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The Dendritic Opal: A Guide to Long-Term Wear & Care
Crystals have been an obsession for people all around the world for centuries. Throughout history, they have been used as symbols of power and status, adopted as mystical healing gems, integrated into all types of architectural masterpieces, showcased in art, and worn as beautiful accent pieces. Their mysterious auras attract the spiritually minded, the creative, and the scientifically inspired alike.
The Dendritic Opal is considered to be a particularly attractive and magical gem in all circles of people and has been used for a variety of things worldwide. Although it is not exactly rare or precious, this earthy mineraloid draws the eye with its interesting milky coloring and plant-like metallic inclusions.
What Is a Dendritic Opal?
The general definition of an opal is a hydrated silicone dioxide mineraloid mined from a rock fissure. Opals, no matter what type, contain no crystalline structure and are often made up of a certain percentage of water and microscopic silica spheres. There have been over 60 types of opals identified in the world, and each falls into one of three categories: Common Opals, Precious Opals, and the rare Rainbow Opals.
The Dendritic Opal, or “Moss Opal” by its fond nickname, falls under the common opal category. Common opals, often called “Potch” opals, are opaque in appearance and have an earthy range of colors that include white, blue, pink, yellow, yellow/orange, brown or black, or a mixture of colors with patterned inclusions. Unlike the precious opal and rainbow opal, common opals rarely contain brilliant flashes or streaks of iridescent color when held in the light. They quite often have no play-of-color at all.
A common opal is defined as “dendritic” when it contains fern, moss, or tree-like patterned inclusions of metallic oxides like manganese and iron. These opal aggregates often form in relatively low temperatures and have a resinous luster. The coloring of the Dendritic Opal is whitish or yellow/brown in color and the collection of dendrites it contains often look dark green or deep brown, just like a plant (hence the nickname “Moss Opal”).
The dendritic patterns found in these opals are never the same, like snowflake patterns or other such geometric or vein design formations found throughout nature, and the raw aggregates are usually kidney-shaped or grape-shaped.
Dendritic Opals can contain almost 30% water, making them “soft gems.” Due to the metallic inclusions, these opals are often difficult to shape and slice the way you would like them, even though they are considered “soft.” Although the soft gem portion can be easily chipped, the metals prove to be tough obstacles for most artisans, so it takes a very careful hand to work with them. The combination makes for an interesting balance, especially when the best way to exhibit the opal’s natural artwork is to cut it into slices so the different plant-like patterns can be easily seen.
Where Is the Dendritic Opal Most Commonly Found?
Another reason this gem falls under the common opal category is its easy accessibility. The Dendritic Opal can be found all around the world. Although most opal mines are found in Australia (where the opal is the national gemstone) at places like Lightning Ridge, the famous White Cliffs, and the town of Coober Pedy, the common opal category reaches all the way to the United States and Mexico. Various deposits are mined from limonite, sandstone, rhyolite, marl, and basalt rock fissures found in Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Japan, and even Russia as well.
Due to the easy accessibility of this gem, it is often more competitively priced, at least in its raw form. The real value comes from characteristics like the way it is shaped if it has milky white coloring and how attractive the plant-like patterning is. The highest-value Dendritic Opals are found in Australia with the Precious and Rainbow Opals.
History of the Dendritic Opal
Dendritic Opals were first discovered in Australia in the 19th century and very quickly became prized gems among the royalty of Europe, which, in turn, made them popular with everyone else. Due to this popularity, Australia very quickly grew in the mining industry area of the world market, and Dendritic Opal, along with other types of more precious opals, soon became a major source of economic growth for the country. People loved the way the gems captured the light, and many took great stock in the mysterious auras they held.
By the time the 1950s rolled around, the demand for precious, rainbow, and common opals had grown tremendously everywhere, and Australia was known to contain almost 80% of the world’s opal supply. There was no country in the world that could compete with them in this area of the market, until 2012, when Ethiopia rose to the challenge with an estimated opal output of 31,000 lbs. This challenge did not last long, however, and Australia quickly reclaimed its title of the record holder of opal sourcing.
Today Australia is known to contain 95-97% of the world’s supply of precious and rainbow opal and is also cited to contain a substantial portion of common opal as well. The opal output in this country alone has amounted to over 41 million U.S. dollars. Only in recent years has common opal been found in larger amounts in places like North and South America, Japan, and Russia. None of these countries even come close to being able to compete in the production of any of the types of identified opal.
Common Uses of the Dendritic Opal
Like many crystals, Dendritic Opals are used for their beauty and for the mythical characteristics and powers they are thought to hold. You will often find them in new age circles and other religious groups where they hold great spiritual significance, a variety of artisan circles where their beauty is honed and molded into sought-after art pieces and jewelry, and even some naturalist medicinal circles where they are thought to bring healing and emotional balance.
New age circles and groups of religious people throughout history have long thought that the Dendritic Opal produces an energy that promotes one’s physical and spiritual growth. The water and plant-like patterns in the often milky-white gems symbolize life and harmony and are thought to be nature’s way of giving self-awareness and clarity to the owner. If one keeps this opal on them always, they will be more discerning, less judgmental and more accepting of others, and more in-tune with themselves and the true nature of life’s experiences.
Some Dendritic Opals are even thought to contain magical powers that put their owners in touch with their deeper, darker selves. During the Middle Ages, this was widely believed. Rulers would incorporate these gems into precious items they carried on them at all times to show their status and help them maintain their power.
Witches and wizards would also commonly carry these and other gems, thinking they held a mystical key to powerful witchcraft. Although most wealthy people and other people of prominence today are not showing off massive items with Dendritic Opals to boast of their status and power, there are still many modern witches and wizards who use them in their spells and more.
In the medicinal world, Dendritic Opals are most commonly made into healing jewelry and are thought to treat certain ailments like dizziness, blood circulatory disorders, insulin deficiencies, inflammatory dysfunctions, and more.
Some naturalistic psychologists and psychiatrists even credit Dendritic Opals with the ability to cure depression or at least allow a person struggling with depression the clarity it takes to work through complicated emotions and mental issues. In this area, much like the new age and other religious circle areas, these crystal enthusiasts think the characteristics of these opals provide balance to one’s life. They just put far more focus on physical and emotional balance than spiritual balance.
The crystal artisans and the average consumer who appreciates natural beauty love the Dendritic Opals for the unique art they can be used to create. Imagine milky-white brooches, pendants, and earrings with smatterings of tree-like tendrils made from smoky metals running throughout. These soft gems can be molded and cut into a variety of wearable accents, incorporated into home décor, and used to make eye-catching office pieces in the care of a skilled cutter.
The Dendritic Opal is especially popular with people born in the month of October since this type of mineraloid has been adopted as the birthstone for people born during this particular portion of the autumn season.
How Does the Dendritic Opal Wear?
Due to the delicate nature of these soft gems, Dendritic Opals must be handled with care. How they wear often depends on what they are formed into. Artisans do not usually risk making any pieces from these gems that will have a lot of exposure to extreme temperatures or total immersion in water.
For example, you will rarely find rings made from Dendritic Opals, as pieces that are worn on any part of the hand often risk being knocked against things or endure consistent water contact from faucets and other parts of the normal day-to-day routine. If someone insists on having a ring, it needs to be carefully inserted in a protective setting like bezel to keep it from cracking, chipping, or losing its luster.
The reason these gems are referred to as soft gems has to do with their high-level water content. This characteristic leaves anything made from them susceptible to drying out and cracking or fading if worn or used too often or stored in an overly dry or hot place. If the opals are doublets and triplets, extended periods of water immersion can ruin them.
Doublets and triplets are opals that have been infused with glue for added layers and extra detailing. The structure of pieces like this will weaken, fall apart, or become discolored when exposed to water too often due to the glue dissolving and water seeping into the cracks and setting.
How to Care for the Dendritic Opal
Even though Dendritic Opals are soft and easy to chip, discolor, dry out and more, caring for them is not as hard as one would imagine. All it takes is the appropriate knowledge about opals and the willingness to put in a little extra work.
First and foremost, it is important to know what kind of opal you own. If it is a doublet or triplet Dendritic Opal, you will have to keep in mind the different layers it is made up of and the fact that it is infused with glue. Altered opals like this need to be kept in tight plastic bags with a damp piece of cotton or cloth. They should not touch anything too wet, as the glue might be affected over time and the coloration of the gem may be altered. Prolonged immersion of any kind would be horribly destructive for these two designs.
If you have a solid Dendritic Opal that has only been cut and polished, you must then worry about storing it somewhere soft and safe and cleaning it properly. This design should also be kept in a sealed plastic bag with a damp piece of cotton or cloth or in a room with a dehumidifier to keep it from dehydrating. It is mostly only susceptible to cracking or fading if it stays dry for too long a period or is exposed to intense heat or sunlight.
Doublets, triplets, and solid Dendritic Opals all score around a 5.5 to 6 in hardness on the Mohs scale, so they scratch and score easily. Even dust can eventually wear these soft gems down. It is important to remember this when cleaning them. Since even dust can wear these gems down, simply wiping them off with any old dry cloth will not do. To polish them correctly, you must use a very soft, damp cloth to wipe them off gently.
The last and most important tip when it comes to cleaning these gems is to never use cleaning detergents or chemicals on them or wash them in an ultrasonic cleaner. Cleaning products like bleach and other similar detergents will eventually erode Dendritic Opals and destroy the coloration and unique metallic patterns. The hard vibrations from ultrasonic cleaners or other cleaners like this can knock around the gems far too much and cause them to break apart or chip.
If you want your opals to last, you must store them and clean them properly. Once you get into the routine, it's not hard, and the natural beauty you will enjoy from your Dendritic Opal piece is more than worth the effort.