Opal –together with pink tourmaline- is the birthstone of October and the national gemstone of Australia. It is such a remarkable gemstone that you can write many pages about all the facets of the opal. One basic fact that occurs in all the stories is that the opal is a gemstone of contradictions. Scientists don’t agree on the origin of the name ‘opal’. Some people think it is the gemstone of good luck and others consider it a gemstone of evil. You find opals in the colors black and white. And although it is called a ‘stone’ up to 21% of its weight can contain water. Let’s dive deeper into the heart of this gemstone opal.
The origin of the name ‘opal’
Some historians (Greek) wrote in their books that people of Ethiopia used opal as tools about 4000 years ago, but they did not know how the material was called in those days. And since opal is a very soft gemstone we might consider these remarks as not correct. One thinks that the word opal comes from the Latin word ‘opalus’, the other one declares that the origin of the name ‘opal’ comes from the Sanskrit language and that word was ‘upala’. The Greek historian Pliny the Elder suggested it comes from Ops, the wife of Saturn or ‘opal’ comes from ‘opallios’, what should mean ‘to see a change in color’. And the Romans came around 250 BC with the word ‘paederos’ for the material opal, just after they conquered the Greek states.
And what is the truth? What we know for sure is that in 250 BC the opal in Rome was valued above all the other gemstones. The opals were delivered in Rome by traders from Turkey and they got them from India. And since those days this gemstone was called Opal. So the Indian claim seems the most valid.
Opal, the gemstone of water and light.
Opal is a form of silica and when the silica was liquefied by vulcanism and high pressure it was washed down in the fissures of the surrounding rock. When the temperature cooled down the silica hardened and that stuff is what we call ‘opal’ now. So opal is not a crystal, but an amorphous solid material, that can contain between 3 and 21% water (weight). Some opal is formed in volcanic rock, like in Mexico or in sedimentary rock, like in Australia.
Opal does not last for ages. Since opal contains for a part of water, that water dries out during the time. And that opal will get brittle, gets softer and little cracks occur. That structure diffracts light and that is the reason that opal has such a lot of different colors in the gemstone, like white, black, olive, pink, rose, magenta, yellow, orange. The optical density varies from opaque to semitransparent.
Is opal the gemstone that brings luck or evil?
In the beginning, the opal was the gemstone of great luck. In ancient times the opal stood for fidelity and people believed that the opal could cure eye diseases. And the opal could help getting fevers down and treat infections. When you had a bad health the opal could help get you better.
In the Middle Ages, one thought that because the opal possesses all the colors of the spectrum the opal owed all the virtues of the other gemstones. One even thought the opal had the power of invisibility when you kept an opal in a fresh bay leaf in your hand. Therefore it was called the patron of the thieves. In those days the blond ladies wanted an opal necklace as it was told that an opal could prevail the hair from getting darker or even grey.
The jewelers did not like the opal very much, They did not know how to handle the gemstone or how to cut it properly. And when the opal dried out the gemstone could break during the cutting or polishing process. And that meant bad luck for the jeweler.
Then in 1829, Sir Walter Scott published his new book ‘Anne of Geierstein’, which became very popular. In that book, the Baroness of Arnheim owes a talisman made of an opal with supernatural powers. But one day a drop of holy water felt on the talisman, the opal lost its colors and the Baroness died soon after. From that time on the opal got a bad reputation and was associated with bad luck and death. Nobody wanted to wear an opal anymore and the sales of the opal dropped about 50% in Europe. And not only in Europe, the sale of opal dropped dramatically. When somebody in Russia saw an opal in a shop full of other products, he would not buy anything from that shop anymore, since he or she thought the opal embodied the eye of evil.
Also, the European royalty was not so keen on wearing opals. The wife of Napoleon III, Eugenie, refused to wear opals. But Queen Victoria from the UK found this superstition ridiculous and she even gave her daughters an opal necklace when they got married (and nothing happened with the daughters).
Things turned out better for the opal
About 50 years after the book of Walter Scott destroyed the reputation of the opal, in Australia in 1877 a black opal was found. Those black opal became so popular that the overall sale of the opal risen again. Australia became the principal source of the black and the white opals. In the South of Australia near Coober Pedy town in 1956 the largest and most valuable opal of the whole world was found. It was called the ‘Eight Mile’, which was about 3.4 kilo (17.000 carats), 28 cm long, 12 cm high and 11 cm wide. When you are in Australia you cannot miss the shops, where you can buy opal. Mostly the white ones, but sometimes also the rare black opals.
Another imported source of the opal is Ethiopia. Some historians reported that they used opal tools in Ethiopia about 6000 years ago. But since the opal is a soft gemstone and when it dries out it is very brittle, I think that this observation must be wrong. Although in 1994 they discovered in the Menz Gishe District in Ethiopia precious opal that was dark brown and had a tendency to crack. Later in 2008 near Wegel Tena town, the miners found opal from an excellent quality, with a light background and great coloring.
Opal, the great and beautiful gemstone.
The opal is a very delicate and soft gemstone (5.5 to 6.5 on Moh’s scale) and most of the time it is milky and translucent. But the best quality opal gemstone is transparent. Actually, opal is a hardened silica gel and contains 5 to 20% of water and are somewhat porous. This means that you should not put an opal in another liquid than water. And opal can crack easily when it is dried out too rapidly after mining.
The opal is such a distinctive gemstone that it is easily recognized because of its iridescent colors, like a little rainbow but then all colors together in one stone. That play of color comes from the little silica plates in the gemstone that breaks the light. The more brilliant the color the higher the price for the opal.
All opals have another color range, some have more red and orange, others are more green or blue. Black opals have all the colors. Speaking of the price… opals with more red are the rarest and the most expensive. The green and blue ones are more found and therefore cheaper.
Most of the opals are cut and polished as a cabochon and there are also beads of opal that consist wholly of precious opal. When the opal is too thin to make a ‘solid’ bead, the designer or jeweler combines the opal with another gemstone or material and they call that kind of using opal a ‘doublet’.
How to take care of your opals the best?
I already told you that opal is a soft gemstone and that means that you can scratch or bump the stone easily. So take good care of them. Besides this never ever put any oil or other chemicals on your opals, only maybe water. Keep your opal in a rather humid surrounding so that they don’t dry out or crack. So put your opal in water for a few hours no wand then. And when you have a piece of jewelry of opal and other gemstones leave your jewelry in the bathroom no wand then: not in the water but in the humid surroundings.
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