obtained by Mr. John Junius Morgan of Nyetimber, Chiltington, Sussex, England, from a Russian immigrant, apparently as a birthday gift in 1936. The bust of the winged female utilises the medium of carved opal to display a dream-like state, furthermore conveyed through the range of colours seen in the stones surface; the milky white mixes with the vibrant blues, allowing the brown ironstone matrix to stand as a contrasting foundation. 

Opal Artwork In The Contemporary World

Opals have also woven their way into the hearts of contemporary artists, as the modern individual explores innovative ways to incorporate these lovely gemstones into their creations. From mixed-media installations, to avant-garde jewellery designs, artists continue to use the world around them as a tool to push the boundaries of artistic expression. When looking at something as unmoving as plain stone, it could be hard to see how one can convey such emotion, beauty, and meaning. Jose Lopez Vergara is an artist of the modern day who, after an accident in 2003 that permanently impaired the movement of his right arm, was encouraged to cultivate his interest in drawing. Vergara often uses the backgrounds of his paintings to insert landscapes or figurative details in various historical styles to propel the narrative for his figures. His interest in the silhouette and minimal design plays a central role in his work and continues to open many paths for exploration. His artwork ‘The Opal’, published in 2022 depicts the subtle silhouette of a woman; not much besides her face, hair, and neck seem to be defined. At the centre of this piece stands a stunning opal pendant, with the abstraction of her human form seemingly allowing for only the necklace to be viewed by the audience. 

Appreciating the Beauty of Opal Artwork

Regardless of how the stone is immortalised, opals continue to captivate and inspire artists with their timeless allure. As we marvel at these works of art, we as individuals are given the chance to appreciate the mind of fellow humans, with the art we view being an interwoven tapestry of the lives and cultures of those who surround us. Opals have the capability of being so much more than just ‘gemstones’; they are a testament to the beauty found within the world, and furthermore, the human mind.