“The delicate colour and tenderness of the opal remind me of a loving and beautiful child.” – Onomakritis, Greek poet 6th C BC.
Last week American jeweller and collector Sarah Nehama wrote a wonderful piece on the variety of opals and how she has used them in her own work. In the article she touched on the most undeserved reputation that the opal acquired in the 19th century of being an unlucky stone. As the opal is one of my favourite gemstones (alongside moonstones and garnets), and is of course the national stone of Australia I had to look at this further, to discover a bit more about the source of this most unjust superstition and some older emotional associations to the glorious opal.
19th C Misconception
If you know someone who thinks the opal has unlucky connotations you should ask them why. More likely than not they will not be able to answer you. Superstitions often seem to be inherited without basis, so now you can tell them – stuff and nonsense!
The most commonly held source of the unjust superstition stems from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Anne of Geierstein published in 1829.
In George F. Kunz, The curious lore of precious stones published in 1913 he writes of the source of this superstition:
“There can be little doubt that much of the modern superstition regarding the supposed unlucky quality of the opal owes its origin to a careless reading of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Anne of Geierstein. The wonderful tale therein related of the Lady Hermione, a sort of enchanted princess, who came no one knew whence and always wore a dazzling opal in her hair, contains nothing to indicate that Scott really meant to represent the opal as unlucky. [...] when a few drops of holy water were sprinkled over it, they quenched its radiance. Hermione fell into a swoon, was carried to her chamber, and the next day nothing but a small heap of ashes remained on the bed whereon she had been laid. The spell was broken and the enchantment dissolved. All that can have determined the selection of the opal rather than any other precious stone is the fact of its wonderful play of color and its sensitiveness to moisture.”
However, there is another possible source that one comes across here and there. The story of King Alphonso XII of Spain, who was in power from 1874 to 1885. He presented to his wife a gift of an opal ring, tragically she died soon afterwards. Before the funeral, the King passed the ring on to his sister, who also died soon afterwards. Sadly the pattern persisted when the ring was passed to his sister-in-law and she too passed away 3 months later. Alphonso, who obviously didn’t connect the ring with these untimely deaths wore it himself, he also died. The funny thing with superstition emerging from coincidental patterns is that it could randomly be associated with anything. An illness, the age in which they lived, did they all wear blue in the months prior to their deaths? Did they eat bread: milk from the same cow? And so on.
At any rate, not everyone in 19th century England and America shared this superstition. Queen Victoria was a great admirer of the opal. She gave Prince Albert a Badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1841 featuring the stone, which was also one of Prince Albert’s favourite gems. The Queen was known to present her daughters with opal jewellery on celebration of their weddings – certainly not an occasion to risk any association with bad luck.
In August 1886 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book we see that the opal has recovered from the undeserved reputation of an unlucky talisman, it reads: “During the last few years, a reaction has taken place and American women are accepting the magic gem”. (Bell, p. 103).
By the end of the 19th century with the dominance of the Arts and Crafts and the Belle Epoque movements the opal was a popularly used stone in jewellery and smalls, used with extraordinary creativity that focused on the stones natural beauty.
Some earlier myths and responses
For centuries prior many peoples around the world had creation stories, folklore beliefs, wax lyrical responses to the opal. Discover them for yourself!
Pliny the Elder wrote The Natural History of the World in the First Century AD describing the opal:
“Made up of the glories of the most precious gems, to describe them is a matter of inexpressible difficulty. For there is amongst them the gentler fire of the ruby, there is the rich purple of the amethyst, there is the sea-green of the emerald, and all shining together in an indescribable union. Others, by an excessive heightening of their hues equal all the colours of the painter, others the flame of burning brimstone, or of a fire quickened by oil.”
In Australia there are a different stories from a number of different Aboriginal language groups, some of which can be found in this interesting post
Further references can be found here on this fascinating site by opal enthusiasts.
There are some wonderful literary references to opals found on the CSIRO website
Bell, C. Jeanenne, Collecting Victorian Jewelry, 2004
Bell, C. Jeanenne, Answers to Questions About Old Jewelry, 2008.
Cody, Andrew & Damien, The Opal Story, a corporate brochure for The National Opal Collection, 2008.
Gere, C, & Rudoe, J., Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World,2010.
Opal Rainbow of the Desert – a CSIRO sponsored website
Opals Information Website
Phillips, Clare, Jewels & Jewellery, 2008
The Royal Collection website
Scholfield, Anne & Fahy, Kevin, Australian Jewellery 19th and Early 20th Century, 1990.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Wikipedia – search Opal and Anne of Geierstein