Opal, along with tourmaline is the birthstone for the month of October, as well as 14th and 18th year anniversary gift in some cultures.
The word opal comes from 16th century French opale, which came from the Latin word opalus, which came from the Greek word ὀπάλλιος (opállios,) which originally was taken from Sanskrit उपल (upala,) simply meaning “precious gem.” For the etymology of such a simple word, it is clear to see that it is a highly traded, desirable stone which has been sought by jewelers, collectors and gemologists throughout the ages. It is a mineral that evokes a sense of the mystical, magical lore in the natural world, and it is easy to see why. Imagine mining thousands of years ago, looking for stones to bring to court, or for trade, and breaking apart a chunk of stone to find a piece of opal, with it’s milky, starry, rainbow effect. It would seem as if it was placed there by the gods for you specifically to catch, admire and cherish. Its something that the human hand cannot duplicate.
Opal is a hydrated amorphous form of silica meaning that it is a mineral composite formed with water under pressure, and can contain 3 to 21% of water in it, with most opal used in jewelry having about 5-6% water content. Unlike crystal minerals, opal is what is called a mineraloid, or a mineral-like composition, but without the formation of crystals in its basic structure. It occurs at lower temperatures than crystalized gems and is most commonly found in deposits of limonite, sandstone, rhyolite, marl and basalt, which is why it is found in so many parts of the world, and the reason that there are so many classification of opal, depending on its origin. Depending on these specific locations, it can vary in color from white, black, gray, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, magenta, pinks and browns, all diffracting light and having a rainbow effect throughout, depending on the molecular arrangement and density of the planes that form this composition.
There are many designations to describe opals occurring in different situations, with these differing colour, texture and compositional arrangements. They are described as the following varieties.
-Precious Opals are opals that exhibit transparent and highly luminescent features, and with a lot of fire or flash throughout the color spectrum when turned in light. These opals are some of the most valued by jewelers. They are always in a high polished, cabochon-cut to accentuate their natural opalescence. They are found all over the world, with the largest deposits being in Australia.
-Fire Opal typically occurs in shades of red, orange or yellows with a milky, translucent appearance. If it is a fine, precious fire opal it will exhibit green color flashing, and is more valuable, however most fire opals are cut with faceting, due to the fact that most of them do not exhibit as much color as gemologists and designers would like. They are mostly found in Querétaro Mexico, and were formed in water-filled voids of volcanic rock of that landscape.
-Milk Opal is a common opal, with a composition found in almost all areas of opal mining. It is, as the name suggests, a milky white with slight color flashing and is usually cut into thin slices to be used as inlay in differing types of jewelry, or as a base layer to laminated, doublet opals.
-Wood Opal and Fossil Opal are types of opal found in that of petrified woods, as well as fossils. The composition of the opal, in the rock it is developing it, encapsulates the wood or fossil and gives the material an opalescent shine of the rainbow flashes seen in precious and common opal forms. It is rare to find these opals, and although they are not used as often in jewelry design, they are of great interest to naturalists for their unique preservative qualities to the species they encapsulate.
-Black Opal is basically the same in it’s appearance to that of precious opal, exhibiting all of the characteristics of color and translucency. The difference in the dark tones that are found in the structure of it. Black opal can be just as valuable as a fine precious opal in the jewelry market, and even more so if highly flashy and with a lot of fire.
So many designers of importance have used opal in their work. Some of my favorite are by René Lalique, and not just because I am obsessed with he style of the Art Nouveau and the history of the movement’s influence on the modern aesthetic. Lalique’s work in glass made, enamel and glazing made him one of the most influential and important craftsman of the times. His use of precious stones and fine materials in jewelry frame this craft with undulating line and smokey streams that later became the indicative symbols of the Art Nouveau. The use of opal was particularly successful in his work, and by combining it with enamel and glazes, he could create the wonder that makes us all step back in awe at the fact that one was made by nature, yet the other is made by man, and what a feat it is.
Another famed opal in history was The Burning of Troy opal, which was described as a 700 carat black opal, with intense red flashing throughout. It was given to the Empress Josephine de Beauharnais by her husband, Napoleon Bonaparte. It was thought that the amazing stone was mined from the Czerwenitz Mines of Hungary, but after much debate with historians and gemologists, it is now believed that the black and red opal must have been mined by early voyagers to the new world in modern-day Honduras. How it made its way to Napoleon is unknown, regardless of where it was mined from. The reason act we cannot verify the origin of the opal is because upon the Empress’ death in 1814, it disappeared for 100 years, hidden with a cache of her jewelry that she left to her children. These jewels were uncovered by the eventual heir, Empress Eugenie, who married into the French family. She was a Spaniard, the Countess of Montijo, and was said to be a very superstitious personality. Upon marrying Napoleon III in 1853, she warned that the opal pendant was bad luck to wear, and placed it under lock and key. She was the last empress of France, and died in 1920. The necklace made its way to Vienna, Austria sometime around WWI and was traded on the market there several times, to unknown purchasers, and has never been seen again. The story of The Burning of Troy opal is thick with mystery and lore, and although we have no evidence of it’s design or place in natura, it has had a great influence on the popularity and lore of the stone.
In recent years, many beautiful specimen opals have been found, particularly in the Oregon mines of the North Western United States, as well as in the heavily mined areas of Australia. Opals are now being sought after for their natural flaws and inclusions unlike previously in history. With imagery from interstellar photography, it is no wonder that it is regarded this way. As pictured below you can see the clear similarities between the two, and it is a great representation of the times that we live in. Likewise, The Virgin Rainbow opal, mined in Coober Pedy in 2003 by miner John Dustan is an amazing example of what modern science has lead us to know about it’s origin. It was formed over a few millions years in the interior cavity of a prehistoric cuddle-fish fossil. This is why, prior to taking it’s popular name, it is refers to as The Belemnite Pipe, and is one of the most colorful and valuable opals in the world, selling in 2015 for over 1 million dollars.
I often hear from customers that they have heard it is bad luck to wear opals if it was not gifted to them, or if it is not their birthstone, however this is not found in cultural folklore prior to the 1800s. This notion of opals being bad luck comes from different works of the nineteenth, such as the opera Robert le diable where the character’s opal falls apart and is blamed for her bad fortune with the relationship of the opal gifted to her. It is also comes up in a work of fiction published in the 1829, entitled Anne Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott. An enchanted princess, named Hermione wears opals in her hair. In the story the opals are sprinkled with holy water, she faints and is carried to her sleeping chamber where she falls asleep. The following morning she is found as a heap of ashes and of course, the opal was perceived as unlucky by the readers of works like these. There are many types of opal in the world. All being of differing combinations and mixes of the fore-mentioned, with differing color and opalescent qualities. Opal is only a 5 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale, and considered a brittle material to wear on a daily basis, it makes for a great stone to be worn on special occasions and must be taken care of properly. This is the reason that opals are mentioned these stories; they are fragile, and misunderstood.
Many opals used in jewelry after the 1950’s will be laminated with either a common opal base and precious opal top, which is referred to as a doublet. The doublet could possibly be topped with a quartz top as well, making it a triplet. These types of laminated opals, should not be soaked in water or any detergents for cleaning as it will deteriorate the adhesive used in the lamination. Solid opals, in a natural, untreated state, can be cleaned with a mild detergent (such as dish soap,) and water and dried with a soft cloth. If opals need to be stored for prolonged periods of time, they should be wrapped in a cotton gauze with just a few drops of water on it. This will help to maintain the integrity of the stone which can dry out, causing crazing and cracking if dried out too much. Do not expose opals to extreme differences in temperature as well, as this will speed up the drying of the hydrophilic mineral.
Opals have always been used as lucky talismans for the health of the wearer's heart, circulation, nerves and hypertension. Mystics have used opals to aid in clarifying the perceptions and encouraging foresight and ability to see into the spirit world. In medieval Europe opals were worn to promote happiness and hope. In some stories the opal is worn to help sorcerers to become invisible, and this is one of the reasons that some people have heard that opals are the talisman of thieves. In ayurvedic medicine it is used as a cure-all because it contains fire, water and heat and therefore a great healer to the human body soul and mind.
Regardless of the folklore and the mystery of the opal, it is an amazingly beautiful stone that should be revered as a wonder of nature. It is the rainbow of the earth and makes for some truly stunning and incredible works of art.