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Bejeweled: Adding onyx to your decor

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Designer Dana Tydings used onyx on this fire surround.

More exquisite than exotic marble and far more distinctive than granite, Onyx is a precious gem among the natural stones.

"Onyx comes in the most outrageous color waves," said Interior Designer Dana Tydings of D.C.-based Dana Tydings Design Inc. "I love onyx. I want my coffin made out of onyx."

Translucent with veining that appears otherworldly, onyx dazzles in interior design. Although clearly enamored with the jewel-like stone, Tydings rarely suggests onyx to clients. Instead she introduces them to the stone when they are considering granite, marble or another surface. "I don't have people requesting it by name," said Tydings. "The average person doesn't know what onyx is, as a material. I have them wanting it after I show it."

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Onyx replaced granite as the ultimate stone upgrade. Jim Lynch, certified kitchen and bath designer with McLean-based Foxcraft Design Group, remembers when New Jersey clients who wanted granite countertops used to book overnight stays at hotels so that they could view various styles of granite. Today, considered standard, even in midpriced apartment rentals, granite no longer impresses. But Onyx ?-- Ooh la la.

"On a rare occasion a person will come in and request it. At that point you almost don't want to talk them out of it because they're pretty decided on it," said Lynch.

Why talk them out of it? Onyx costs $90 to $150 a square foot, as opposed to $35 for standard granite. It's thin and brittle, easy to chip; impractical as a kitchen countertop. More fragile than granite, onyx is a nightmare to install in large pieces. The exotic veining makes it difficult to match, undesirable for those who want a balanced, bookend look on say a fireplace surround.

"Another challenge with Onyx is all of that beautiful veining makes the stone less stable," said Lynch. "So a lot of times I would actually wind up putting it on some sort of clear backer material in order to hold it together."

Its translucency makes it glow when backlit. Andrea Quiroga, a project manager with Alexandria-based Firuze, tile kitchen and bath design, said more commercial clients request onyx because it's the ultimate "show off" stone. "I see it a lot in commercial sites as water fountains, behind bars or accent walls," said Quiroga. "It's very fragile, you can see through it. This makes it so beautiful when it's backlit. "

"This is not the sort of thing that a family of five should have on their kitchen countertop," said Lynch. In homes, onyx works best as an accent, as a powder room countertop, listello in a shower or as a fireplace surround.

You won't find onyx at your local home improvement store. Instead you need to go through your designer or try high-end suppliers like Signature Hardware, which offers onyx sinks and faucets in the Whittington Collection. Sherle Wagner even has onyx tubs.

"If you don't have a diamond budget, a little onyx still gives you that uber luxurious accent," said Tydings. "I bought my mother a faucet with green onyx handles. It cost the national debt, but it's in her powder room and beyond gorgeous."

Tydings recently used onyx on three fireplaces in a 20,000-square-foot Warrenton home. She said the onyx was worth the investment. "By the time you pick an ordinary stone or granite you're looking at a several thousand dollars proposition. So why not spend a couple more thousand dollars more," she said. "You're installation and fabrication is going to be a same price."

That's how Tydings convinces clients to take the leap from ordinary stone to extraordinary onyx. "Besides," she said, "once you show them a piece of onyx, there's no going back."