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Working with opals

It’s like Christmas every day for Kurowski

July 3, 2011
By Serra Muscatello - Staff Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM - Clifford Kurowski of New Ulm has a true passion for opals.

"Working with opals ... it's like Christmas every day," said Kurowski, "The colors are breath-taking."

Kurowski starts with a stone that looks like driveway gravel. He cuts and then polishes it.

Article Photos

Clifford Kurowski, of New Ulm, holds several of his opals in display cases.

Once it's is polished, he grades it and sets the price of the finished opal.

"To grade a stone, you have to be outside in the direct sunlight at arms length away ... and then you look at the brightness of the colors of the stone," said Kurowski.

You also have to look at the number and rarity of the colors and the "blends" of colors.

It takes about one gram which equals five carats to make one carat of finished opal.

His favorite opal to work with is the Lightning Ridge opal. This opal is named after a place called Lightning Ridge in Australia.

"They are breath-taking," said Kurowski, "It's an extremely difficult stone to work."

His second favorite opal is the Columbian opal. He has recently started working with the Columbian opals.

Years back in the 1970s Kurowski met a man named Clancy from Elk River who worked for the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). The GIA is the world's foremost authority in gemology, diamond grading, jewelry education, and gemology research.

Clancy did gold and silver work or "smithing." This man also taught Kurowski how to work with various types of stones.

"Opal to me was the prettiest stone," said Kurowski, "I got to see all different (stones) diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds, but all these stones were the same. But with opals, there were never any two that were the same."

Kurowski said he studied with Clancy for about four years. He learned that the work he was most interested in doing was preparing the stones for jewelry work.

"Then I went off on my own," said Kurowski, "On and off I'd do it as a hobby. I'd work with silver and gold and then I would cut and grind the stones ... I'd put them in free-form settings. I came up with different signature applications."

The first kind of opal that Kurowski began working with was the Coober Pedy opal. This opal is named after a place in Australia.

Kurowski said he got connected with a couple of miners in the Mulga/Lightning Ridge areas of Australia. He made arrangements to get stones from them. These miners have to go down about 80 feet into the earth to get these stones.

"They make a three or four foot hole ... they have to get through that hard surface material by blasting," said Kurowski.

Some opals need T.L.C. (tender loving care), he said.

There are some opals that contain water. They can dry out which causes hairline cracks in the opals. The opals will be placed in oil to prevent the hairline cracks.

With the Lightning Ridge opals you can have many color categories such as black, dark, light, crystal and jelly.

"Lightning Ridge opal reacts beautifully under any light," said Kurowski.

He explained that you have to grind down the stone to find the layer of the color bar. He works with a diamond cutter using a smaller grit so he does not grind away the color so fast.

"You have to be careful because there different thicknesses of the color bar and if you grind too much one way you'll take out the color," said Kurowski, "You slowly work down until you reach the best color on the stone," said Kurowski, Once you have the best color, you go back to shape the stone the way you want."

After shaping it he uses the finer grit of the sanding belt on the diamond cutter to take off the rough edges. He polishes the stone and also uses cerium oxide to bring it to the ultimate high shine of the stone.

He asks various jewelers around Minnesota to see if they are interested in buying any opals.

"Basically, I try to find people who do free-form gold work," said Kurowski, "The free-forms are a little bit better to work with when you are working with gold and silver because really there is no conventional, pre-made jewelry to house opal. There really isn't."

He can sell his opals from $50 per carat up to his highest priced carat can sell for $1,754.

With the downturn in the economy, Kurowski found it more challenging to sell his opals and working full-time at it.

"I had an online site," said Kurowski, "People wanted to buy it from a jewelry store instead of the cutter."

His diamond cutter is now at Stone's Thow in St. Peter. He has been working with Patty, who is the owner and a goldsmith at Stone's Throw.

"I'm teaching her how to cut and grind various stones," said Kurowski, "And then I'll teach her opal."

He is planning on purchasing some Brazilian opals to begin working with them.

Kurowski told of a cute story of how he met his English wife, Caroline (people call her "Sue") after her middle name Susan. They met online playing while playing the game Canasta.

They spoke to each other and e-mailed each other for about one year before they finally met, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. They got married in Las Vegas and have celebrated 10 years of being together.

At this time, Kurowski is establishing an electronics business where he buys and sells electronics, in addition to continuing to work with opals, a true passion of his.



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