Opal - A Rainbow of Colour

by Ian St Leon

Opal is the traditional birthstone for the month of October and the National gemstone of Australia. It is one of the most prized and genuinely wonderous gemstones of the ancient and modern world. Opal is famous for its play of colour and has been admired throughout the ages for its dazzling fiery colours, which can range from delicate hues to deep brilliant rainbow colours.

"Opal displays a bouquet of wonderous colours from violet and lush greens to vivid reds and everything in between for a gemstone that showcases natures beauty" - Neil St Leon (Jewels of St Leon Gemmologist)

The history, folklore and beliefs associated with Opal are many and varied, just like the gemstone itself. Opal has been the recipient of many descriptions at various historical periods, some of which have been rapturous. None more so than during the ancient era, when many people would be in ecstasy whenever they were describing Opal or it was mentioned to them.

In more modern times, writers have compared Opal to volcanic eruptions, fireworks displays and galaxies. These comparisons are apt since no two Opals are identical, as each gem has a different pattern and colour display.

This beautiful gemstone is regarded by many in the same regard as the four precious gemstones of Diamond, Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald. Let's take a journey together and explore a brief history, folklore and superstitions, colour and variations, notable gems and interesting facts.

A History

The name Opal is believed to have been derived from "upala", which comes from the ancient hundi language Sanskrit and means "precious stone". The ancient Romans dating back over two thousand years called it "Opalus", which means "to see a colour change". However, it must be noted that Opal artifacts have been found in Kenya dating back to 4000 B.C.

To protect their interests, Opal was so coveted by ancient Romans that traders would mislead purchasers about the source of Opal during this period. This led to an incorrect belief that the Opal was coming from India when it was most likely coming from a region of Hungary (now Slovakia).

One famous Roman, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), who was married to Cleopatra, is said to have banished the Roman Senator Nonius after his refusal to sell his Opal gemstone ring to the Roman politician and general. It is believed that Mark Antony intended to give the Opal ring to his lover Cleopatra the Queen of Egypt. During the 1st Century A.D., the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote in his book Naturalis Historia (Natural History). 

"Some opals carry such a play within them that they equal the deepest and richest colours of painters. Others…simulate the flaming fire of burning sulphur and even the bright blaze of burning oil." 

In fact, he was so mesmerised by Opal that he also wrote. 

"Having a refulgent fire of the carbuncle (ruby or garnet), the glorious purple of the amethyst, the sea green of emerald, and all those colours glittering together mixed in an incredible way."

For most of the middle ages, Opal remained popular and gained the additional name of "eye stone" as it was thought vital for the wearer to receive good sight. The French Crown Jewels had 22 opals set into the Crown during this era. While Napoléon Bonaparte would present his Empress Josephine with a stunning Opal called "The Burning of Troy". It was said that this Black Back Opal had brilliant flashes of red as if it had a fire at the centre of the gem. "The Burning of Troy" Opal is currently lost to time, as it disappeared after the death of Josephine in 1810.

Unfortunately, in the latter stages of the 18th Century and early 19th Century, Opal fell out of favour in Europe due to one of the many superstitions. (See Folklore and Superstitions Section).

Then in the mid-19th Century, the popularity of Opal began to rise again, as Queen Victoria wore Opals during her reign. This included a ring she was given by Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, which Queen Charlotte had previously owned since around 1810.

 

       Opal and Diamond Celestial Star Necklace from the 302 Fine Jewellery Cosmos Collection available from Jewels of St Leon. Australian Online Jewellery Store, Free Shipping Nationwide.Australian White Opal and Diamond 14K Gold Star Ring from Jewels of St Leon an Australian Online Jewellery Store.

 

It was during this 1849 period that Opal was discovered near Angaston in South Australia. From there, the discovery of more Opal fields in Australia, including fields in Queensland and then New South Wales, yielded some of the most famous Opals in the world. It was not until 1889 that South Australian-born Tullie Wollaston sailed for England and introduced Australian and, specifically Queensland Opal to the world. Since then, Australia has been the world's largest producer of precious Opal.

In 1993, the Governor-General of Australia, the Hon, Bill Hayden AC, made it official that the gem Opal was the Australian National Gemstone.

Today precious Opal gemstones are considered among the most beautiful of all gems. They are known as the "Mother of All Gemstones". It is the traditional October birthstone and the 14th wedding anniversary gemstone.

Folklore and Superstitions 

Australian White & Black Opal showing amazing vivid colour. Jewels of St Leon

Opal is shrouded in mythology and superstitions that tell its origin story and how the ancients, middle ages and renaissance era all viewed Opal at different times throughout the various generations.

Here in Australia, in Aboriginal Dreamtime, they tell the story of a rainbow that came down and touched the earth; this created Opals and gave them their beautiful colours. The Bedouins from Arabic countries share a different story: Opal is filled with lightning and fell from the sky during a thunderstorm.

Early cultures give Opal credit for having magical properties. Opal was believed to aid the wearer with a limitless ability to see possibilities. It was also believed that Opal could clarify and amplify feelings, buried emotions and deepest desires.

The ancient Greeks believed Opals gave their owners the gift of prophecy and guarded them against disease. Throughout European cultures, it has long been considered a gem that symbolises hope, purity, and truth.

During the middle ages, the gem was regarded as having powers to improve the sight of the person wearing the gemstone; thus, it was given the name "eye stone". While other cultures believed it had the power to grant people invisibility, it was given the name Patronus forum (Patron of thieves). During this period, a blonde woman wore Opals, which would usually be a necklace and was said to protect their hair from losing its blonde colouring.

Opal has also had other mythical and magical powers, such as aiding in astral projection; black Opal was believed to retain and release magical powers. Most importantly, it was considered to bring good luck to the possessor of the stone, that is, up until the early 1800s when it was suddenly believed to bring misfortune and back luck.

This sudden change in the gemstone's abilities to bring good luck to bad luck is attributed to a book written by Sir Walter Scott called Anne of Geierstein. In the book, the titular character Hermione who wears a brilliantly coloured Opal in her hair is sprinkled with Holy Water during her daughter's christening. The Opal instantly becomes dull and colourless; within two hours, she has collapsed and turned to ash. 

The notion that Opals were bad luck in some parts of Europe was associated with the evil eye, and this association continued into the 20th Century. Opals in Russia up to at least 1925 were considered a symbol of bad luck.

Several other folklore tales are associated with Opal, but these are more specific to a particular region and not as widely accepted or known as the ones we have outlined.

Colour and Variation

Colour and Variation of Opal Gemstones from Jewels of St Leon

Colour, the most valued property in Opal, is present in various shades and tints. It ranges from white or colourless through different pale shades, including yellow, yellowish-brown, reddish-brown, and brown, to more vibrant colour hues such as orange, red, green and blue to deeper colours such as greyish-black and black.

Because of the significant variation in the colour pattern in Opal, numerous varieties of stones may be recognised under two or three different names. In general, a division is made into precious Opal and common Opal. Precious Opal is those which show the brilliant play of colours for which this gemstone is so famous.

As an example to illustrate and define colour and variation, we have chosen five types of precious Opal so that you can appreciate the depth and diversity displayed in this beautiful gemstone.

1. Black Opal - The chief characteristic of black Opal is the dark body tones of the general stone. This can range from dark grey to jet black. This doesn't relate to the magnificent colour hues of Opal, the dark body of the stone will intensify these vibrant colours.
2. White Opal - This is the opposite of black Opal in that the gemstone's body is light, either slightly milky or pale white. They, too, display a full spectrum of colour with the Opal, but these colours are a little more subtle.
3. Crystal Opal - This is classified as an Opal in which light can pass through and is partially or fully transparent or translucent and includes both black and white Opal. This type of Opal displays the full range of rainbow colours as black and white Opal and can have an in-between colour vibrancy.
4. Fire Opal - This is an intensely bright Opal transparent to translucent with a full red, orange or yellow body range with the dazzling play of colour.
5. Boulder Opal - This Opal is translucent to opaque and has a wonderful play of colour. The difference is that this Opal is contained within a host rock, when cut, forms part of the finished gem and adds to its spectacular vibrancy.

    Additionally, these various types of Opal can display patterns, commonly referred to as Pinfire or pinpoint, harlequin or mosaic, flame and peacock.

    The combination of the type, colour and pattern determines an Opal's value. 

    Notable Opal

    Lovers of this gemstone have endowed exceptional opals with poetic names such as;

     

    The Aurora Australis Opal found in 1938, is the most valuable opal with a harlequin pattern and the The Flame Queen Opal, found in 1918 at Lightning Ridge Australia.

    The "Aurora Australis" Opal 

    This is a black Opal and the most valuable found in 1938. It features a beautiful harlequin pattern with stunning flashes of red, green and blue hues set against a black background. (Pictured above)

    "Fire Queen"

    Found in 1906 by Charlie Dunstan, the man who discovered "Aurora Australis" some 32 years later. This 900 Carat black Opal changed hands many times until it was purchased by American industrialist J.D. Rockefeller in the 1940s and became part of his ever-growing gem collection. This Opal has not been seen publicly since.

    The "Flame Queen"

    Found in Lightning Ridge, Australia, in 1918, this stunning Opal features a flaming red centre dome and is surrounded by a spectacular border flecked with blues and green. (Pictured above)

    The Galaxy Opal discovered in Brazil in 1976 and The Halley's Comet Opal was discovered in 1986 in Lightning Ridge, NSW, Australia.

    The "Galaxy" Opal

    Found in Brazil in 1976, this is one of a handful of notable Opals discovered outside Australia. It is an impressive 3,749-Carat beauty; in 1992, it was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest polished Opal. (Pictured above)

    The "Halley's Comet" Opal

    This beautiful uncut Opal was so named because it was discovered in 1986, the last time Halley's Comet was visible from earth. Found at Lightning Ridge, it weighs 1,982.5 Carats and is certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest uncut black Opal in the world. (Pictured above)

    Interesting Facts

    1. Australia produces 90-95% of the world's precious Opals
    2. Australia's Opal fields are larger than all the Opal fields in the rest of the world combined.
    3. In 1994, the Australian Woman Basketball team adopted the nickname "The Opals".
    4. Black Opal is one of the rarest gemstones in the world.
    5. William Shakespeare is credited with giving the black Opal its moniker "The Mother of All Gemstones".

    Conclusion

    Although Opal does not give the owner or wearer real magical powers, it is still an enchanted gemstone. It has been fascinating and mysterious to all who have had the good fortune to wear it for centuries.

    This gemstone truly is the national gemstone of Australia, with as much as 90-95% of the world's precious Opal being produced in Australia. Opal is full of colour and makes exceptional jewellery.

    We note that some care should be taken, such as never using ultrasonics on this gemstone, as this can cause the stone to crack. Like all gemstones and fine jewellery, they're meant to be cared for and loved so they can be passed from generation to generation or crafted into new pieces.

    Opal is a beautiful gemstone and creates unique jewellery that can sparkle and shine for a lifetime.


    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.