“When you stumble upon that special opal, you just know,” says Beijing-based gemmologist and jewellery designer Paloma Sanchez. She knows what she is talking about.
The Spanish-born designer is a regular at the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase in Arizona and that was where she, in February 2019, purchased the magnificent 39.18 carat black opal that would lay the foundation of “Medusa’s Sting”.
Sanchez was struck by the electric blue “body color” of the stone and by its flashes of green and occasional flashes of red depending on how the light falls. “Even in the rough, this opal had a nicely rounded shape and felt comfortable to hold,” explains Sanchez.
She purchased the opal from Damien Cody of “Cody Opal”, one of Australia’s leading opal cutters, wholesalers and exporters. Sanchez and Cody first met through one of Sanchez’ fellow students at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in Los Angeles. “When I was 19 years old, my uncle in Venezuela took me to see a diamond mine deeply nestled in the Amazonian jungle and, blown away by how something so beautiful came out of so much dirt, earth and hard work, I knew straight away that I wanted to become a gemmologist,” says Sanchez.
Her father, however, had other plans for her and promised that he would send her to GIA once she had completed a “normal degree”. “I did not forget about father’s promise and much to his surprise, I enrolled into GIA the day after I got my law degree,” she recalls. After a career in the luxury industry with companies such as Carrera y Carrera, Hublot, and Patek Philippe, she established her own brand “Paloma Sanchez, The Art of Jewelry” in 2009.
Back at the showcase in Arizona, Sanchez presented Cody with a plan for her masterpiece. “I knew from the start that I wanted it to enter the prestigious International Opal Jewelry Design Awards in Lightning Ridge, Australia where the stone was mined,” she explains. It was a race against time as the competition was only five months away and only takes place every second year.
After Sanchez purchased the opal, it traveled back to Australia with Cody to the capable hands of award-winning opal carver Daniela L’Abbate who, with her unique carving technique, is known for producing gems ideal for jewelers’ design while preserving, and consequently, maximizing carat weight.
Made in China
Once carved, the opal was shipped to Beijing where the design and handcrafting took place. Sanchez’ main goal was to design a piece that would represent 100% Chinese craftsmanship. “Sadly, China tends to be known for mass production and low quality,” says Sanchez “but we have so many incredibly talented artists in this country and the goldsmiths I work with are very skillful”. Opals are very delicate gems and if not treated with care during the polishing and carving process, they can easily crack.
As for the design, Sanchez had several ideas but it was Cody who suggested that she create a Jellyfish. Sanchez was skeptical at first but Cody assured her that Australians love Jellyfish. L’Abbate agreed with Cody and thought that the original shape of the opal lent itself very well to the body of a jellyfish.
Four months after sourcing the perfect opal, “Medusa’s Sting” was finalized: A black opal broach/necklace, inlaid with 18 carat gold, green tsavorites, sapphires and diamonds.
At the end of June 2019, the piece began its final voyage back to Australia for the biennial International Opal Jewellery Design Awards. The winners were found through blind judging by a panel consisting of opal dealers and gemmologists and, during the gala dinner and award ceremony on 26 July 2019, Sanchez was called up as the winner of The Prestige Professional Jewellery award. “Entering – and winning – this competition with a piece featuring Australian opal and opal carving, Chinese craftsmanship and European design was a dream come true,” says Sanchez.
Medusa’s Sting is currently displayed in the window of Sanchez’ shop in the heart of Beijing’s bustling Sanlitun area. It would, in theory retail for around 50.000 USD but whether Sanchez will ever want to part with it, remains to be seen.
The journey of Medusa’s Sting:
Opal sourced in the opal mines of Lightning Ridge, Australia
Purchased in Tuscon, USA
Carved in Lightning Ridge, Australia
Designed and crafted in Beijing, China
Transported via Hong Kong, Hong Kong
To Lightning Ridge, Australia for the final competition – then back to
Post-Script with Paloma Sanchez on freedom and inspiration:
“My real freedom started when I got divorced and decided to start from scratch with my son (8 years old at the time) as my life companion. During my nightmarish divorce, I felt that no one really helped me because, as a woman, I was supposed to take it.
That is why I try to help other women to be free and confident.
I have gathered much of my knowledge and inspiration through my travels to remote countries in search of gems. That has opened my eyes to the real world. A world which is the reality for the majority of people on this planet – and very often, for women, a world of both poverty and abuse.
I am blessed to have been able to dedicate a large part of my life to projects involving women in the gemstone industry. [Among other projects, Sanchez runs an opal cutting factory in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The workers there all abandoned opal miners’ wives whose husbands ran away from the mines with a big opal find, trying to find their luck].
My son is now 20 years old and I feel that being a single mom never limited my freedom. I have always involved him in all my projects and he has always been the best travel companion one could ask for.”