Opal & The American Masters

on . Posted in Jewellery - The Opal Story

Australia was very shy of her unique Black Opal until America hallmarked it. Tully C. Wollaston -  Opal: The Gem of the Never Never, 1924.marcus objet


One or two enterprising jewelers on Fifth Avenue, New York, did much in the early days to stimulate the public taste, displaying Black Opals on a grand scale in lovely settings with complimentary coloured stones and the best enamels. Now these gems are heralded in almost every country.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was an accomplished artist, interior decorator and designer of decorative art objects. When he turned his hand to jewelry design his selection of stones was not part of the repertoire Tiffany & Co., his father Charles' company, considered suitable for their clientele. Black Opals and Boulder Opals intrigued Louis and he made prolific use of these mysterious and mesmerising gemstones to the benefit of the newly emerging middle class.

In all of Tiffany's Opal jewelry, the stone takes precedence over the mounting. The Black Opals displayed opposite are encircled by enameled vines and the Yowah Nut Opal is totally surrounded by leaves. The mountings are almost caressing the Opals to ensure they do not fall out. These settings are at once protective yet not such that the stones cannot be identified as natural and their reverse sides are just as intricately worked.

In 1899 Tully Wollaston sold his first parcel of cut Boulder Opal bound for the American trade. With the discovery of Lightning Ridge in 1902 Wollaston began travelling directly to the US in 1906. He and the New York converts helped spread the gospel of Black Opal and by 1910 it found steady and increasing sale.

Coloured stones came into vogue all over America and 'street wear' or 'day' jewelry became popular. Ladies began choosing the colours of the stones to match the colours of their dress.



Active Image

Above: Black Opal beads,platinum and diamond on blue thread, Tiffany & Co. New York, c.1904 length: 71.5cm (16.3-6.3mm)Carved from one piece of Black Opal rough the quality of these beads remains unique to this day.




Active Image

Active Image

Active Image

Active Image

Pictured: Louis Comfort Tiffany

Above: Yowah Nut Opal enveloped in gold leaves; followed by several Black Opals in enameled vine-leaf settings.

J.E. Caldwell's jewelry business dates back to 1839 and was known as 'the' jeweler for the Philadelphia Mainline establishment.

Active Image

Left: This carved Black Opal pansy with a diamond center and stem (c.1920) is one of a series of floral pins, reflecting the socio-economic status of Caldwell's clientele, who consisted primarily of married and conservative people.

Active Image

'Fantasy Ship' brooch created for a family who loved to leisure in the activity of sailing; featuring an engraved boulder opal, pearls and diamonds, 1900.

Marcus & Co. of New York was established in 1892 by German immigrant Herman Marcus. Herman first worked for Tiffany and then Theodore B. Starr, establishing Starr & Marcus. In the 1920's William Marcus opened Marcus & Co. branches in London, Paris and Palm Beach. Raymond C. Yard worked as door boy for Marcus & Co. before achieving recognition on his own.

In 1908 Marcus & Co. advertised "Black Opals are Luck Stones" in the New York Times and that they had acquired "the entire last year's output" of Black Opals from Lightning Ridge. The cache of stones was no doubt supplied by Tully Wollaston and Marcus one of, if not, the enterprising jeweller Wollaston most admirably refers to.
Marcus & Co. was one of the most highly regarded American jewelry Houses of its day, receiving praise from the French jeweler & historian Henri Vever for beautiful design and masterful execution. Australian Opals including Black Opals, Light Opals and Boulder Opals all appeared in Marcus jewelry frequently. They were expertly cut, engraved and assembled by the company's own lapidaries.
Active Image
Art Nouveau style brooch featuring white opals, diamonds and platinum on gold 1905.
"A distractingly beautiful gem and one of the  most difficult to use in design - most jewelers set Opals in plain mounts with little embellishment - the movement of the blues, greens, oranges and pinks in the stone itself provides a lot of excitement. Marcus added a level of complexity to this already complex stone" - Proddow & Fasel
Active Image
Brooch by Marcus & Co. from the early 1900's features a Queensland Boulder Opal carved cameo of Aurora, goddess of the dawn, flying through a sky lit up with diamonds. Demantoid garnet fish and seaweed decorate the ocean bottom.
Active Image The superb bar brooch and pendant necklace c.1925-1930 (pictured left), combine Black Opals, sapphires and diamonds, set in platinum and gold. The hexagonal cut Opals and rectilinear style of these jewels are the embodiment of the Art Deco period, during which Opals were no longer the gem of choice. However Marcus & Co. courageously and devoutly insisted on these fine gems. The results are increasingly recognised as amongst the most collectible jewels of the twentieth century. In a 1930 advertisement in Vogue Marcus & Co. again adulated Black Opals as "an unearthly blend of all the rarest jewels."

"By the 1930's the famous European names, including Cartier, Mauboussin & Van Cleef Arpels, had set up shop and were developing their creations in America."

Born a Sicilian Duke, Fulco di Verdura (1899-1978), began his career in 1920's Paris collaborating with Coco Chanel as a textile designer and later as a jewelry designer for her boutique costume jewelry collections. Verdura went to America in 1934 where he soon became head designer for Paul Flato, Hollywood's society jeweller of the 1930's. In 1939 Verdura established himself in New York and through the 50s and 60's was the master jeweler of choice for the glitteratti; "Verdura ended up being the jeweler to the stars because at the time, the movie studios were paying to have jewelry made specifically for the films and would give the jewels to the actresses as part of their payment." Says Ward Landrigan who now operates the Verdura brand and has been reproducing collections from more than 4000 sketches since 1984.

Verdura's is not ''hang a cheque around your neck'' jewelry, his is witty and ultrasophisticated, shells set with precious stones, natural motifs and the most colourful of gemstones. His deployment of Opals was arguably de rigueur, the results however were enchanting and the stones most enlightened by his unorthodox style.

Active ImageActive ImageActive Image
Left to Right: The Duke of Verdura & Coco Chanel; Black Opal & ruby cocktail ring; Crystal Opal headed mouse with rubies emeralds & diamonds.

''No one can hold a candle to Verdura, there is so much erudition, taste and fantasy involved in each of the pieces.  The jewelry is not for insecure people and does not appeal to the herd instinct. Women who wear Verdura don't want to look like every other person wearing their Van Cleef diamond flower pin, their Chanel suit and their Prada bag. It is the ultimate status symbol, recognized only by its initiates, who might wink at each other across a crowded room.'' Says Amy Fine Collins, fashion writer for Vanity Fair.

Collins considers Verdura the 20th century's best jewelry designer and the New York Times proclaimed Verdura 'America's Crown Jeweler'.

Active Image

(Above) Opals are lavishly applied all around the pieces including their clasps.  A diamond-set floral and foliate motif frames the center stone and all the Opals are joined by chains of round and marquise cut diamonds. Although elaborately designed, Schepps does not attempt to contrast the multicolored Opals but merely to complement them with accent stones, whether those be diamonds or emeralds and sapphires (Right).

Commissions from many White House families led The Washington Post to dub him ‘America ’s Court Jeweller’.

Seaman Schepps (1881-1972) a classic American success story. Born of Hungarian immigrants who lived on New York’s lower East Side. Seaman went to California to seek his fortune. By the age of 25, he had opened his first jewelry shop. He later returned to NY and opened several stores, finally making it to Madison Ave in 1933. The 1930’s Great Depression was a time of austerity and many modern women felt it inappropriate to flaunt their wealth, the simpler fashions of the 30’s and 40’s also reflected this. Schepps designed bold colourful jewels which became essential to change the look of plain suits and dresses, now made to be worn for several seasons without dating.

Active Image

His clients included Katherine Hepburn, the Duchess of Windsor, Doris Duke and Wanda Toscanini Horowitz. Andy Warhol was an avid collector of Schepps jewellery. 

Raymond C. Yard is a classic rags-to-riches story, he began his career in jewelry as a door boy for Marcus and Company, where he went on to work both behind the scenes in production and then as a salesman before leaving twenty years later. In 1922 at the age 37, with the encouragement of John D. Rockefeller he opened his own salon in Manhattan. An impeccable eye for quality and detail became Raymond Yard's trademark. By the late 1950’s fanciful flora and fauna came to characterize his style, to which Opal was well suited and well adapted to numerous floral bouquets and renditions of bird-life.

Active Image

Active Image
Active Image
Rarely advertising, Yard's fame and reputation spread by word of mouth, earning him the patronage of America Woolworth, Havemeyers and Firestone. Yard also attracted celebrities such as Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks.Yard Inc. acquired some of the finest Black Opals and prided themselves on sourcing such rare gemstones much to the delight of their well heeled clients. Amongst others the Du Pont family famously bought numerous Black Opals including the Sydney Queen and they commissioned various Opal jewels in the late 1960's early 70's. A humble man, his jewels are simply marked YARD. Raymond Yard is not only regarded as an American Master jeweler, he is viewed as one of the prominent figures in Art Deco jewellery. Though Yard retired in 1958 the tradition of melding the finest gemstones with superior craftsmanship continues today.

In 1969 Yard Inc. designed a clip pin for the Sydney Queen which they supplied and mounted in paltinum with diamonds.

Active Image

Above:Commissioned by S.Hallock du Pont this Black Opal ring in platinum with diamonds was made in 1970.

Active Image

Although synonymous with diamonds, 'Jeweller to the Stars', Harry Winston has the distinction of being the benefactor of this majestic 'Peacock' brooch sporting a 30.92 carat Black Opal.

Designed by Carnevale and Koumrouyan and completed in 1967, this marvellous jewel is set in gold and platinum and accentuated with rubies, sapphires and emeralds.

The peacock is a recurring theme in Opal jewelry, particularly from the Art Nouveau period. This example, though reflective of its era, is timeless.

Active Image
Active Image Henry Dunay is one of the most prestigious and awarded jewelry designers working in America today. Elegantly sculpted yellow gold with pave-set diamonds is an outstanding showcase for exquisite gemstones and what makes this master’s craftsmanship instantly recognizable. Dunay selects the most magnificent Black Opals and harmoniously affords them pride of place, incorporating his signature yellow gold pave settings and hand-textured finishes. Henry Dunay was named ‘The World's Best Jewelry Designer’ by the Robb Report in 2000 and 2001.
Active Image

Above: This 36 carat Black Opal sublimely 'flame' patterned with masterful brushstrokes contrasts beautifully with the hand-rendered 'Sabi' textured yellow gold mounting. Distinctly Dunay!

Opposite: Black Opal pairs like these are exceptionally rare and exemplary of the style and good taste of a Master Jeweller with 60 years of experience in the jewelry industry.

Sources & Image Credits:

BEJEWELED: GREAT DESIGNERS, CELEBRITY STYLE, Penny Proddow & Marion Fasel, 2001. (Quote on Marcus & Co. & Photo of Aurora jewel)

HENRY DUNAY - A PRECIOUS LIFE, Penny Proddow & Marion Fasel, 2007.



New York Times, America's Crown Jeweler, by Jean Nathan, November 22, 1998.

OPAL, THE GEM OF THE NEVER NEVER, Tullie C. Wollaston, 1924.

SEAMAN SCHEPPS - A CENTURY IN JEWELRY DESIGN, Amanda Vaill & Janet Zapata, 2004.


THE GREAT BOOK OF JEWELS, Ernst A. & Jean Heiniger, 1974. (Harry Winston piece)

THE MAGAZINE ANTIQUES, September 2007, Article: 'Part II, The Marcus & Co.years, 1892-1941' by Janet Zapata.



Sue-White opals29 June 2013
Dear Rainbow Serpent,
Thank you for your email and membership.
It is great to know that you are out there promoting Australia's National gemstone & NSW emblem.
Keep up the good work, I love your concept.
Sue White - Orana Glitz & Glamour Extravaganza Inc Assn.

15 march 2013
Hi Peter,
Colourful characters are key,
your Facebook page and the photos look like there are some fantastic people!
We loved the look of Tarzan of Opalton.
Gemma Brady - Boundless productions.tv

Alexander fink.PhysicsPHD opal28 Nov 2012
I would like to welcome your information page on opal,
with detailed information about nearly everything their is to know in a general term.
Alexander Fink PhD - Dept. of Physics La Trobe University

5 August 2010
Hi from another opal lover.
Just wanted to say I love your site, a wealth of information.
I always send people to your page for opal info.
Kind Regards
Sean Tapner - Planet Opal

8 july 2010
Dear Rainbow Serpent,
Will be recommending your website as a primary reference to 15 Macquarie Uni media students who will be doing a PR project for us as part of their assessment soon.
Best wishes
Renata - Opalminded

Opalminded recommend opalsinformation6 June 2010
Dear Rainbow Serpent, 
Greetings from Opal Minded In Sydney.
We are all very impressed with your website – one of the best things that has happened to this Industry for a long time. 
We would love to share it with the visitors to our website. 
Would you mind If we post with us links to your website, 
also on our facebook and twitter. 
Best wishes
Renata, John, Nelly, Fabrice and Summer

Fri, Apr 16, 2010 
Good Morning,
I have just found your wonderful website.
I produce a monthly e-newsletter which is circulated to the Tourism businesses in Coober Pedy and neighbouring stations plus the Info Centres around SA & the NT.
I wondered if I could use some of your Opal info in my October Edition (Opal Month), mainly the parts in your “About Opal” section – names, spiritual info etc.
I would obviously reference it to your website noting the address so others could read your site. 
Sandra Harris
Tourism Officer - Coober Pedy Information Centre

5 April 2010
I am wanting to use your site in an assignment as it is a superb example
of a site to use for a primary teaching unit on gemstones.
Many thanks,