'Opal Beads'?

Q: Why do I never see 'Opal Beads'?

A: 'Opal' is too soft a gemstone - it's difficult enough to make cabochons, let alone drill a hole. The nearest thing would be a moonstone bead or a jadite. See 'Fire Mountain's' catalog. Actually, you can buy opal beads - I use them sometimes - and the prices range from sorta reasonable, to outrageous. Any gem dealer that sells carved 'Opal' will probably either have 'Opal' beads, or know where to find them; I usually find mine at the bigger gem/bead shows, mostly from Australian dealers. 'Lapidary Journal' sometimes carries ads for them. I've seen them in rondelle/spacer, round and (for Mexican 'Fire Opal') faceted forms, ranging from about 4mm to 10-12mm. The better the color and fire, obviously, the more expensive. Prices for a 16-inch string of precious (white/translucent) 'Opal' rondelles, about 5 or 6mm in diameter and 2 or 3mm thick, range from around $75-90 per strand for occasional flashes of color, to several hundred dollars for really fiery ones. Mexican 'Fire Opal' is cheaper, and top quality black, boulder or 'Harlequin Opal' beads may cost thousands per strand. Artificial 'Opals' (like the 'Gilsons') can look great, but they're still pretty expensive. I haven't had any trouble with fragility, although I tend to design them into chokers (NEVER bracelets or swinging long necklaces; too much wear and tear), or earrings that afford some protection for the stones, and I carefully warn those who get them to be careful. The usual 'Opal' cautions - don't use ultrasonic or chemical jewelry cleaners, treat them to a bit of moisture now and then to maintain the fire, don't store them jumbled with harder stones - obtain. To be worth the money though, 'Opal' beads need to be used where they'll be seen up close, unless they're big and full of fire (i.e., REAL expensive), they'll look like white glass from a few feet away. Sometimes labradorite, rainbow obsidian, or even iridized freshwater pearls give a stronger effect for less money, and frankly, some of the polymer clay techniques for simulating Opal produce flashier, sturdier and convincing fakes for a few cents per bead. I can suggest several reasons why (you don't see them too often): 1) 'Opal' beads are not a popular item for bead crafters. 'Opal' beads with any fire in them tend to be expensive, and beaders tend not to buy expensive strands of natural gemstone beads. For this reason, any bead dealer that tries a few, will probably not restock. 'Opal' beads sell better in jewelry stores. 2) The play of color in 'Opal' tends to run in seams. When cut "en cabochon", the layer of fire can cover the whole top of the stone, maximizing the amount of color visible. When 'Opal' is cut in beads, at least round beads, the layer of color is usually visible only from its edges. In other words, beads usually don't let the cutter maximize the potential of the stone - unless it is really high-grade 'Opal', so cutters find it more profitable to cut cabochons.