Written by Modern Jeweler On May 2, 2013.
According to opal expert and author Allan W. Eckert, the Russian word for “beautiful stone” is cacholong. Funny thing, that also happens to be the name of a common opal variety known for its porcelaneous milky-to-creamy white color and smooth, ceramic surface. Occasionally, this breed of opal occurs in reds and yellows, as well as banded form, but it’s the all-whites-most of which come from Russian Federation states near the Caspian Sea-for which it’s becoming known and increasingly prized.
Okay, maybe prized is an overstatement-but nowhere near as much of one as it would have been five years ago before Italian and German designers started using it. Some of their creations caught the eye of Tiffany’s executive vice president Jon King, who suggested using the gem in a jewelry collection by architect and Tiffany designer Frank Gehry, who had already designed a Fossil watch and a brand-name vodka bottle.
King’s suggestion showed a keen awareness of Gehry’s architectural projects such as the Dancing House in Prague, the Stata Center at MIT, and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis-as well as a good understanding of his unique, often whimsical aesthetics. Looking at his artfully misshapen row of office buildings in Düsseldorf with their white exteriors, one sees how King would have wanted to bring cacholong opal with its ivory color to Gehry’s attention. Both Gehry’s buildings and his Tiffany’s ring design share Lewis Carroll-like elements.
No wonder Gehry is both praised and pummeled for his work. Stuffed shirts think that bringing humor to architecture is heretically offensive and that his works are self-serving eyesores. But Gehry is no Milton Berle. He’s more of a Buster Keaton and the impact of his wittiest wonders is never that of slapstick. Such works elegantly, sometimes drolly combine couture and surrealism. “Looking at a Gehry office building is like looking at a skyline in a funhouse mirror,” says an admiring architect friend. “His lines are very daring and optical. He and his muse must laugh a lot together.”
I say all this because Gehry’s use of cacholong (it can also be spelled cachalong) opal is, as many of his buildings attest, as much-maybe even more-about form than function. Gehry uses this material much as he does titanium. He has taken all of its attributes and made them into virtues. Just as he celebrates the reflectivity of titanium in many of his concert halls, King says, “Gehry celebrates the soft, sleek shine of cacholong in his curvilinear ‘Torque’ ring for Tiffany.” As such, the ring is wearable sculpture-and may inspire some of our lapidary readers to invent accessories and ornaments of their own using this mineral as if it were a metal or material.
Now I know what some of you will say. With hardness between 5.5 and 6 on the Mohs scale, doesn’t making rings out of cacholong opal invite quick wear and tear? King says that none of the cacholong rings the company has sold have been returned and no complaints about their durability have been received. But if that’s not reassuring enough, keep in mind that Gehry also designed cacholong bangles for Tiffany. My point is this: Isn’t it time to cash in on cacholong? If you agree, read on.
RARE AND INEXPENSIVE
Cacholong opal is not readily available. Most dealers dismiss it as, in the words of a fellow writer, “fringe opal.” So calls to your regular opal suppliers for cacholong cabochons and carvings will most likely be unfruitful. Part of the problem may be that cacholong opal is not found-or, should I say, not actively mined-in Australia, Brazil, Mexico, and other important sources of commercial opal. Tiffany relies on Russia for its material, some of which may also come from Bulgaria, another oft-mentioned source.
Like hydrophane opal, cacholong is very porous and very thirsty. That is why it is famous for sticking to tongues. It loves water. No wonder cacholong is often confused with hydrophane. But while both are classified as “common opal,” they are different varieties. Eckert explains the difference in his superb book, The World of Opals, published by Wiley in 1997: “Where hydrophane clearly exhibits POC [play of color] when wet, cacholong does not.” In other words, if you immerse a cacholong opal in water, it will glisten but it will stay opaque and not show flashes of spectral color.
Until recently, cacholong did not have any extensive history of jewelry use except for one gray variety with a lustrous mother-of-pearl appearance that endeared it to German cameo carvers under the name of “perlmutter opal.” Otherwise, cacholong is an uncommon variety of common opal whose jewelry history largely begins in this still very-young century. Whether Tiffany’s use of it in one of Frank Gehry’s six or so design collections for the firm will advance the cause remains to be seen. Whatever happens next, however, Gehry’s use of cacholong opal marks an early, very promising pinnacle in its short career as a gemstone.